Hazel locked eyes with him. Leo started to feel jittery, like he’d been injected with coffee. If this flashback was something Frank had shared with Hazel…well, either Leo didn’t want any part of it, or he definitely wanted to try it. He wasn’t sure which.
“When you say flashback…” He swallowed. “What exactly are we talking about? Is it safe?”
Hazel held out her hand. “I wouldn’t ask you to do this, but I’m sure it’s important. It can’t be a coincidence we met. If this works, maybe we can finally understand how we’re connected.”
Leo glanced back at the helm. He still had a nagging suspicion he’d forgotten something, but Coach Hedge seemed to be doing fine. The sky ahead was clear. There was no sign of trouble.
Besides, a flashback sounded like a pretty brief thing. It couldn’t hurt to let the coach be in charge for a few more minutes, could it?
“Okay,” he relented. “Show me.”
He took Hazel’s hand, and the world dissolved.
They stood in the courtyard of an old compound, like a monastery. Red brick walls were overgrown with vines. Big magnolia trees had cracked the pavement. The sun beat down, and the humidity was about two hundred percent, even stickier than in Houston. Somewhere nearby, Leo smelled fish frying. Overhead, the cloud cover was low and gray, striped like a tiger’s pelt.
The courtyard was about the size of a basketball court. An old deflated football sat in one corner, at the base of a Virgin Mary statue.
Along the sides of the buildings, windows were open. Leo could see flickers of movement inside, but it was eerily quiet. He saw no sign of air conditioning, which meant it must have been a thousand degrees in there.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“My old school,” Hazel said next to him. “St. Agnes Academy for Colored Children and Indians.”
“What kind of name—?”
He turned toward Hazel and yelped. She was a ghost—just a vaporous silhouette in the steamy air. Leo looked down and realized his own body had turned to mist too.
Everything around him seemed solid and real, but he was a spirit. After having been possessed by an eidolon three days ago, he didn’t appreciate the feeling.
Before he could ask questions, a bell rang inside: not a modern electronic sound, but the old-fashioned buzz of a hammer on metal.
“This is a memory,” Hazel said, “so no one will see us. Look, here we come.”
From every door, dozens of children spilled into the courtyard, yelling and jostling each other. They were mostly African American, with a sprinkling of Hispanic-looking kids, as young as kindergartners and as old as high schoolers. Leo could tell this was in the past, because all the girls wore dresses and buckled leather shoes. The boys wore white collared shirts and pants held up by suspenders. Many wore caps like horse jockeys wear. Some kids carried lunches. Many didn’t. Their clothes were clean, but worn and faded. Some had holes in the knees of their trousers, or shoes with the heels coming apart.
A few of the girls began playing jump rope with an old piece of clothesline. The older guys tossed a ratty baseball back and forth. Kids with lunches sat together and ate and chatted.
No one paid Ghost Hazel or Leo any attention.
Then Hazel—Hazel from the past—stepped into the courtyard. Leo recognized her with no problem, though she looked about two years younger than now. Her hair was pinned back in a bun. Her gold eyes darted around the courtyard uneasily. She wore a dark dress, unlike the other girls in their white cotton or pastel flowery prints, so she stood out like a mourner at a wedding.
She gripped a canvas lunch bag and moved along the wall, as if trying hard not to be noticed.
It didn’t work. A boy called out, “Witch girl!” He lumbered toward her, backing her into a corner. The boy could have been fourteen or nineteen. It was hard to tell because he was so big and tall, easily the largest guy on the playground. Leo figured he’d been held back a few times. He wore a dirty shirt the color of grease rags, threadbare wool trousers (in this heat, they couldn’t have been comfortable), and no shoes at all. Maybe the teachers were too terrified to insist that this kid wear shoes, or maybe he just didn’t have any.
“That’s Rufus,” said Ghost Hazel with distaste.
“Seriously? No way his name is Rufus,” Leo said.
“Come on,” said Ghost Hazel. She drifted toward the confrontation. Leo followed. He wasn’t used to drifting, but he’d ridden a Segway once and it was kind of like that. He simply leaned in the direction he wanted to go and glided along.
The big kid Rufus had flat features, as if he spent most of his time face-planting on the sidewalk. His hair was cut just as flat on top, so miniature airplanes could’ve used it for a landing strip.
Rufus thrust out his hand. “Lunch.”
Hazel from the past didn’t protest. She handed over her canvas bag like this was an everyday occurrence.
A few older girls drifted over to watch the fun. One giggled at Rufus. “You don’t want to eat that,” she warned. “It’s probably poison.”
“You’re right,” Rufus said. “Did your witch mom make this, Levesque?”
“She’s not a witch,” Hazel muttered.
Rufus dropped the bag and stepped on it, smashing the contents under his bare heel. “You can have it back. I want a diamond, though. I hear your momma can make those out of thin air. Gimme a diamond.”
“I don’t have diamonds,” Hazel said. “Go away.”
Rufus balled his fists. Leo had been in enough rough schools and foster homes to sense when things were about to turn ugly. He wanted to step in and help Hazel, but he was a ghost. Besides, all this had happened decades ago.
Then another kid stumbled outside into the sunlight.
Leo sucked in his breath. The boy looked exactly like him.
“You see?” asked Ghost Hazel.
Fake Leo was the same height as Regular Leo—meaning he was short. He had the same nervous energy—tapping his fingers against his trousers, brushing at his white cotton shirt, adjusting the jockey cap on his curly brown hair. (Really, Leo thought, short people should not wear jockey caps unless they were jockeys.) Fake Leo had the same devilish smile that greeted Regular Leo whenever he looked in a mirror—an expression that made teachers immediately shout, “Don’t even think about it!” and plop him in the front row.
Apparently, Fake Leo had just been scolded by a teacher. He was holding a dunce cap—an honest-to-goodness cardboard cone that said DUNCE. Leo thought those were something you only saw in cartoons.
He could understand why Fake Leo wasn’t wearing it. Bad enough to look like a jockey. With that cone on his head, he would’ve looked like a gnome.
Some kids backed up when Fake Leo burst onto the scene. Others nudged each other and ran toward him like they were expecting a show.
Meanwhile, Flathead Rufus was still trying to punk Hazel out of a diamond, oblivious to Fake Leo’s arrival.
“Come on, girl.” Rufus loomed over Hazel with his fists clenched. “Give it!”
Hazel pressed herself against the wall. Suddenly the ground at her feet went snap, like a twig breaking. A perfect diamond the size of a pistachio glittered between her feet.
“Ha!” Rufus barked when he saw it. He started to lean down, but Hazel yelped, “No, please!” as if she was genuinely concerned for the big goon.
That’s when Fake Leo strolled over.
Here it comes, Leo thought. Fake Leo is gonna bust out some Coach Hedge–style jujitsu and save the day.
Instead, Fake Leo put the top of the dunce cap to his mouth like a megaphone and yelled, “CUT!”
He said it with such authority all the other kids momentarily froze. Even Rufus straightened and backed away in confusion.
One of the little boys snickered under his breath: “Hammy Sammy.”
Sammy… Leo shivered. Who the heck was this kid?
Sammy/Fake Leo stormed up to Rufus with his dunce cap in his hand, looking angry. “No, no, no!” he announced, waving his free hand wildly at the other kids, who were gathering to watch the entertainment.
Sammy turned to Hazel. “Miss Lamarr, your line is…” Sammy looked around in exasperation. “Script! What is Hedy Lamarr’s line?”
“‘No, please, you villain!’” one of the boys called out.
“Thank you!” Sammy said. “Miss Lamarr, you’re supposed to say, No, please, you villain! And you, Clark Gable—”
The whole courtyard burst into laughter. Leo vaguely knew Clark Gable was an old-timey actor, but he didn’t know much else. Apparently, though, the idea that Flathead Rufus could be Clark Gable was hilarious to the kids.
“No!” one of the girls cried. “Make him Gary Cooper.”
More laughter. Rufus looked as if he were about to blow a valve. He balled his fists like he wanted to hit somebody, but he couldn’t attack the entire school. He clearly hated being laughed at, but his slow little mind couldn’t quite work out what Sammy was up to.
Leo nodded in appreciation. Sammy was like him. Leo had done the same kind of stuff to bullies for years.
“Right!” Sammy yelled imperiously. “Mr. Cooper, you say, Oh, but the diamond is mine, my treacherous darling! And then you scoop up the diamond like this!”
“Sammy, no!” Hazel protested, but Sammy snatched up the stone and slipped it into his pocket in one smooth move.
He wheeled on Rufus. “I want emotion! I want the ladies in the audience swooning! Ladies, did Mr. Cooper make you swoon just now?”
“No,” several of them called back.
“There, you see?” Sammy cried. “Now, from the top!” he yelled into his dunce cap. “Action!”
Rufus was just starting to get over his confusion. He stepped toward Sammy and said, “Valdez, I’m gonna—”
The bell rang. Kids swarmed the doors. Sammy pulled Hazel out of the way as the little ones—who acted like they were on Sammy’s payroll—herded Rufus along with them so he was carried inside on a tide of kindergartners.
Soon Sammy and Hazel were alone except for the ghosts.
Sammy scooped up Hazel’s smashed lunch, made a show of dusting off the canvas bag, and presented it to her with a deep bow, as if it were her crown. “Miss Lamarr.”
Hazel from the past took her ruined lunch. She looked like she was about to cry, but Leo couldn’t tell if that was from relief or misery or admiration. “Sammy…Rufus is going to kill you.”
“Ah, he knows better than to tangle with me.” Sammy plopped the dunce cap on top of his jockey cap. He stood up straight and stuck out his scrawny chest. The dunce cap fell off.
Hazel laughed. “You are ridiculous.”
“Why, thank you, Miss Lamarr.”
“You’re welcome, my treacherous darling.”
Sammy’s smile wavered. The air became uncomfortably charged. Hazel stared at the ground. “You shouldn’t have touched that diamond. It’s dangerous.”
“Ah, come on,” Sammy said. “Not for me!”