Wendy preferred to sit front and center in Señor Truffit’s fifth period Spanish class. Unlike almost everyone else in the class, especially the boys, she actually wanted to learn the Spanish language. Wendy had always wanted to visit South America and maybe even live there for a while. Plus, there were more and more Spanish-speaking people moving to Multioak every year, and, according to the school guidance counselor, knowing Spanish would make Wendy more hirable. Wendy didn’t understand why the other students refused to behave. No one was required to take a foreign language to graduate, so why had all these students signed up if they had no desire to learn Spanish?
In the front center seat, Wendy was able to tune out the distractions of her classmates to a reasonable degree, but the further she sat to the back or edges of the classroom, the less she was able to focus on the lesson and the more she focused on how much she hated everyone else. Fortunately, the front center seat was not a hot commodity, and it was usually only occupied when Señor Truffit made one of the bad kids sit in it as a punishment for being disruptive. Still, Wendy didn’t like to risk it, so she made a point of arriving early to Spanish every day in order to ensure her choice of seat.
But when she arrived early to Spanish class on Monday afternoon the week after midterms, Wendy found the front center desk occupied not by a person, but by a gray metal box. The box, sitting on top of the desk, was a 12-inch cube with a large, dark lens that took up most of its face and a small horizontal slot and a silver switch on its back.
“Señor Truffit,” said Wendy. “What is this thing? Can I move it?”
“No,” said Señor Truffit. He was a slim, handsome man in his late twenties who looked like he must be one of the cool teachers and who some of his students sometimes developed crushes on before they found out how curt and humorless he was, at which point the crushes dissipated. Today, he was seated behind his desk at the back of the room, trying to get a picture of his girlfriend out of its frame. “Sit somewhere else, Wendy. I’ll explain when the rest of the class gets here.”
“I’ll just move the box one seat over,” said Wendy.
“No,” said Señor Truffit. “Why don’t you sit one seat over?”
Wendy bit back a retort that would have sounded like whining and sat down one seat to the left of the box. She glared over at it as she arranged her books on her desk, wondering why it deserved such preferential treatment. It was going to take a lot to convince her to not hate the box, that much she knew.
A few other students began to straggle into the classroom, but it wasn’t until the first bell that the noisy, obnoxious majority arrived in a steady stream that lasted until a full minute after the second bell, the last of them shouting recycled excuses for their tardiness. When everyone was more or less in a seat and Señor Truffit had finally taken attendance, he stood at the lectern at the front of the classroom and said, “All right, class, before we begin today, I’d like to introduce you to a new student.”
The students who were paying attention looked around the classroom for the new kid.
“No, no,” said Señor Truffit. “The new student is right here.” He pointed at the box on the front center desk.
“Is it a robot?” asked one of the boys. Wendy didn’t even look to see who.
“No,” said Señor Truffit. “This box is actually a communication device by which the new student in our class will be able to see and hear everything we do without having to leave his home. See, class, our new student, whose name is Boyd, was badly burned in a house fire last year. As a result, he’s a bit self-conscious about his appearance and prefers not to go out in public. His mother has been homeschooling him since the accident, but Boyd has recently expressed a desire to learn Spanish, and since his mother doesn’t know Spanish, she contacted the school and this is the solution they came up with.”
“Can he see and hear us now?” asked someone else.
“Not yet,” said Señor Truffit. “I wanted to explain the situation to all of you before we turned the box on.”
“Can he say stuff to us?” asked Frankie from the very back corner of the room. If he was paying attention enough to ask a relevant question, then everyone was.
“He can,” said Señor Truffit. “Apparently if he wants or needs to say something – to ask or answer a question, for example – then he can type what he wants to say and it will print out on a piece of paper from the slot in the back of the box.”
The students murmured their approval.
“All right, then,” said Señor Truffit. “Now, I’m going to turn the box on, and when I do, I’m going to give a signal and we’re all going to welcome Boyd to our Spanish class with a nice, big ‘Hola, Boyd.’ OK?”
Señor Truffit flipped the switch on the box with one hand while making a vaguely signalish gesture with his other hand.
“Hola, Boyd!” shouted the class except for Wendy who said it at a conversational volume.
There was silence.
Then a whirring sound came from deep within the box and a small strip of paper came out the slot in its back and fluttered to the floor. Señor Truffit bent down and picked it up.
“What does it say?” asked Frankie, his voice dripping with the eager curiosity that everyone else felt.
Señor Truffit cracked a rare smile and folded the tiny piece of paper between his fingers. “It says ‘Hola, classmates.’”
The class went wild except for Wendy, but even she was kind of impressed.
The next day when Wendy got to Spanish class, she again sat in the seat just to the left of Boyd’s communication box. Señor Truffit was sitting at his desk with his eyes closed. It looked like he was trying to relax. Wendy stood up and walked around the box, examining it from all sides. “Señor Truffit?”
“Does the box just sit here all day on this desk?”
“No,” said Señor Truffit, his eyes still closed. “It has to be plugged in the rest of the day so it can charge up.”
“Can I turn it on now?” asked Wendy. “And show Boyd the rest of the classroom before everyone else gets here?”
“No,” said Señor Truffit. “Just leave it alone, Wendy. It’s very expensive.”
The first bell rang and Señor Truffit stood up, stretching his arms and neck. Wendy sat down in her seat and looked at the box. She imagined Boyd sitting in his home, staring at a black computer screen, his fingers poised over the keyboard, waiting for someone to turn on the box so he could join the class. Wendy wondered how bad he really looked. Was it just bad enough that the usual high school idiots would make fun of him? Wendy sometimes got made fun of for being pale and having short hair, which seemed to her like pretty flimsy reasons to mock someone. Or was Boyd, like, really bad where even nice people would be grossed out? Either way, Wendy thought that she, at least, would be able to handle it. She wasn’t all caught up in surfacey stuff like everyone else. She wished she could meet Boyd so he could see how little she cared that he was disfigured. He’d probably never met someone as not-superficial as Wendy before.
Wendy was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t notice her classmates yelling and laughing all around her until the second bell rang and Señor Truffit strode to the front of the room, saying, “Class, quiet, please! Everyone get in a seat! I’m not going to turn on Boyd’s box and start class until everyone is in a seat and quiet. We don’t want him to see us like this, do we?”
Wendy scoffed quietly. Boyd should see the class like this so he could see how they really were. He should see what Wendy had to put up with.
That night at home, Wendy looked up pictures of burn victims on the internet. They looked worse than she had expected, but she also thought that the pictures were probably worst case scenarios. People who posted pictures online were all about getting attention by being shocking and sensationalistic. Most real burn victims probably didn’t look as bad as the pictures of burn victims online. And even if Boyd was one of the especially bad ones, well, Wendy wouldn’t really let it bother her. She was sure she could get used to it quickly. Maybe even almost practically immediately.
Wendy just needed a chance to get to know Boyd. He never said anything in class unless Señor Truffit asked him a question, which had only happened twice so far, but both times, when Señor Truffit had picked up the pieces of paper that had printed out the back of the box, the answers had been one hundred percent correct, and one of them had been a question that Wendy would have gotten wrong if Señor Truffit had asked her, which meant that no one else in the class would have gotten it right either. But Wendy didn’t resent Boyd for replacing her as the best student in the class. She admired him for it.
She went to bed and laid in the darkness with her comforter pulled up over her head, imagining how fast she and Boyd could learn Spanish if they could study together. They’d be fluent in no time. They could travel around South or Central America with ease. They’d be so hirable.
The next day when Wendy got to Señor Truffit’s classroom, he was standing in front of the window with his arms folded, looking out over the student parking lot. He didn’t turn around when Wendy came into the room and took her seat next to Boyd’s box.
“It has to work,” said Señor Truffit.
“What?” asked Wendy.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” said Señor Truffit. He stared out the window for a moment more and then turned and walked across the room and out the door without an explanation.
Wendy didn’t hesitate. She reached over and flipped the switch on the back of Boyd’s box. Then she stood in front of the box’s lens and waved, saying, “Hi, Boyd. My name’s Wendy. I sit next to your box in class, so in a way, it’s like I sit next to you in class.” She paused and waited for Boyd to respond, but nothing printed out the back of the box. “I just thought I should introduce myself,” said Wendy. “Because you and me are the only people in the whole class who care about learning Spanish.”
Wendy was just starting to feel foolish when the box whirred and a piece of paper fell out of the slot in its back and landed on the chair. Wendy picked it up. It said, Nice to meet you. Now turn the box off before the teacher comes back and you get in trouble. Wendy bent down so her face was right in front of the box’s lens. “OK,” she said, bright-eyed and smiling. “I’ll turn the box off for now. But when it turns back on, you’ll know I’m sitting right next to you, right? Bye for now, Boyd!” She flipped the switch on the box and sat down in her seat just a few seconds before Señor Truffit came back into the room looking sweaty and irritated.
“Hola, Señor Truffit,” said Wendy, feeling clever.
Señor Truffit didn’t respond as he walked over to his desk and started to rummage through the drawers, muttering to himself. Wendy looked at Boyd’s box and her heart felt big and full. It was distinctly possible that she was in love.
In class the next day, Wendy acted casual. She answered two questions correctly, Boyd answered another one correctly, and everyone else was loud and stupid and learned zero Spanish. When the bell rang at the end of class, Wendy went to the girl’s restroom just down the hall from Señor Truffit’s classroom and hid in the last stall. She waited for twenty minutes, giving the school time to clear out, and then she got her cell phone out of her bag and called the school’s main office. When the receptionist answered, Wendy said, “Hello, yes, I’m James Truffit’s girlfriend and I’m on my way to the school right now to drop something off for him. Could you call him and have him meet me in the main office in five minutes?”
“Do you want me to patch you through to his room?” asked the receptionist.
“No,” said Wendy. “I’d rather speak to him in person. I’m afraid it’s serious.”
“I’ll let him know,” said the receptionist.
“Thank you,” said Wendy and she hung up the phone and left the bathroom. She walked down the hall and crouched next to the lockers outside the door to Señor Truffit’s classroom, pretending to hunt through her backpack for something. If someone asked what she was hunting for, she’d say “chapstick,” but there wasn’t anyone else around, so Wendy wasn’t motivated to produce a performance worthy of any awards or anything. The door to the classroom was open and from inside Wendy heard the sound of sporadic typing. Then she heard the classroom phone ring. “Yeah?” said Señor Truffit. There was a pause. “My girlfriend? She called herself that?” Another pause. “Did she say what it was?” One last pause. “OK, I’ll be right down.” Wendy heard the phone clatter back into its cradle and a deep, weary sigh. She focused on the inside of her backpack, looking under and around the same three books over and over, knowing that Señor Truffit could come out of his room at any moment.
Seconds ticked by. Where was Señor Truffit? Hadn’t he told the receptionist he was on his way? What was keeping him? Wendy was just about to crawl over to the door and peek inside when she heard Señor Truffit’s voice again. “Hey, Shannon, it’s me. I know you said you wouldn’t pick up if I called, but I just got a call from the receptionist saying you’re on the way here to the school to drop something off for me, I guess?” Wendy felt ridiculous. Her plan was already going awry. She was too disappointed to continue the charade of hunting through her bag.
“I understand that, Shannon,” said Señor Truffit. “You’ve made that very clear. But who called the school claiming to be you, then?” Señor Truffit’s voice sounded strained and agitated. Wendy could hear him opening and closing drawers and rustling papers. Then he said, “Fine, forget it, Shannon. Goodbye for forever.”
And then, before Wendy could go back to looking inconspicuous, Señor Truffit walked out of the classrroom door and right past her, rushing down the hall with his coat in one hand and his briefcase in the other. Wendy watched him go, kneeling by her open backpack, momentarily stricken by this unexpected stroke of luck. Then she zipped up her backpack, threw it over her shoulder, and ducked into Señor Truffit’s classroom, frantically scanning the room for Boyd’s box.
It took Wendy a few panicky seconds before she saw the box sitting on top of the file cabinet in the back corner of the room. She hurried over to the box and saw that it had a panel on the side that she hadn’t noticed before. A black power cord ran between the open panel and an outlet on the back wall of the classroom. Wendy hoped that the box was charged up enough to last for a while. She disconnected the power cord from the box, closed the panel, and lifted it off of the file cabinet. It was lighter than she had expected. Now all Wendy needed was a safe, private place to turn on the box and then she and Boyd could have their first real conversation. Wendy was not nervous.
They were all alone on the floor of the communal shower area in the auxiliary gym’s girls’ locker room: just Wendy and Boyd’s box, which would become Boyd, in a way, as soon as Wendy turned it on. She was just about to flip the switch when the box started to whir. Wendy pulled her hand back, startled. A strip of paper slid out of the slot in the back of the box and came to rest on the white tile floor. Wendy picked it up and read, Take the box back to Mr. Truffit’s room immediately.
Wendy frowned at the box. “How can you send me messages if the box isn’t turned on, Boyd?”
A moment later, the box printed another message. This one said, No time to answer questions. Take the box back to Mr. Truffit’s room.
“Are you upset that we’re in the girls’ locker room?” asked Wendy, kneeling in front of the box and looking it right in the lens. “We can go somewhere else. I just wanted to talk with you, Boyd. You’re not like all the other guys. You’re quiet, you’re smart, you’re not all superficial and full of yourself. In fact, if you just tell me where you live, I’ll come over to your house and talk to you. I don’t care if you’re burned or whatever. I’m not superficial either. It won’t bother me. I like you for you, not what your skin looks like, like if it’s scarred and waxy or red or whatever.”
Wendy stopped talking. Exposing her feelings for Boyd had left her breathless.
The box was silent. Wendy cleared her throat and the sound echoed weirdly off of the tiled walls. She didn’t want to hurry Boyd. She didn’t want to pressure him. She knew that inviting someone over, even someone as approachable and accepting as she was, would be a big step for Boyd. “Take your time,” said Wendy. “I just want you to know that you don’t have to be so lonely.”
Two long minutes later, Wendy heard the girls’ locker room door swing open and the footsteps of two people approaching. “Through here,” said a man’s voice, and two men rounded the corner and stopped in the doorway to the showers. One of them was Mr. Rafferty, the Vice Principal, and the other was a grim-looking man in a gray overcoat who Wendy didn’t recognize.
“All right, Wendy,” said Mr. Rafferty. “We called your mom and she’s coming to take you home now.”
“Boyd?” said Wendy, looking deep into the box’s lens. “Did you tell on me, Boyd? Did you tell them where we were?”
“Boyd didn’t tell on you,” said Mr. Rafferty. “Stop acting, silly, Wendy.”
“Then how did you know?” asked Wendy.
“Just tell her,” said the man in the overcoat. “It’s too late to do us any good now. Truffit’s spooked. He won’t be coming back.”
“Wendy,” said Mr. Rafferty. “There is no burned home school student named Boyd. That was just a story the police came up with to get Mr. Truffit to let us put this box in his room.”
“No,” said Wendy. “That’s not true. Boyd talked to me.”
“The person you talked to was just Detective Kravlen here,” said Mr. Rafferty.
“But he knows Spanish,” said Wendy.
“I know some Spanish,” said Detective Kravlen. “It’s good to know a little Spanish in my field. In any field, really. It makes you that much more hirable.”
“The box was never really turned off,” said Mr. Rafferty. “We just told Mr. Truffit he could turn it off so he’d be comfortable with it in his classroom. The box was transmitting audio and video from Mr. Truffit’s room to an officer at a house across the street from the school at all hours. Mr. Truffit was involved with some bad people, Wendy, and we thought he might be using his classroom for illegal activities.”
“Like what?” asked Wendy.
“We can’t tell you,” said Detective Kravlen. “If we catch him, you can read about it in the paper, although your little romance with our box here made that king of a long shot, I’m afraid.”
Wendy couldn’t meet Mr. Rafferty and Detective Kravlen’s eyes. She was too embarrassed. Embarrassed to have ruined their operation, embarrassed to have taken something that didn’t belong to her, embarrassed that she got caught, and embarrassed that she’d fallen in love with a boy who didn’t exist. “I’m sorry,” said Wendy. “I just hate everyone else in Señor Truffit’s class.”
“I don’t blame you,” said Detective Kravlen. “I hated looking in on your class. That’s a bunch of lifelong losers if I’ve ever seen any. And trust me, I have.”
“Well,” said Mr. Rafferty, chuckling uncomfortably. “We prefer not to write anyone off too soon.”
“It’s not too soon,” said Detective Kravlen. “I’m dead serious. And you…” He pointed at Wendy. “Even if Boyd was real, you can do better. You should be dating older boys. Boys your age are all terrible. Across the board. Even the ones who’ve been through tragedies. And you can definitely do better than a burn victim. Sure, you could use a better haircut and maybe a little sun, but you’ve got potential.”
“Thanks,” said Wendy, blushing.
“Well, I think you should just focus on your studies,” said Mr. Rafferty. “And see what happens from there. Don’t be in big a hurry to grow up.”
“OK,” said Wendy, rising to her feet. She appreciated that these men were trying to be nice, but she just wanted to get out of their sight and take stock of herself. “I need to go to the bathroom,” she said. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Oh, sure, sure,” said the men, and they hustled out of the locker room. When Wendy heard the door swing closed, she turned again to the box on the floor. She was now pretty sure that there was no Boyd and that there never had been a Boyd, but she still felt like she should say something. She wished she could express herself better in Spanish. “I wish you were real,” said Wendy. “We would have been perfect for each other.”
To Wendy’s surprise, the box whirred and spat a piece of paper out onto the shower room floor, but when she picked it up with trembling fingers, she saw that it was nothing but gibberish.