Mr. Dower sent the other two boys working away with snack trays (leaving just Benny) before he came over and sat down across from Jimmy. Benny stood nervously off to the side.
“So, I assume your visit here is about the new student?” Mr. Dower asked.
“Yup. Not sure if Benny mentioned it, but he met the new student this morning.”
“Oh?” this was the obvious moment for Mr. Dower to look over at Benny with a raised eyebrow, so he did, (minus the eyebrow part, because Mr. Dower couldn’t raise one eyebrow). “No, he didn’t mention it.”
“Well, the new student’s been asking after him all afternoon.”
“Joshua,” Benny interrupted, surprising even himself. He was supposed to be the quivering little student in the corner and here he was breaking into the conversation. But he blundered on, a fierce, defensive pounding of blood in his ears fueling his words, “his name is Joshua, so don’t keep calling him ‘the new student.’”
Jimmy smiled. “I stand corrected. Joshua has been asking after Benny, and I was wondering,” he looked back at Mr. Dower, “could you spare him for the rest of the afternoon?”
Benny wasn’t sure if he was hearing this properly. Did this mean he wasn’t in trouble or he was?
“Of course I can spare him. Now you two just run along and stop cluttering up my kitchen.”
“Great, thanks!” Jimmy jumped to his feet and headed for the door, pausing to beckon Benny to follow him. The older boy didn’t seem at all perturbed that his visit to the kitchen had been so incredibly brief and abrupt. Still a bit nervous, Benny followed him.
Benny walked beside Jimmy as they made their way to Joshua’s room, feeling very excited and as if he were a part of something big and important. Jimmy chatted in a friendly, comradely manner. This was not at all the way most senior students usually talked to younger students like him. It felt really good to be spoken to as an equal by Jimmy, a student who had no small reputation aboard The Golden Thrush.
“You should know,” he said, “Joshua hasn’t had a lot of friends before. He’s also been, sort of, well quiet and shy, so he’s not real used to talking. I think you noticed that he’s blind. But he’s very good at getting around and hasn’t let it get in his way or anything, so you should treat him no differently then anybody else because of that.”
“Of course I wouldn’t treat him differently.”
“No need to get on the defensive, Benny. I know you wouldn’t. Just covering the bases. And Benny, you might find that---”
Just then Walker swayed into the hallway and spotted them. “I’d hear’ you’d come back, Jimmy. Decided to complete yer own vic-tory lap after all, huh? I always thought you’d been cheatin’ on your tests. They finally found you out, din’t they?” Walker drew out his vowels and dropped some of his consonants and was clearly inebriated.
“I don’t think you should be making such serious accusations when you’ve been drinking, Walker. But I don’t have time for a quarrel right now,” Jimmy began to walk past the drunk student, Benny following closely behind. But Walker would have none of it and stepped in front of Jimmy, grabbing him roughly by the front of the shirt.
“Now, don’t make me angry, pretty boy liar face,” Walker slurred, his face going red and his forehead scrunching up, clearly getting angry anyways.
Jimmy did not react to Walker’s actions, obviously trying his best not to make him angry. “Hey Walker,” he said, his voice in control and relaxed, “you’re right. I really should have just stayed off the ship. I was looking forward to a good vacation, too. But business called me back. Now, I must be off. We can talk later.” He pulled away a little, but Walker just clung tighter to his shirt, the casual speech not calming him in the least.
“You’re always gonna be causin’ me trouble, aren’t you?” He raised his hand, making it into a fist.
“Jimmy, watch out!” Benny exclaimed from where he had been standing, feeling a mixture of fear of Walker and pride at Jimmy’s sophisticated response to the drunk student.
But before Walker could hit Jimmy, the bigger boy found himself down on his knees in the hallway, with Jimmy holding his arms pinned behind his back.
“How did you do that?” Benny asked, allowing his wonder full reign of his voice and staring up at Jimmy.
“Tell you later,” he said, releasing Walker suddenly and hurrying down the hall in the direction he had been headed when they had been interrupted. Benny dodged around Walker and jogged after Jimmy. He glanced back to see Walker staggering to his feet, surprised and dazed.
Jimmy slowed down as they reached Joshua’s room. “Whatever you do on this ship, Benny, try stay clear of jerks like Walker.” Jimmy pushed open the door, and Benny followed him into the bedroom.
Joshua bounced off the bed to greet them. He was holding something in his hands, and eagerly held it out to show them. “Look what I’ve been,” he paused, feeling for the right word, “making,” he finished proudly.
“What is it?” asked Benny, looking at the mess of wires and metal in the other boy’s hands.
“It’s a, ro-bot,” he said, pronouncing robot very slowly.
“I lent him my old robot kit,” Jimmy explained.
“Cool,” said Benny. “What’s it do?”
“Well, it walks. An it de-tects things, too.”
“And it detects,” Jimmy corrected him. “You dropped the ‘d’.”
Benny woke up that night to the sound of shouting and the smell of burning. He jumped out of bed, grabbed his navy blue bathrobe and slipped out of his room, leaving Marc, his roommate, still snoring.
He followed nose and ears down his hall and up a floor to a crowded corridor. Just as he entered it, the fire alarm began going off. That would wake Marc up, he thought, knowing he should be heading up to the deck in accordance with the fire procedures, but preferring to find out what was going on first.
People were running here and there and Benny heard a girl’s voice rise above the confusion. “Kevin White’s strange behavior has now been followed by a mysterious fire in his quarters. Yes, that’s right. There is smoke coming out of his room. No sign of him yet, though. This is Piper reporting live from the scene…”
She was drowned out a moment later by the captain’s loud voice shouting “Everyone to the deck! Everyone to the deck!” A moment later the captain came into sight, plowing down the corridor in the path that people were quickly clearing for him. He too, wore a navy blue bathrobe, Benny noticed.
Benny slipped away, not wanting to get in trouble. But he did not head for the deck. His only thought now was for Joshua. Joshua wouldn’t know he was supposed to go to the deck in a fire. And he probably wouldn’t know how to get to the deck. And on top of it all, the boy was blind! So Benny scurried off in the direction of Joshua’s room. He was down one corridor and up the next when someone stepped in front of him and grabbed the sleeve of his bathrobe.
Benny tripped to a halt and almost struck the boy who had grabbed him, his surprise was so great. He found himself looking into the sooty face of a boy older than him, who was wearing only his boxers. This hall was deserted. Everyone must have already gone up to the deck.
“Help me. I can’t find my way out,” said the boy. His eyes had a wild and slightly vacant look, and they terrified Benny. Benny looked down at the hand that was clutching his sleeve and saw that it was badly burnt.
He took a deep breath and tried to be calm and collected like he’d seen Jimmy be earlier, even though he didn’t feel that way at all. “You’re Kevin, aren’t you?” he guessed.
“Kevin,” said the boy, thinking for a moment, “yes, yes. We’re supposed to go to the deck, right?” he let go of Benny and the wild look faded somewhat from his eyes. “Because there is a fire.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“But I couldn’t find the way,” said Kevin.
Suddenly Benny felt great pity for the other boy, who seemed so lost and helpless. And those hands had to be hurting something awful. He took off his bathrobe, (he was wearing his full pajamas underneath) and wrapped it around Kevin’s shoulders. Kevin gripped it appreciatively.
“I’ll take you up to the deck,” he said. “You’ll be just fine. Everything will be just fine.”
Benny led the way up to the deck, temporarily forgetting his former mission. Up under the cool stars of night, Benny and Kevin joined the crowds of students and professors that stood in little groups, in a partly ordered, partly chaotic manner.
After a few moments, Benny was shivering. Kevin had calmed down completely and seemed quite normal.
“Sorry if I frightened you,” he said to Benny. “Don’t know what got into me. The fire, and I ran away… my hands.”
“It’s alright. You should probably find the captain though; they’re likely all worried about you. And they can fix up your hands, too. That looks awfully painful.”
“It is.” He said it so matter-of-factly, that it made Benny uncomfortable.
Just then someone shouted Benny’s name. Jimmy had spotted him and was pushing through a nearby group and coming towards them. “Have you seen Joshua?” he asked.
“No,” said Benny, remembering then where he had been headed when he had met Kevin. His stomach tightened. “Joshua is missing?”
“Yeah. He’s got to be here somewhere. Help me look for him.”
Benny didn’t need the command; he was already off, leaving Kevin to fend for himself.
“I can’t hear him,” he heard Jimmy muttering distractedly ahead of him. “I can’t hear him!”