The silence in Randiâ€™s house is loud. On a normal day, the stereo blasts her dadâ€™s favorites Billy Joel songs; everyone sings as Randiâ€™s younger brother, Michael, hums car noises and screeches his Hot Wheels race car around my feet.
Today, I step into the den across an exclamation point of light shining through the closed curtains. I try to be quiet, but I have to sneeze. An uncontrollable, whistling sneeze. Mr. and Mrs. Picconi look at me. Michael looks at me with his mouth open wide. This must be a strangerâ€™s house, not my best friendâ€™s.
Did I do something wrong? What happened to â€śOh hi, Francie, come on in. Youâ€™re the next contestant on the Price is Right.â€ť Or, â€śDo you want to get an ice cream cone at Rocket Ship Park?â€ť or â€śLetâ€™s ride in Dadâ€™s Corvette and pretend weâ€™re movie stars.â€ť Why are the Picconiâ€™s acting stranger than usual, not funny strangeâ€”that would be normalâ€”but creepy strange? Did all the towns on Long Island turn weird, or just ours?
Randi appears at the top of the stairs, holding an ice-pack on her head. â€śI canâ€™t play today. My headâ€™s about to explode.â€ť
â€śOh. That stinks.â€ť I wait a minute, hoping sheâ€™s joking. â€śWell, guess Iâ€™ll see you at the bus stop tomorrow.â€ť I re-zip my coat for the short trek from her front door on Hartwell Drive to mine.
â€śNo, remember? I have to go to the doctor for some tests,â€ť Randi reminds me. â€śSorry.â€ť She turns around, shuffles back into her bedroom, and closes the door. She doesnâ€™t say good-bye.
The bright sun is a big fat liar today because the winter air numbs my toes.
This must be her hundredth headache, Iâ€™ve lost count. Shivering from the cold, I step inside.
â€śYouâ€™re back already?â€ť Mom says as she takes my coat.
â€śShe canâ€™t play because of her stupid headache. Why does she have to go to the doctor for that? She always says she has a headache. Canâ€™t she just take some aspirin?â€ť
Dad looks up from his newspaper. â€śIâ€™m sure itâ€™s nothing, but nine-year-olds shouldnâ€™t have recurring headaches. She might need glasses. Poor eyesight sometimes causes headaches.â€ť He goes back to reading Newsday. A photo of President Carterâ€™s serious face replaces Dadâ€™s. I peek over the newspaper to see what his eyebrows tell me. He doesnâ€™t look concerned, so Iâ€™m not concerned.
But momâ€™s green eyes are wide and glossy. â€śDonâ€™t worry about Randi. God is watching over her.â€ť She puts down her Good Housekeeping magazine and wraps her arms around me, squeezing so hard it hurts. â€śItâ€™s better to see a doctor and find out what is wrong.â€ť Momâ€™s voice quivers.
And I wonder, â€śWhy?â€ť
Randi was supposed to be back by now. I hate riding the bus without her. Sheâ€™s been gone over a week for those stupid tests. I miss her Tinker Bell laugh with the occasional snort. The rows behind me bounce with laughter. Spit wads and paper balls land next to me. Missed shots? Should I pretend to read the writing on the seatback in front of me or watch trees go by? Iâ€™d love to jump out the window and disappear in the snow.
As soon as the bus rolls down the first hill past the school, bullies and their followers rise like vampires at midnight. A quiet girl like me is high on their list of possible targets, along with the boy wearing coke-bottle glasses, and the chubby Mickey Mouse Fan Club member who carries a metal Mickey lunch box.
Twenty minutes later, the bus inches toward my corner. Way too long.
Mrs. Picconiâ€™s station wagon is in their driveway. Yes! Theyâ€™re back from the doctor. I leap out of my seat, trip on Joey Torelliâ€™s football helmet, and grab my sister who is at the front of the bus laughing with Justin and her second-grade friends.
â€śCome on, Laurie.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m coming,â€ť she groans. I run home as fast as I can run through snow and slush with a pile of schoolbooks weighing me down and Laurie screaming, â€śWait up!â€ť
â€śHi, Mom. Can I go to Randiâ€™s? Sheâ€™s back. I saw her car inâ€¦â€ť
â€śFrancie, first come here and sit down for a minute. I have to tell you something.â€ť
Mom reaches for my hand as a tear rolls down her cheek.