In the last picture taken of him, the Frisbee is inches away from his grasp; he’s looking at the camera. The clarity of his eyes is frightening: they are so honest—the color so sharp—like a piece of copper sparked under the flame of a Bunsen burner.
We were eleven when we were paired up as lab partners on the first day of sixth grade. Stephen was the new kid, the one no one wanted to come into contact with. His big front teeth and freckles reminded me of Tom Sawyer, the main character of the book my father read to me before bed each night. And, despite Stephen’s distinct Brooklyn accent and the absence of a straw hat, I knew he was the boy I fell asleep thinking about. In my dreams, we were Tom and Becky, tracing tunnels in caves by the dwindling light of our flickering candles, unraveling string behind us to mark our path.
“Wait here,” Stephen said, pulling the measuring tape out of his pocket. We were in Hippo Playground in Riverside Park, working on our orienteering science project. The assignment was to create a scale map of an area and provide compass bearings for our teacher so that he could follow our route and end up at a set location.
“The map has to be to scale,” Stephen said, circling the monkey bars twice, compass in hand. He was murmuring numbers to himself and talking about how the metal slide was throwing off the magnetic field alignment of the compass needle. “Mr. Feldman said he should be able to read our directions, follow the map, and end up in the right place. It has to be to scale.”
“But first we have to pick our ending place. Where do we want the directions to lead to?” I asked.
“The bottom of the slide is too obvious,” he said dismissively, even though neither of us had suggested it.
Then he skipped over to one of the stone hippopotamuses.
“Stephen, we need to finish this!” I called after him, thinking he had gotten distracted again, his concentration waning, running out like the last piece of black thread on a spool, too short to sew anything of consequence.
I sighed and picked up our backpacks, notebooks, slightly dulled colored pencils, and compasses and walked over to where he was crouching in the mouth of the giant hippo.
“Here!” he said definitively.
“They’ll take a left out of the school, walk down the stairs into the park, and end up…in the mouth of the hippo! They’ll never see it coming!”
Stephen told me he could see the things people had dropped into its hollowed stomach: a magnet, a dusty spool of thread, a faded roll of film.
Eventually, the other kids in my grade wanted in on the adventures, saw his throwing arm, and he was no longer an outcast. He could have had his choice of lab partners in seventh grade—the first year we were allowed to choose for ourselves—but he was sitting across from me at the lab table on that first day, and there was a silent request in his eyes when our teacher told us to partner up. And we did, for everything: the vital statistics unit, the model stent project, the chromatography experiment in which we watched turquoise and amber pigments bleed from the black ink and race each other up a coffee filter.
Stephen and I went to different high schools, and I was sitting in a math class in the spring of my junior year when one of my friends sat down next to me. “Do you remember Stephen Glass from middle school?” he asked.
Asking me if I remembered Stephen was like asking me if my hand was still attached to my body.
“He died yesterday.”
My memories of middle school have holes like a moth-eaten blanket. Of our lab partnership in sixth grade, nothing remains except our trip to Hippo Park. There are days where all I can remember is the quiet in his eyes and the torrent of blood through his veins as I took his pulse in biology class. But some days, I’m still waiting for him, still hoping he’ll return. Like the day I waited for him outside his house, holding fresh carnations in honor of his birthday, five days after he died.