Saturday, September 15, 2018

MR. ROBBIE'S SECRET: a short story

Thirteen-year-old Tyler Beckman was surprised, and then saddened, when his favorite teacher disappeared from his quiet corner of western Pennsylvania in a violent manner. Tyler had seen the signs of what was coming; but he did not make the inevitable connections between the dots. Tyler did not recognize that Mr. Robbie was something other than what he purported to be. 

The tall teacher was roughly the same age as Tyler's mother and his Uncle Steve, somewhere in his mid- to late-thirties. Mr. Robbie wore his hair longish (in contrast to Uncle Steve, who, a decade after his discharge, still adhered to a military-style buzz cut). 

Mr. Robbie occasionally spoke to the students in conspiratorial terms, but only to a point. Because the real point was always literature, and Mr. Robbie was always eager to get back to that point.

The class clowns and bullies didn't disturb Mr. Robbie's class. Tyler didn't know if this was because they were afraid of him, or because they were loath to disappoint him. Tyler grasped that any number of teachers could inspire the first type of fear. Rare was the teacher who could inspire the second.

As he paced before the class, waving his long arms in expressive gestures, Mr. Robbie had a way of drawing you in. An anecdote about Shakespeare would give way to something about Steinbeck. Then Mr. Robbie would catch himself and say, "Oh, yes, that's right: You haven't read any Steinbeck yet. But we're going to cover The Pearl next semester; and you're going to love it; I promise.

Even at thirteen, Tyler could recognize and appreciate Mr. Robbie’s atypical-for-a-public-school-teacher passion. But there was something more personal between teacher and student at work here: Mr. Robbie had told Tyler that he had talent. No one had ever told Tyler that before.

The strange men, who would later have a hand in Mr. Robbie's sudden departure and subsequent end, appeared in early winter, the week after the holiday break ended. 

Tyler noticed them for the first time one day after lunch. He was standing at the edge of the playground, breathing in the cold air, when he saw the two men sitting in the black sedan. 

They were parked within a stone's throw of the schoolyard, just beyond the range that would provoke a concerned citizen to place a precautionary call to the police. The large black sedan with the tinted windows did not belong in this bedroom community of Pittsburgh, where pickup trucks, minivans, and five-year-old passenger vehicles predominated. 

Nor did the men belong: The hulking figure in the front passenger's seat was little more than a male shadow. The large man in the driver's seat was wearing a dark sport coat. His head was shaved and he wore sunglasses. When Tyler looked at him, the sunglasses stared back, expressionless. Tyler looked quickly away. 

Tyler's first thought was that the two men might be perverts, child molesters. Both Uncle Steve and his mother had warned him about such creatures. He had been told many times to be wary of unfamiliar adult males, to refuse all offers of rides and favors from male strangers. Little did Tyler know that the two men had absolutely no interest in him or any of his peers. It was Mr. Robbie that they were looking for. 

Tyler was the only child of a single mother. An objective observer would have said that Jennifer Beckman made a valiant effort under far from ideal circumstances, both economic and otherwise. Tyler's mother was always busy, always at work, or coming and going from work. With no college degree and no specialty, she bounced from one low-margin opportunity to another. She waitressed and worked retail. She had done a few stints in "light manufacturing".

Tyler's relationship with his father was sporadic and distant. Tyler wasn't completely sure if his parents had ever been married, or were merely "together". Either way, his father was basically absent from his life.

Tyler did have Uncle Steve, though: his mother's brother, one year her senior. Uncle Steve was a machinist and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Steve had square features, a ruddy complexion, and thick forearms. He did his best to provide fatherly advice, to fill in, where he could, for Tyler's absent father. He usually did so imperfectly. But Tyler understood; Uncle Steve had problems of his own. He was divorced, and had a daughter named Eliza, whom Jennifer predicted "would be a real handful in a few years."

From what Tyler could see, Eliza was already a "handful". She was a freshman at the high school in Tyler's school district. She had little time for her younger male cousin, but plenty of time (according to rumor) to smoke behind the school with a rough crowd of girls, and go riding in cars with older boys. When Tyler and Eliza did communicate more than a passing word, she usually chided him for always having his "nose in a book." Tyler supposed that he was indeed a bookworm, thanks to Mr. Robbie. And if that made him even less interesting to Eliza, then so be it.

And for that matter, Tyler was aware that Uncle Steve would have preferred a different kind of nephew: someone more like himself, a boy who preferred hockey and football, a boy who would have shared his daughter's disdain for an adolescent who focused so much on books.

But Uncle Steve was the best he had, and Uncle Steve, in turn, was doing his best. It would therefore be petty of Tyler to resent him. After many months of contemplation of late (Tyler had found that reading naturally led to all manner of contemplation) Tyler had finally accepted the score: There would be no fairytale reprieve here: His parents would never reconcile, his father (if the speculations of his mother and Uncle Steve could be believed) was "shacking up" with various other women.

Nor was he likely to acquire a sympathetic and nurturing stepfather. For a while after Tyler's father had left, his mother had occasionally dated. These outings with men had gradually become rarer, such that Tyler could no longer recall the last time his mother had had "a date". He grasped, at some basic level, that an early middle-age woman with a thirteen-year-old son was not exactly in high demand among her male counterparts.

But Tyler had Mr. Robbie. Mr. Robbie had happened along and into Tyler's life at the opportune time, during the previous year, as Tyler entered junior high. Mr. Robbie was the English teacher for both the seventh and eighth grades at Tyler's school.

It was also at this time that Tyler's body had been exploding with puberty, and all that entailed: a sudden obsession with girls and women, and the restlessness and rebelliousness of a male alley cat. Those energies might have been channeled in any number of destructive directions--if not for Mr. Robbie.

Tyler had never really read for pleasure before. Why would he, given the endless array of videos and video games that the Internet offered? Reading was for old folks, fuddy-duddies like his Grandfather Beckman, whom Tyler saw almost exclusively on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Grandfather Beckman read one of the local Pittsburgh papers, as well as the Wall Street Journal. He barely looked up from the latter, even when he had company. Tyler did not want to be like Grandfather Beckman.

Then Tyler read Johnny Tremain for Mr. Robbie's class, followed by The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells. 

Although both books bore the stuffy description of "classic", they had kept Tyler glued to their pages while he read them—and he read both at a blistering pace, finishing far in advance of the deadline for each book.

The idea that a book could open a sort of parallel universe was entirely new to Tyler. It was especially appealing to a boy whose primary universe left much to be desired.

Tyler kept reading—at first only the books assigned for Mr. Robbie’s class, and then additional books, which he read on his own time. Since Tyler knew nothing about books and literature, he asked Mr. Robbie for guidance.

Tyler made his first request sheepishly, half expecting the teacher to react with bafflement or annoyance. The teachers at Tyler’s school weren’t exactly tyrants; but many of them, it seemed, had long since lost enthusiasm for their jobs. Mr. Robbie seemed different.

Mr. Robbie was different. “Oh,” he said, in a tone of mildly pleasant surprise. “You want some book recommendations for your personal reading? Why sure, I can do that. Gladly.”

As Tyler stood beside the teacher’s desk in the empty, after-hours classroom, Mr. Robbie made a list of “must-read” books for pre-high school age readers. There were eleven books on the list, which was to be the first of many.

“Some people might think that The Lord of the Flies is a bit too harsh for junior high,” Mr. Robbie said, handing over the list and noting the fifth title down, “but I disagree. In fact, The Lord of the Flies is a book that everyone should read before they get too far along into adolescence, in my opinion.”

After thanking Mr. Robbie profusely, Tyler exited the classroom, feeling oddly thrilled with the list in his hand. He was looking forward to the books, of course, but there was more to it than that.

Never before had an adult shown an interest in something that Tyler was interested in, and shared his interest with equal or greater passion. Tyler’s mother was so tired at the end of most days that she wanted to do nothing more than zonk out in front of the television. And Uncle Steve—well, Uncle Steve had his own set of interests, few of which Tyler shared.

Tyler knew better than to think of Mr. Robbie as a surrogate father. He would, from time to time, fantasize about the single teacher striking up a romance with his mother, which would culminate with the two marrying. They were more or less the same age, after all. But when the two finally met at their first parent-teacher conference, there was no indication of fireworks on either side. That had been a pipe dream, an understandable but deluded fantasy.

No, any attempt to cast Mr. Robbie into the role of father would likely end in disappointment and humiliation. But earlier that year, Tyler had heard the term mentor, and he now had a general grasp of that concept. It might not be too much of a stretch to say that Mr. Robbie had become his mentor.

The reading list that Mr. Robbie assigned to Tyler's eighth-grade English class included Shakespeare's Macbeth, and some of the more "accessible" short stories of Ernest Hemingway. These, too, were completely unfamiliar to Tyler, and therefore opened up entirely new worlds.

During the autumn of his eighth grade year, Tyler took what was, for him, a monumental step: He began to experiment with writing stories of his own.

The stories seemed good enough to Tyler—decent, at the very least. Nevertheless, he knew that he was both biased and handicapped as a judge of stories that he had written. Surely Esther Forbes had not known that Johnny Tremain was a good story until someone else had told her so. H.G. Wells, likewise, couldn't have known if his tale of a Martian invasion was exciting, or simply hokey. Wells might have had an idea, sure. But only a detached reader could have told him for certain. 

Jennifer would have read Tyler's stories if he had asked her. She might have done so grudgingly, though: She had so little spare time. Moreover, his mother wasn't an avid reader. Once in a while Jennifer picked up one of the tabloids or glossy magazines found in the grocery store checkout lane: National Enquirer or Cosmopolitan. Jennifer never read books, at least as far as Tyler could discern.

Tyler briefly contemplated the possibility of showing his stories to Uncle Steve or his cousin Eliza, and then dropped the idea just as quickly.

Tyler's logical test reader was Mr. Robbie. But asking Mr. Robbie to read his stories—which weren't class assignments—would represent a certain level of presumptuousness. That was what Uncle Steve called, "getting too big for your britches." 

Big britches or not, Tyler decided that he should take the plunge. He approached Mr. Robbie in the same way he had approached him about the initial reading list, showing up in his classroom immediately after the end-of-the-day bell. 

Only this time, Tyler showed up with a handful of pages printed off from the computer and laser printer that the nearby library made available to local students. The papers represented two months’ worth of Tyler’s monthly printing quota. 

“I’ve written some stories,” Tyler said timidly, “I was wondering if you would be willing to take a look at them.”

There was a long pregnant moment in which Mr. Robbie appeared nonplussed, and Tyler believed the situation could swing either way. Tyler would later conclude that the teacher simply needed a few seconds to thoroughly assess what was going on: Tyler had not previously revealed that he was writing fiction.

“I’d be glad to,” the teacher finally said. “Give me about a week, okay? I’ll let you know when I’m ready. Then we’ll meet again here, after school.” 

When Mr. Robbie delivered his feedback (the teacher was good to his word, summoning Tyler in a week and a day), it was neither overblown nor patronizing. The pages that he handed back to Tyler were filled with red pen marks and notations.

“You’ve made a good start here,” Mr. Robbie said. “I’ve made some notes in the margins. I found a few logical inconsistencies and clunky dialogue—but that’s normal for a beginner. And, of course, a few typos. The good news is that you seem to have an intuitive grasp of story concept, plot, character, and pacing. Those are the essentials. The rest is mechanics, which you can correct with time and practice.”

After thanking Mr. Robbie for his time and his feedback, Tyler asked, “How long before I can be a writer?”

Mr. Robbie leaned back in his chair. “Well, you’re already a writer, correct? You’re writing, after all.”

“You know what I mean,” Tyler ventured. “I mean a real writer. One who gets paid.”

Mr. Robbie smiled. “Yes, I suppose I do know what you mean.” There are no guarantees, of course. But if you continue to work hard like this, if you continue to study and refine your craft, then you should be producing professional-quality work by the time you’re in your mid-twenties. That may sound like a long time at age thirteen, but you’ll be way ahead of the pack if you can do that. Most ‘new’ writers are actually in their thirties.”

“How much money will I make?” Tyler blurted out.

How could Mr. Robbie, who likely came from a wealthy, more educated background, possibly understand the importance of money to a boy whose mother was working literally all the time? Uncle Steve was always worrying about money, too.

Nevertheless, the question felt crude and stupid. Tyler regretted it as soon as he had spoken, and hastened to apologize for his lapse.

“No, no,” Mr. Robbie said, “that’s quite all right. Nothing wrong with being practical. The truth, though, is that I can’t give you an exact answer. While I can reasonably estimate that you’ll be writing at a professional level of quality by your mid-twenties, I can’t say when, if ever, you’ll be making any real money at it. There are a lot of factors involved in achieving success as a writer. I should also tell you that the publishing business is changing, and it will change even more by the time you’re twenty-five.”

This struck Tyler as measured advice. It seemed to him that when adults gave you feedback, they were either hypercritical, or excessively patronizing. Mr. Robbie hadn’t fed him one of those standard platitudes, like, “You’re special.” 

This so-called “self-esteem obsession” in particular drew the ire of Uncle Steve. “Everybody gets a trophy!” Uncle Steve sometimes mused. “At least, that’s what they want kids to believe nowadays. Well, I can tell you from experience, everyone most definitely does not get a trophy.”

When Uncle Steve went on like this, Tyler sometimes wondered why his uncle would think that Tyler, who had no father to speak of, who lived on the hourly wages of a single mother, would believe that everyone got their trophy.  

Uncle Steve also did not think much of Mr. Robbie, as it turned out. The two men were not well acquainted. But in the microcosm of their little town in Greater Pittsburgh, they occasionally crossed paths. Each man knew who the other was, and they had exchanged greetings, Tyler knew.

“That Mr. Robbie strikes me as kind of an oddball,” Uncle Steve said. When Tyler pressed him to elaborate, he said, “I don’t know—kind of a hippie, I guess.”

Mr. Robbie was not a hippie, at least in the traditional meaning of that word. He did wear his hair a bit longish, though, and many of the women in town (not to mention some of Tyler’s female classmates) had crushes on him. Mr. Robbie’s unmarried and apparently single status was a source of constant speculation.

“He’s a pretty boy,” Uncle Steve said. “I’ll give him that, Mark my words, though: something about that guy ain't right.”

As his final winter of junior high progressed, Tyler also began to suspect that something about Mr. Robbie wasn't quite right. 

The presence of the secretive men in the dark sedans was becoming more common around the school. For a while Tyler wondered if he should say something to one of the teachers; but what would he say? So far as Tyler could tell, the men were breaking no laws. They were accosting no one.

Mr. Robbie began to react strangely to the presence of the men, in a way that only gradually became apparent to Tyler. For one thing, Mr. Robbie stayed sequestered in his classroom during the lunchtime hour, instead of walking out onto the playground to mingle with the students, as had previously been his habit. When he left the school at the end of the day, he pulled his coat collar up over his cheeks, lowered his head, and hurried to his car. This wasn't at all like Mr. Robbie, who had practically sauntered about in the past.

Mr. Robbie even began to make subtle changes in his appearance. He started a mustache, which didn't at all fit his boyish face. He trimmed his hair. Whatever Uncle Steve had said about him before, Mr. Robbie certainly wasn't a hippie now.

Then he picked up the habit of wearing sunglasses whenever he left the school building. Sunglasses were mostly unnecessary in western Pennsylvania in winter, except on those few days when bright sunshine reflected off the fallen snow. Most of the winter days were cloudy, however; and Mr. Robbie wore his sunglasses even on cloudy days.

The men in the sedans—there were three or four of them who apparently rotated—also wore sunglasses. It was as if Mr. Robbie were joining the men in the dark sedans. 

In late February, when Tyler strongly suspected that something was wrong with Mr. Robbie, the teacher summoned him to stop by after school and talk—as if they were to have another discussion about the books Tyler should read, or the stories he was working on.

But Mr. Robbie’s purpose was to tell Tyler goodbye, albeit in a roundabout way.

“Don't tell anyone,” Mr. Robbie said, “but I may need to...take a leave of absence soon."

Tyler was immediately alarmed, and then immediately crestfallen. 

“You’re—you’re leaving?”

“Shhh,” Mr. Robbie said, holding one finger over his lips. “Remember: This is our secret. No one else knows.” Mr. Robbie paused, and looked about the empty classroom, to make sure that they were completely alone, that no eavesdroppers were hovering in the doorway. “Not even the principal of this school knows—not yet.”

Tyler started to ask why, and to form counterarguments. Everyone loved Mr. Robbie—at least all the students did.

“No, no,” Mr. Robbie shushed him. “It’s complicated, and I can’t tell you the reasons. Moreover, it’s better…it’s better that you don't know the whole story. But I wanted to say something to you, given the interaction we’ve had over the last year and a half. I wanted to tell you to continue your reading and your writing, Tyler, even after I’m gone.”

Tyler felt himself begin to grow frantic. Mr. Robbie was speaking as if he were dying, rather than simply taking a leave of absence from his teaching position. 

“Please don’t ask me for details, Tyler. I understand why you’re upset, though. You and I are a lot alike, you know.”

“We are?” Tyler’s mood was momentarily brightened by the thought that he and Mr. Robbie were alike, and that Mr. Robbie thought so.

“Yes, we are. For starters, we both love books. Also, both of us have had to grow up without a father. My father took off when I was young, too, Tyler. I don’t believe I’ve ever told you that, but it’s true. Look after your mom, Tyler. My mom…my mom lives in Cleveland. I should go visit her, I guess.”

That was more or less the end of Tyler’s last one-on-one meeting with Mr. Robbie. The next week, Mr. Robbie simply did not show up for school one day. The principal gave the students no explanation. For the first few days without Mr. Robbie, the principal himself taught a few of the literature classes, and other days the hour allotted for English was like a study hall, in which they were assigned independent readings. 

Then a new teacher showed up. His name was Mr. Fleming. Nothing about him was terribly objectionable; but he was stiff and formal, and he conducted the class as if it were a forced march for teacher and students alike. He was no Mr. Robbie.

Tyler, now rudderless, tried in vain to find out what had happened to Mr. Robbie. None of the other students had any information. His mother did not even know that Mr. Robbie had gone. Uncle Steve merely shrugged and said, “A guy like that, well, anything’s possible. Your Mr. Robbie never really fit in around here. I suspect that he’s simply moved on. People do that sometimes, you know.” What Uncle Steve did not say—and did not have to say—was, just like your father.

Tyler took the bold step of asking the principal, Mr. Cahill. Tyler cornered Mr. Cahill one day as he was walking out of the administrative office.

Mr. Cahill sighed. “Tyler, I understand that you were close to Mr. Robbie. But sometimes teachers don’t teach forever in the same district. Granted, it’s kind of unusual for a teacher to vacate his position in the middle of the school year, but yes, it happens. Why don’t you give Mr. Fleming a chance? I think you’ll learn a lot from Mr. Fleming.”

Tyler reflected that Mr. Cahill’s response had a lot in common with Uncle Steve’s remarks. They both suggested that Mr. Robbie had “moved on,” but neither one confirmed the truth. Tyler quickly reached the conclusion that neither man—Mr. Cahill as well as Uncle Steve—knew the absolute and entire truth.

Then the full truth came out. It was reported that Sean Tierney, a former low-level associate for a branch of the Irish mafia in Boston, was shot to death in Cleveland, outside his mother’s house. 

Tierney had not seen his mother for well over a decade. He had gone to prison as part of an FBI sweep of the Boston underworld. Then he had entered the witness protection program and was set up with a new identity. 

A reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette broke the news that Sean Tierney’s contrived identity had been John Robbie, and that John Robbie had been a teacher in a semirural school district just outside Pittsburgh. 

There was much more information about Sean Tierney, aka John Robbie. Sean Tierney had been a minor player in the Irish mob. He had killed no one, though he had consorted with killers. As was also revealed, he had likely been involved in the intimidation of rival gang members. 

The RICO statutes governing the prosecution of organized criminal networks are notoriously harsh. Sean Tierney might not have been a murderer; but his involvement and complicity in an organized criminal enterprise made him liable to be punished like one. 

Facing the threat of decades behind bars, Tierney decided to take the deal that the federal prosecutors offered. In exchange for a much-reduced sentence, he had agreed to reveal what he knew, and whom he knew. 

Sean Tierney became a government informant, and thereby, a marked man. 

Beyond institutional walls, the government could not guarantee the safety of Sean Tierney. He therefore agreed to become John Robbie. Tierney had also agreed to sever all contact with anyone related to his old identity—including his mother, his only close living relation.

Such was the price that Sean Tierney agreed to pay for his life and his freedom. No one would have disputed that the price was steep. But this is the nature of membership in the mob.

The mob, however, did not forget Sean Tierney. It took them years, but they eventually traced him to the person of John Robbie, an English teacher in suburban Pittsburg. 

When John Robbie determined that his old associates were getting close, he notified his government handlers that an extraction would be necessary, along with yet another identity. 

Before his exfiltration, though, he made one sentimental indulgence that would cost him his life: He traveled to Cleveland to see his mother. He had long planned to see her at least once more, whatever the risk. The man now named Robbie made a decision: Seventy-nine and in poor health, Martha Tierney would not live long enough for her son to immerse himself in yet another identity, and wait for the mob to forget about him. (The mafia would never forget, he knew.)  

 “While in prison,” the Post-Gazette reporter wrote, “Sean Tierney earned his bachelor’s degree in English and a teaching certificate. He also began work on his master’s.”

That explained—to some readers’ satisfaction, at least—why John Robbie had been a teacher. But the final lines of the article revealed an item of information that struck the majority of the Post-Gazette’s readers as far more significant: 

“Sean Tierney might have been shot as he arrived at his mother’s house. Instead he was killed on the way out, after completing his visit. For that small mercy we can thank providence, or perhaps the sentiments of a mob hit man who also loved his mother.”

The revelation that John Robbie had in fact been Sean Tierney created a furor in the community. Everyone had an opinion, it seemed.

There was no ambiguity regarding Uncle Steve’s opinion. “See? I told you that guy Robbie was a scumbag. And now it turns out that he was a real scumbag, an honest-to-goodness gangster. All that stuff he knew about books—well, it turns out that he did most of his reading in prison!”

Jennifer, meanwhile, was simply relieved that her son had been spared any danger. Jennifer had questions, though, as did many parents in the school district: Why had John Robbie, or Sean Tierney, or whatever his name was, been entrusted with the instruction of children?

The answer was that despite his conviction under the RICO laws, Sean Tierney had practically been a nonviolent offender. There was nothing about his crimes, moreover, that suggested a tendency to harm or exploit children in any way.

And he did have a bachelor’s in English, a teaching certificate, and a portion of a master’s.

John Robbie’s educational attainments did little to mollify Uncle Steve, who was struggling to save for Eliza’s college education. 

“Convicted felons get a free ride, while decent, hardworking taxpayers have to scrimp and go into debt. It isn’t right,” Uncle Steve fumed.

The outrage spread throughout the community. A law firm in Pittsburgh floated the idea of a class action lawsuit against the government and the school district. A few parents joined, in hopes of a payout. 

When it became clear that the lawsuit would likely go nowhere, the anger intensified. By April, a few heads rolled. The school district official who had agreed to the John Robbie scheme was fired. Someone in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections was demoted. 

Tyler had few opinions about the legal maneuvering that followed the case of Sean Tierney/John Robbie. Once Tyler learned the basics of the case, he assiduously avoided news of the scandal in the papers, and on the Pittsburgh news websites. He refused to use the name “Sean Tierney”, even in his private thoughts. 

Early on, out of sheer curiosity, Tyler did venture online, where he found a picture of Mr. Robbie in his past life as Sean Tierney. It was a mug shot taken when Sean Tierney (Mr. Robbie) was arrested once during his early twenties, on a misdemeanor charge. 

The sullen young man in the picture looked only vaguely like Mr. Robbie. They might have been two different men. As far as Tyler was concerned, they were two different men.

After peaking in the news with a bit of coverage on CNN, the emotional intensity of the Sean Tierney/John Robbie case died down, even in the community where the latter had been employed for a relatively brief while as a junior high school English teacher. 

Other stories, other scandals and tragedies, had moved to the forefront by Memorial Day. During the first warm weekend in May, a heroin user had caused a head-on collision on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that killed a vanload of elementary school children on a field trip. Two weeks later, a young man of twenty used a high-capacity semiautomatic pistol to kill his parents, his sister, and four of his classmates at a community college outside Philadelphia. 

That summer, as he prepared to enter high school, Tyler continued to read—and write. After Mr. Robbie first disappeared, he had briefly feared that his enthusiasm and application would wane in his mentor’s absence. These fears turned out to be misplaced.

To the contrary, the opposite occurred: Tyler read and wrote more obsessively than ever. The library had become virtually his second home. He seldom went anywhere without a book or a notepad—or both.

Tyler didn't miss the irony, and he wondered if his efforts might be a form of denial—a way of avoiding a final mourning of Mr. Robbie. (Tyler had cried several times when he learned the full truth, as he might have cried for a dead father; but he did so only alone in his room. His tears were as secret as the feelings that he now felt constantly in the presence of girls, and the solitary acts that these feelings sometimes compelled him to carry out, also alone in his room.)

Uncle Steve made a few attempts to foster a closer bond between Tyler and Eliza. “You might be a good influence on her,” Uncle Steve said. When it became clear that Eliza had absolutely no interest in spending much time with her younger cousin, Uncle Steve lashed out in frustration, adopting the guise of a concerned male role model:

“Books are okay,” he told Tyler, “but you can’t make a living on them. Almost no one can, anyway. Not unless you’re like—Stephen King, or that woman who wrote those awful teenage vampire books a few years ago. 

“It’s okay to read books for school,” Uncle Steve went on. “I wish Eliza would do more of that. But you ought to take up hockey or football. Something to round you out.”

When Tyler responded with a noncommittal shrug (Tyler knew better than to argue directly with Uncle Steve), his uncle played his trump card: 
“I know that you’re doing all this—carrying a book around with you all the time, writing all those stories that you make up in your head—because of that teacher. But can’t you see that he was only leading you on? He was using you, Tyler.”

Tyler merely shrugged again. Mr. Robbie had saved his life. Well, maybe that was hyperbole. But at the very least, Mr. Robbie had given his life a direction, a passion. It was something that he might never have found otherwise, surrounded by his classmates and the less passionate teachers at his public school. And he would never have discovered any of the books, the desire to write stories, by hanging around with his mother, Uncle Steve, or Eliza—much as he loved them. (Tyler loved his mother, anyway. He merely liked Uncle Steve, and he was mostly indifferent toward Eliza).

“Say, do you want me to teach you how to throw a football?” Uncle Steve asked. “I used to be pretty good at it back in the day. I played running back and linebacker in high school—in the very same high school that you’ll be attending in a few months.

Tyler duly thanked Uncle Steve for his offer, then proceeded to beg off. He had a new stack of books from the library. One was The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas. It was as thick as the local telephone book, and Tyler couldn’t wait to dig into it. He also had Dracula—the original novel written by Bram Stoker more than a century ago. 

Remembering Uncle Steve’s references to the Twilight series, he thought: no teenage vampires for him. He was going to read the original vampire story, the one in which the vampires were anything but romantic.

What would Mr. Robbie say about these latest books? he wondered.

Mr. Robbie had given him a gift, but Mr. Robbie’s secret had ultimately been too enormous for them to overcome. Someday, he would have to find a way to forgive Mr. Robbie for his failure—his betrayal—even as he loved him for that gift.

Tyler also realized that he now had a secret, too. His mentor was not only a dead man—a ghost to the world—but a man whose very identity had been a fake. 

Or had John Robbie been the real man, and Sean Tierney been the fake? 

Strictly speaking, John Robbie had been a concoction, a name and identity that someone in the witness protection program had made up from thin air. 

Inside his mind, Tyler would always go back and talk to that ghost, that fake identity. He would ask him about books and he would show him stories. Tyler, after all, had no one else. 

That was a secret that would be worth keeping in the years ahead, a secret that he would have to protect and maintain at all costs.

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