Talk to the people of any town or village, anywhere, in the world, and someone will be able to tell you an urban legend or folk tale. They say that every place has its ghosts, and Peter was not one to doubt that. His sisters had their reservations, but he couldn’t disbelieve the stories without proof. What he didn’t expect was ever actually seeing the ghosts first-hand.
Oak Hollow High School had plenty of stories whispered about it. What else do teenagers do for fun in October? Peter listened to the stories closely to keep his mind off the bullies when the rest of class got of be boring. That was how he heard the story of the unanswered question.
Over the years, the school had experienced its share of tragic events. One of them was a senior who studied hard, and was close to graduating when his life was cut short. Langston Ward was studying in the library late one day when a storm took out the power to the building. When he went to get help, he slipped in a puddle and ended up falling over the railing and descending three floors down. He didn’t survive, but since then, the leaky roof has been fixed, and safety measures have been implemented to prevent any more falls.
Right before the power outage that led to that tragic fall, he had asked his study group, “How many valence electrons are in radium?” He was a whiz with chemistry and was always glad to quiz his classmates or help them understand concepts. That day, he didn’t get an answer from his group, but had promised them that he would get it once he got back from getting help.
The students would tell one another that since Langston had never been able to resume studying, he had unfinished business.
“What unfinished business could he have?” Peter’s boyfriend, Bayani, asked one day. “He already knew the answer to his question.”
Peter sensed that Bayani was unnerved by talk of a ghosts at their school, which was funny to him because he didn’t seem bothered by anime about ghosts at schools. Still, he cared enough to not tease him about it.
“Well,” Peter replied, taking a practical approach, “Langston probably wants to make sure that the living get in a good study session. He didn’t get to continue his education, so maybe he wants to make sure others can.”
Bayani seemed only partially convinced. “What does he do, then?”
The rumor was that every October, when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead grew thin, Langston would visit the school. He would ask anyone who saw him the same question he’d asked his study group: “How many valence electrons are in radium?”
If you got the answer right, you could ask him a question on something that you were studying. Sometimes, if the living person had a question they were studying, or had gotten wrong on a recent test, he would ask that one as a follow-up. Nobody could explain how Langston knew what question was burning in the minds of the living, but ask it he did.
If you got the answer wrong, the room or hall would get very cold; sometimes you felt something push you. Then Langston would ask a related question, such as radium’s atomic number or a basic periodic table concept. If you remembered the right answer after getting it wrong, he would make you explain how you knew you had the right answer. Every time you were wrong or couldn’t answer, it would get colder, or you’d be pushed harder.”
Bayani shook his head. “I’m not even taking chemistry yet and I could end up dead like him?”
“I don’t think he kills anybody,” Peter told him. “I heard of people getting a cold after getting his questions wrong, or maybe getting some bruises, but he’s not a killer.”
“You say that now,” Bayani replied, “but you’re the one who knows all that stuff.”
Peter smirked. “I’ll just have to stick with you in case the ghost shows up, so I can keep you safe.”
“Any excuse to spend more time together.” Bayani grinned and went back to eating his lunch.
Study group was later that week, after school on a Friday. Bayani had tried to cancel, because it was raining pretty hard, but Peter only chuckled and reassured him. They reported to the library to study only to find that the rest of their study group had either canceled or been picked up by their parents. Bayani tried again to go home, but Peter reminded him that he needed help studying for his biology test.
They were about twenty minutes into reviewing the study guide when the wind picked up and the power started fluctuating. Bayani started packing up his books without another words and made a bee-line for the door. Then he stopped in his tracks.
The room was a lot colder, and the ceiling lights were fluctuating between flickering, dimming, and simply working. When the light directly above him dimmed and then popped, now completely out of commission, Bayani could see the outline of a young man in front of him.
“How many valence electrons are in radium?” the ghostly figured asked.
Bayani gulped, then turned around and gave Peter a desperate look.
“Didn’t I tell you the answer so that you’d be prepared for this?” Peter asked him, remaining calm, as though he’d almost expected the ghost to show up.
Bayani nodded and turned back to Langston. “Two,” he told him.
Langston looked between Peter and Bayani. “Why is that?” he asked.
Bayani grimaced and turned to Peter again. “He’s asking follow-up questions.”
Peter sighed and stood up from the table. “I guess I have to help you; I’d hate to have to take care of you if he gives you a cold. You’re such a baby when you’re sick.”
He walked over to Bayani’s side and told the ghost, “We’re only freshmen. Shouldn’t you know that it’s not cool for a senior to ask questions that someone hasn’t learned yet?”
The room got colder.
“What is radium’s atomic number?” Langston asked.
“Radium is atomic number eighty-eight,” he grumbled. “Its symbol in Ra, and it’s in group 2, period 7.”
“All I know is that it’s radioactive,” Bayani added.
“Explain why it only has two valance electrons,” the ghost demanded.
“Go ask Bill Nye,” Peter snapped, “Isn’t it my turn to ask something?”
The room was starting to feel like a walk-in freezer.
“Fine, whatever,” Peter said. “The first six orbitals are full, accounting for 86 of the electrons. The 7S orbital gets the last two.”
“What is the electron configuration?” Langston asked.
“You know I’m getting into AP chem next year, right?” Peter asked. “I thought we were here often enough for you to know that.”
“Y-you sh-should probably stop talking back to the g-ghost,” Bayani told him through chattering teeth.
Peter noticed the frost that was starting to coat both their hair. “Geez, you’re worse than Miss Huan; I can’t have any fun. Okay, it’s 1s2 2s2p6 3s2p6d10 4s2p6d10f14 5s2p6d10 6s2p6 7s2.”
Then he felt an ice-cold hand touch his. “Do you have question for me?”
“Yeah,” Peter said, a wily grin crossing his face. “When you die, do you get to learn what element 142 is? Besides Uqb– unquadbinium– I mean.”
The next week, Peter wasn’t at school. Bayani was, though, and he told anyone who asked how Peter had caught a cold by irritating the ghost of Langston Ward.