In Albany, Francis finally comes face to face with Nicole in an empty classroom at her new parochial school. At first, both of them fail to recognize one another; Nicole has cut her hair, and Francis is still wearing his scarf and hat. For only the third time in the novel, Francis identifies himself.
The setting of a classroom echoes the first time the two met at St. Jude’s. However, their momentary confusion is markedly different than the excitement of that first meeting, signaling that they are no longer living in their simple childhoods.
Hesitantly, Nicole approaches Francis, maintaining a cordial distance. After she expresses concern over Francis’ wounds, he tries to reassure her with his now practiced lie that he will be going to Dr. Abrams’ clinic to have his face reconstructed. Not wanting to talk about the war, Francis quickly asks Nicole how she is doing.
Here, Francis is faced with a predicament; he does not want to talk about the past (the war) and is lying about his future. In asking about Nicole, he knows that it will only lead to painful memories of their childhood. Still, Francis is hanging onto the thread of his childhood because he is unsure how to approach his future.
The old softness gone from her voice, Nicole maintains that she is “fine.” After all, she says, she has new friends, and likes her new school where the nuns are less strict. After a pause, she apologizes to Francis for blaming him for her rape. She explains how she had gone to his house after sending him away that day on the veranda, only to find that he had already enlisted in the Army.
Nicole, in her attempts to adjust to her new life, shows that of all the novel’s characters, she is the only one who tried to move on after her traumatic past. She also shows that she has shed her simplistic childish view of the world when she forgives Francis.
Joining Nicole to look out the classroom window at a tennis match, Francis tentatively asks if Nicole had heard the news of Larry’s suicide. Nicole replies that yes, she had already heard, and cuts off Francis as he goes to explain “what type of man” Larry was. Serious now, Nicole says that while Larry had made her and the other Wreck Center children feel special, however now, away from it all, she is beginning to discover who she really is.
The tennis match in this scene is a symbol of how Francis and Nicole have come of age, as tennis is a more “adult” version of Ping-Pong, a game central to their childhoods. This symbolism is deepened as they reflect on the life and death of the man who abruptly ended their childhoods, with Nicole again showing how she has been trying to grow and mature after her trauma.
Turning the tables, Nicole then asks Francis what his plans are now that the war is over. Again, ready with a practiced lie, Francis flatly responds that he plans to finish high school and attend college on the G.I. bill. After an awkward pause, Nicole finally asks Francis why he had really come to see her. Caught off guard, Francis replies that he had simply wanted to see her again, to check up on how she was doing. Again, Nicole cuts him off, growing angry. Silently, Francis admits that he had hoped to win her back, something that might change his mind about using the gun in his duffel bag on himself.
Again, Francis shows his reluctance to fully relinquish his childhood (even though he knows it’s dead) by refusing to seriously contemplate his future. This is further emphasized when he admits to himself that he had hoped to win back his childhood sweetheart, which then might have convinced him to contemplate a future instead of suicide. Nicole, however, in her anger, shows that she intends to move on from her childhood and her trauma.
A back and forth ensues, with Nicole insisting she is “all right” and Francis pushing back, asking her if she had ever spoken to anyone about her trauma. This time Nicole is caught off guard, quickly recovering to explain that there had been nobody to tell: it would have broken her parents heart and there were “no visible wounds” to show the police. In the end, she says it had been easier just to run back to Albany, admitting that even if she wasn’t “all right” she was “adjusting.”
Here, Nicole echoes Larry’s words about not having any visible wounds, connecting her with the veterans as a casualty of the war who has to carry an internal emotional burden, with no external manifestations. Again, her insistence that she is “adjusting” at the very least shows her maturity in that she is capable of seeing the world with nuance, instead of the simple “good versus bad” dichotomy childhood.
Sadly, Francis realizes that his presence probably brings back bad memories for Nicole, though she assures him that he had been and always would be part of her “good times.” Gently then, the two begin to innocently reminisce about their Frenchtown childhood together, with Francis eventually telling his old sweetheart sanitized war stories.
Here, Nicole again shows her maturity in her ability to compartmentalize parts of her childhood, putting it into a larger perspective. In other words, she doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater like Francis does—she can still acknowledge the good times, despite her trauma.
An awkward silence falls over the room again, broken when Nicole moves to touch Francis’ bandages, murmuring “your poor face.” Pulling away, Francis protests, saying he does not want Nicole to see his disfigurement. He promises to send her a picture when he gets his wounds “fixed up,” though neither one takes the promise very seriously. When he looks over and sees affection but not love in Nicole’s eyes, Francis knows with finality that he has lost his sweetheart — that he lost her long ago.
With his final acknowledgement that Nicole no longer loves him like she did when they were children, Francis finally admits that his childhood is irretrievably over. However, his continued lies about his future show that he is unsure what to do now that he has been forced to stop reliving the past, which up until this point has sustained his existence.
Trying to give Nicole one last gift, Francis stands to leave, and Nicole quickly adds that must return to class soon. As they part, she takes Francis’ hand, calling him “her table-tennis champion” and “her Silver Star hero.” Cynically but honestly, Francis responds that he no longer knows what a hero is.
By placing Francis’ childhood heroism next to his wartime heroism, Nicole thinks she is acknowledging how much Francis has grown. However, Francis, speaking for Cormier, questions if either of his “heroic feats” had any legitimacy.
As Nicole turns to leave at last, Francis asks if he can visit her again, hating himself for asking a question to which he knows the answer is no. As an answer, Nicole quickly turns around and kisses Francis over his scarf, saying “have a good life Francis, be whatever makes you happy.” With that, she departs, leaving Francis with the sound of footsteps fading into silence.
In his self-loathing, Francis shows that he is aware that his childhood is irretrievably lost. Perhaps reflexively, out of fear for his future, he reached out towards childhood one last time with his request to Nicole. Like her footsteps echoing down the hall, Nicole (and by extension childhood) will be a memory for Francis, intangible and receding.