When Phineas returns to Devon School with his leg in a cast, he does his best to resume as much of his previous existence as possible - mediocre student, smooth talker, ringleader of adventures. However, he has developed a personal theory that holds that World War II is all a hoax, a huge conspiracy being forced upon the world by "the fat old men who don't want us crowding them out of their jobs." Gene questions Finny about this conclusion.
'What makes you so special? Why should you get it and all the rest of us be in the dark?' The momentum of the argument abruptly broke from his control. His face froze. 'Because I've suffered,' he burst out...Phineas I know had been even more startled than I to discover this bitterness in himself. Neither of us ever mentioned it again, and meither of us ever forgot that it was there.
This alternate reality shapes Gene and Finny's actions as they react to world news, prepare for the 1944 Olympics, and deal with Leper's enlistment and subsequent withdrawal from the military. It reflects the struggles all the boys had to face as they tried to make their personal peace with the lives they would be living.
The event of Finny's death marks an assumption of innocence, an anticipation of a procedure that Dr. Stanpole had done many times previously without incident, but which had gone horribly and inexplicably wrong that time.
As I was moving the bone some of the marrow must have escaped into his blood stream and gone directly to his heart and stopped it...There are risks, there are always risks. An operating room is a place where the risks are just more formal than in other places. An operating room and a war.
The tragic conclusion of the surgery marked the unpredictable way in which reality could turn; it also forced Gene into facing possibilities that he had not confronted. "I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case."