When Friendship Followed Me Home (10 page)

BOOK: When Friendship Followed Me Home
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28

ROCKS AND BOOKS

The next day was like the night before never happened. Leo and I went to Home Depot and bought bags of rocks and spread them out in the tiny yard. “It's a rock garden,” he said. “I guess you figured that out. You're a good worker, running those coupon deliveries at the crack of dawn, helping me now.”

“You too.”

“I been at it a long time,” he said. “I'll die working. You though, always studying the way you do, I think you just might make it.”

“Make what?”

“Champ, you like golf?”

“Mini.”

“That's not a crime. Yet.
Ha.
I can teach you how to play real golf, you know? Maybe we'll go to the driving range sometime.” He farted and covered his mouth for some reason. “'Scuse me. I'll be back.” He went in.

Jeanie came out with lemonade. “He's sick from the beer. Serves him right.” She was looking at me like she wanted me to say something. I shrugged. She sat and patted the porch step for me to sit next to her. “I ordered an angel figurine online. It looks like marble but it's actually highly durable polyurethane. They make bowling balls out of this stuff. It'll be here tomorrow.”

“That's, like, great,” I said.

“Yes. Well, I'd like to bury her under it. Tess. Back here. I should have asked you first.”

“Asked me what?”

“If you were okay with that. You know, burying her ashes.”

“I never really thought about it,” I said. “I guess we have to put them somewhere. Are you allowed, though? Like isn't there a law or something, that maybe she's supposed to go into a, you know, cemetery?”

“I don't think so. I just feel like she'll be closer to us this way.”

“Right.”

“You don't think so?”

“No, no, I do. It's nice, your plan.”

“Good then?”

“Good, yeah.”

“Great.” She patted my back, and I could tell she was working hard not to lean away. “I can help you sort through those book boxes, if you want.”

“I'll finish up today.”

“Oh Ben, the dog looks like he's going to pee in the rocks. No, dog. Shoo.
Shoo.

• • •

Halley came over to help me go through my books. Jeanie was at work and more importantly Leo was in Manhattan to see his foot doctor. Chucky kept texting me to send him a picture of Halley. “I keep seeing the word
butt
in that text stream,” she said.

“You never told me why we're going to call the story
The Magic Box,
” I said.

“It's like this: Tess is gonna help Bruce and Helen, but
she
needs their help too. The planet she's on? It's called Mundum Nostrum, and it's total war there. Tess is trying to get the Nostrumians to settle their differences by, hello, learning how to talk to each other again. See what I did there, working in the speech therapy?” She patted herself on the back. “This requires some serious magic, the kind Tess keeps in her totally gorgeous penthouse apartment back on Earth, in the top of the golden tower from Luna Park 1905, in this beautiful wooden box.”

“So what's in the box?”

“Only the greatest treasure that has ever existed.”

“An antigravity belt that lets you fly? A wearable technology that lets you be invisible?”

“You're such a
boy.
It's
so
much more awesome than
those.” She dropped a pile of books on top of the To Go pile.

“Seriously, you're making me get rid of my
X-Men: First Class
?”

“Let somebody else enjoy it,” she said. “Hey? You nervous?”

“About what?”

“Monday.” She lit up that dingy basement with the biggest lopsided smile. Monday was our first Read to Rufus session with the little kids. “Flip, Flip, Flip, Flip, Flip!” She picked him up and spun around with him.

“Champ, that you down there?” Leo said. He limped into the basement.

“Hi, I'm Halley.”

“Hi. Yeah, I thought that voice was a little high for Ben,” Leo said. He stared a little too long at her pink wig.

“Well, I better get going,” she said. “Gotta get home to help my dad with a show.”

“What kind of
show
?” Leo said

“Magic act for a birthday party.”

“Ah,” Leo said.

“Very nice to meet you,” she said. Her hand was tiny in his, but she gave a good shake.

Flip and I walked her to the train. When we got back, Leo said, “Tess didn't mind you hanging out with chicks like that?”

“Mom would have loved her,” I said. “Besides, like what?”

“Forget about the pink dye job for now, in my day girls didn't cut their hair to look like boys. It's like she's trying to be in your face about it, you know what I mean?”

“No, I don't.”

“She's purposely shocking people. She's drawing attention to herself. I'm doing it again, aren't I? Messing up. I'm only trying to look out for you here, champ. The people you let yourself be around? They're a reflection on
you.

“Leo?”

“Yeah?”

Even his stupid shirt made me sick, not to mention totally confused me. It said: THREE!
[I'M ALWAYS COMING UP A LITTLE SHORT.]
All the synonyms for the word
idiot
lunged up from my stomach toward my throat, and they weren't about to get stuck in my heart this time. If I had anyplace else to live—anyplace at all—I would have called him every one of them too. “How's your foot?” I said.

29

READ TO RUFUS

Now I was glad to have my headphones back, even if Rayburn had worn them. I needed them to drown out Leo and Jeanie. They argued nonstop. That whole weekend they were going back and forth about Christmas vacation, Mexico again or Maine? I wondered if they were like this before Flip and I came into the picture. I didn't know what to do except stay in my room and study and tell myself that for every test I aced Flip and I were one step closer to getting out of Leo and Jeanie's. “Four years, Flip. Less than four. Three years, nine months and twenty days until I turn sixteen. We can hang in that long, right?”

He cocked his head and licked my lips. He was the best study partner. He really did love when you read to him. Monday morning I dropped him off at the Mold house. He looked a little sad as I left. “Come on now, Flip bud. You know I'll be back soon. I promise.” As soon as he heard that, his tail started wagging again.

• • •

Monday after school Chucky and I hustled over to the Mold house to pick up Flip. “Ronda Glomski told me Rayburn isn't holding up his end of that contract they made him sign,” Chucky said.

“He's not going to the guidance counselor?” I said.

“Nobody knows where he is. My mouth hurts every time I think about him.”

“Then don't think about him.” That's what Mom would've said.

“I seriously hope he dropped out. Dude, for real, how lame is this Read to Rufus thing going to be? Worse than chess club?”

“Halley's gonna be there.”

“Okay, I'll come.”

• • •

We trotted into the library and right upstairs to where they were waiting: the Read to Rufus lady, Mrs. Lorentz, three kids, a bunch of parents, a teacher, and Halley.

“Cheez Whiz crust,” Chucky whispered to me. “Nice butt. Not bad in the chestal area either, Coffin. I mean, they could be bigger, but well done just the same.”

“Any thoughts about her
face
?”

“Huh? Yeah, that too.” Only then did he notice her wig, which she'd dyed in spiky stripes of color. “Okay, you were right: She's seriously as cool as a rainbow.”

Flip jumped into her arms. “Ben, this is Brian,” she said.

“I'm seven,” the kid said, like he'd fight me if I said otherwise, except he didn't look me in the eye. He was small for seven, and the book he had was
The Dog Who Wanted to Become a Boy
. “I picked it because I figured he'd like it better than
The Velveteen Rabbit
, which maybe he'd want to eat.” He nodded to Flip, who cocked his head. “It isn't mine though, the book. It's from the liberry. They made me carry it.” He held it away from himself as far as he could, like it was a bag of dog turds.

“I'll hold it for you,” I said, “if you hold Flip for me for a sec.”

Halley put Flip into his arms, and Flip licked half a smile into the kid's lips. “His breath smells okay,” he said. “It's not like rotten milk that much.”

We sat on the couch. “Who told you
The Dog Who Wanted to Become a Boy
is one of Flip's all-time favorites?” I said.

“Serious?”

“You know what he also loves, Brian? When you say his name. After you read a little, just say, ‘Right, Flip?' Read him your favorite part.”

The kid looked me in the eye, but just for a second. “Thing is, it's at the end. It's not a happy ending, but it kind of is too.”

“Those are the kind Flip likes the most. Read it if you don't believe me.”

The kid read, and Flip was all eyes on him. “‘I wanted to
be hum . . . hummm . . . '” He whispered, “What's this word again?”

“Human,” I said.

“‘I wanted to be human, because then the girl co . . . co-uh-luh-d . . .' Tell me.”

“Could. That one's tricky. You're doing so awesome.”

“‘I wanted to be human, because then the girl could understand me. She was my best fri . . .'”

“You're doing great, Brian,” I said. “Just sound it out letter by letter.”

“‘Fri-een-d—friend'?”

“You're totally amazing. Flip wants to give you a knuckle bump. Right, Flip?”

The kid put out his fist and Flip bumped him. His voice got louder. “‘She was my best friend, and I had to tell her that.' Right, Flip?” Flip cocked his head almost ninety degrees. “I think he really is listening to me,” the kid said. “‘I was getting older and would not be around much longer,' Flip.” Flip bumped him again and licked the kid's nose. They forgot I was there. The kid read and read, and Flip was fascinated. “‘She told me so many times, in so many ways, that she loved me, and I tried to say it back with cuddles and kisses. I tried so hard. But it was not the same. I wanted to say the words, just once, to say I love you, so she would know.'”

Flip did a wiggle worm into the kid's lap and rolled over for a belly scratch.

Everybody clapped, and the kid got embarrassed and hid his face in Flip's neck. I looked out and Chucky nodded and Halley winked at me. Mercurious was there. He was holding Mrs. Lorentz's hand, and he gave me the thumbs-up. A rainbow-colored flame grew from the tip of his thumb.

Brian closed the book, and Flip put his head in the kid's lap. “The dog never becomes a boy,” Brian said. “He never gets to say the words.”

“But you said it was a happy ending too,” I said.

“Yeah. It's happy because the girl knows anyway. You can just tell. She knows how he feels about her.”

30

THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF
THE MAGIC BOX

We got takeout slices with Chucky, and then Halley said Mold had to scram. “Why?” Chucky said.

“Because you need to go rest your eyes after staring at my, ahem,
chestal
area nonstop for the last two hours.”

“It wasn't the
whole
two hours.”

“Go. Ben and I have to work anyway.”

“On what?”

“Our story of
The Magic Box
.”

“Why's it magic?” Chucky said. “What's inside? C'mon, tell me.”

Halley elbowed me. “That's one copy sold anyway.” We went to our bench by Luna Park. “When last we saw our time-traveling alter egos, Bruce and Helen were trapped in a snapshot of 1905 with Mercurious, in the top of the golden tower,” she said.

“Except the tower is actually a golden spaceship,” I said.
“Maybe it rises off the ground and floats onto its side like a blimp.”

“Okay, we're totally doing it. One little problem: Tess and the people of Mundum Nostrum need the magic box ASAP. How do we get a blimp to travel faster than the speed of light?”

“Easy. You use a quantum vector slingshot made of a dark matter neutrino alloy. Add a roentgenium booster, and you're moving a hundred and eleven thousand times the speed of light.”

“You have my full attention now. Please proceed.”

“Mercurious has buckets of the stuff, and he helps Helen and Bruce fuel up the golden blimp. ‘As much as I want to go with you,' he says, ‘I can't leave the people of Coney Island stranded—way too many bar mitzvahs this month. Tess is sending me mind waves that put the location of Mundum Nostrum somewhere in the constellation of Canis Major, in the orbit of Sirius.'”

“The Dog Star!” Halley said, scooping up Flip. “Helen and Bruce will need a seriously awesome pilot to get them there. Who better to guide them to Sirius than the mightiest therapy dog in existence? Flip, smooshy face.” He gave her one and got his tongue all the way up into her mouth. “Mercurious gives Bruce the magic box. ‘Okay, Travelers,' he says.”

“‘Travelers,'” I said. “Nice.”

“‘I know you really, really want to know what's inside,' Mercurious says, ‘but promise me you won't open it.'”

“Why?” I said. “Shouldn't Helen and Bruce know their cargo?”

“Not in this case. This treasure is so spectacularly unique that Bruce and Helen can't possibly understand its true worth—not until Tess shows them how to wield it. Just to be sure they don't peek, Mercurious locks the box with a key made from sparks, the kind that shine in people's eyes after they witness a good deed. There's only one other copy of the key in existence.”

“And Tess has it. Drats.” It was really fun watching Halley get into it. She paced and talked everything into her phone and kind of hopped around. Truth told, that was more fun than the story part, which was kind of lame. I mean, transporting a magic box from one planet to another? It was like in every other comic I read. But seeing the Rainbow Girl get all smiley as we thought it up together? That was seriously fresh.

“Ben Coffin, are you ready for the journey to begin? I warn you, it's uphill all the way.”

“Like I'd go with you on a downhill one? Flip, set a course for the moon Libris and the map room of Penny the soothsaying media specialist.”

“Speaking of which, my phone's buzzing and, yes, it's totally Mom texting me to get my butt home to go to yoga
with her. It's actually not that ew. There's a lot to be said for all this alternative medicine garbage. Namely that she takes me out for Strawberry Dream Donuts after.”

“You have a seriously sweet tooth.”

“Sweet tooth, sweet heart.” She hugged me and pushed me away and went off laughing.

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