When Friendship Followed Me Home (2 page)

BOOK: When Friendship Followed Me Home
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2

HEIR TO THE EMPIRE

My stomach was growling by the time the last bell rang and they set us free for the weekend. I headed down the boardwalk toward the library. Mrs. Lorentz always kept a plate of Chips Ahoy! at the front desk.

I was feeling pretty terrific for somebody who got robbed of his pizza money. You can't be sad in Coney Island on a clear September day. The ocean was glittery. The air smelled salty and sweet. My audiobook was nearing the climax. I couldn't get caught walking around with a
book
book, of course. That's like begging for a wedgie. I cranked up my headphones and
Heir to the Empire,
by Timothy Zahn. Things were looking crummy for Han Solo. Thrawn's fighters swarmed the
Millennium Falcon
. The sound cut out when somebody came up behind me and ripped the headphones off my head.

“Who buys yellow headphones?” this girl Angelina Caramello said. She was really pretty even though she was
friends with Damon Rayburn. “It's like lemons growing out of your ears.”

“Plus you missed a belt loop,” Angelina's best friend Ronda Glomski said. She yanked on the loop I missed. “I truly don't understand how you got skipped a grade. How can you be so lame yet so totally adorbs?”

“Ew,” Angelina said. She chucked my headphones at me. Then Ronda shoved me so hard she knocked the gum out of my mouth.

I had to think about this. Ronda Glomski, ranked eleventh prettiest in our grade, said that I, Ben Coffin, was not totally revolting. Even though she practically decked me right after she said it and her name was a little gross sounding. I know, like I should talk when my name reminds you of where a zombie escaped from. We were kind of perfect for each other if you took out the part about Ronda being really mean.

In my side vision I saw Damon Rayburn coming, which meant I had to be going, and fast.

I was wheezing a little by the time I got to the library. It wasn't that far a sprint, but my asthma was kicking in, and I had forgotten my inhaler. Fortunately Mrs. Lorentz had it. “You left it on the windowsill again,” she said. She pushed a book at me. “I need you to read this. My daughter can't stop talking about it. I'm looking for a second opinion before I put it on top of my stack.”

It was
Feathers,
by Jacqueline Woodson. “This doesn't look like sci-fi,” I said.

“You won't spontaneously combust,” Mrs. Lorentz said. “Ben, you'll love it, trust me.”

“After you just said you haven't read it?”

“Why are you standing here talking to me when you should be reading?”

“It's written by a girl,” I said.

“So?”

“Like, I'm a dude.”

“Take some cookies with you,
dude.
And yes, you can keep the fire escape door open a crack.”

She let me do that on asthma days. The breeze felt nice. I didn't know it just then, but getting stopped by Angelina and Ronda, which led to me getting chased by Rayburn, which got my asthma going, which made me crack the alley door, was about to flip my life upside down.

I propped open the door with one of the grimy old encyclopedias Mrs. Lorentz was always trying to dump on everybody—Volume 10, Gargantuan to Halitosis—and settled in at my table hidden away in the back. There were all these giant pictures silkscreened onto the walls, photographs from the old days when Coney Island was the most famous beach in America. My favorite was called
Dreamland at Night.
It was the way Luna Park, this amusement park right
on the ocean, looked in 1905. The tower shined like a softer sun. Think of honey lit up with the kind of electricity inside an angel's mind when she's wishing only the most beautiful things for you.

I took a breath from my inhaler and eyed
Feathers.
The cover was a picture of, guess what, a feather. No spaceships, no exploding Death Star, not even a freaking laser sword. The story went like this: There's this new kid in school. Some call him the Jesus Boy, others think he's a freak and they bully him bad. I related to him. I'm not talking about the bullying but about how I always felt like a stranger, even to myself sometimes. I just didn't know where I fit in or what I was supposed to do or be in life, like maybe I was a mistake.

Pretty soon I was on the last page of the book. The story was the kind that ends too quick and leaves you worrying about what's going to happen to the characters, almost like they're your friends, except not annoying. Frannie, the narrator, wants to be a writer. Her teacher is telling her that each day comes with its own special moments and that Frannie had better keep an eye out for them and write them down for later. I was okay with that part. I'm sure Timothy Zahn did that kind of stuff when he was writing
Heir to the Empire.
But I had to stop when I read the next thing Frannie's teacher said about these so-called special moments.
“Some of them might be perfect, filled with light and hope and laughter. Moments that stay with us forever and ever.”

This was a lie. Nothing lasts forever. It's a scientific fact. Things happen and they're over and you can't get them back.

Einstein said we can travel to the future, and the astronauts proved it. They synchronized twenty clocks and took ten into space. They spent six months up there, whipping around at 17,000 miles an hour, almost five miles per
second
. When they landed,
all
the clocks in Mission Control were .007 seconds ahead of
all
the ones that went into space. You see what happened? They traveled a fraction of a second into the future. Look it up if you don't believe me. This means if you travel
really
fast, like at light speed, when you land back on Earth the clocks will be
years and years
ahead, and you've escaped far into the future. Here's the problem: Einstein used the same math to prove we can never go back to the past.

I stared into the picture of Luna Park in 1905. I would never get to be there. I'd never feel safe with all those gold and silver lights on my face. I'd never see the world from the top of the tower. I'd never believe magic was real.

A cat hissed outside the fire escape door. It charged something down the alley. Then came that creepy sound a cat makes when it's mad, like a demon possessed it.

3

THE DEMON, THE DOG AND THE DIVA

I stepped into the alley. The cat was beating the heck out of this other, much smaller one, except the little guy was a dog.

I shooed away the cat. The dog was a shivering mess. His fur was all tarred up. His tongue stuck out the side of his mouth. His eyes were gunky and pointed out toward the sides. His tail was chomped up and bent, what I could see of it. He had it between his legs. What a shrimp he was. He weighed maybe eight pounds. He wasn't young either, with the gray in his muzzle. I went to pet him. He ducked and scampered out of the alley. I tried to find him, but he was gone.

• • •

I brought
Feathers
back to Mrs. Lorentz. “So?” she said.

“It makes me upset.”

“That's great,” she said.

“Great?”

“Why does it upset you, Ben?”

“I'm not sure. Can you hold it for me?”

“You don't want to take it home?” she said.

“I forgot my backpack today.”

“It weighs four point five ounces, not to mention its title is
Feathers.
You can't
carry
it?”

I looked out the window. A bunch of guys were hanging out by the free newspaper boxes everybody throws garbage in. They'd take
Feathers
and rip it up, and then Frannie and the Jesus Boy would be in pieces, getting kicked around in the wind. “How do you know it weighs four point five ounces?” I said.

“I'm guessing.” She dropped the book onto a postage scale: 4.5 exactly.

“You're not human,” I said.

She nodded and leaned in and whispered, “I'm a librarian.” She wrote on a sticky paper and stuck it to the book. Then the weirdest thing happened. Her lips trembled and I swear she was about to cry. “Don't forget your inhaler,” she said as she put the book aside to help this other kid check out a stack of video games. I leaned over the counter to see what she wrote. The note said:
HOLD FOR MY BEN
.

I was going to miss her next year, when Mom and I moved to Miami. It almost made me want to join Facebook, the idea that if I didn't, I'd never see her again. I would send her the biggest wink, Mrs. Lorentz, to acknowledge all the kindness
she showed me the past two years, not to mention her totally amazing wisdom. I'd send her the wink every freaking day.

I was heading out when this girl was coming in. I held the door for her. She wore a lime-green beret, oversized sunglasses, a glittery scarf, and a red suit jacket with gold buttons buttoned up to her neck, even though it was like seventy-five degrees out. She wore purple gloves with the fingers cut off. Her high-tops were pink sparkles. She pretty much had every color of the rainbow covered. Her backpack was one of those mesh ones so she could show you how totally brilliant she was with all the books she had in there.

The big bad tough guys outside didn't mess with her—no sir. She was the kind of girl who, if you cracked some lame comment about her books or
gloves
or whatever, she'd come back with something that made you feel even stupider than you are, and in front of all your buddies too. Even the dumbest guy knows not to mess with a diva.

And boy, was she one. She stopped to check a text. Here I am, holding the freaking door for her, and the whole time she's texting back. And then she brushed right past me without even tossing me a thanks.

“You're
wel
come,” I said. No I didn't. I just left.

It was five thirty. Mom liked me home by six to help with dinner. The tide was coming in. The salt smell was strong enough to make you cough. Papers blew around the street. I had a feeling I was being followed.

I turned around. Mermaid Avenue was packed with everybody coming home from work, but nobody seemed interested in me. I headed up to Neptune, which was a little less crowded, and now I was sure somebody was stalking me. I spun around, and there he was.

4

THE STALKER

That little dog from the alley stopped maybe fifty feet away and sat and watched me.

“C'mere then,” I said, but he wouldn't. I walked toward him and he ran off. I shrugged and went on. I looked over my shoulder, and he was following me again.

I went into the supermarket to where the lady in the hairnet was always trying to push the free cheese samples on you. “Can I have some?” I said.

“What else am I here for?” she said.

I scooped four fistfuls into my pockets.

“At least tell your mom the cheese was good,” the lady said. “You know, so maybe she
buys
some next time?”

“Oh, I will.”

“Right,”
she said. I felt bad for her. Selling fancy cheese in a mediocre supermarket is a hard job.

When I came back out, the dog was waiting for me. He was
closer now, and boy was he shaking. I put a piece of cheese on the sidewalk and stepped back twenty feet. He approached real slow, and then he gobbled it. I put another one down and stepped back ten feet this time, and it was the same thing. Then five feet, then he was eating out of my hand. I swear he wolfed down a quarter pound of cheddar. He let out a burp louder than any I ever made. His breath was not particularly fantastic. Then he leaned into my leg and shook so hard he shook me.

I scooped him up and took a quiet side street home. No way was I getting caught carrying around a girly little dog like that. It would have been worse than being caught with a book.

5

MOM

“The answer is yes,” my mother said. I didn't even get a chance to ask her. She just saw the little varmint in my arms and said okay. “Now let's get this dog into the tub.”

“Thanks, Mom.” I'd wanted a dog for as long as I could remember, but we were going to wait until we got to Florida. Luckily, Mom liked to go with the flow.

“He picked you for a reason,” she said.

“Right, I'm the first sucker who fed him.”

She messed up my hair. “Life's a journey, Traveler.”

“And we're all in for one heck of a ride.”

“Hiking uphill is the best part of the trip, never forget,” she said.

“How could I when you remind me twice a day?”

She was sixty-seven years old. She didn't dye her hair, which she kept short, no fuss, no muss. You might be doing the math, her age minus mine, a seventh grader's. She'd have
to be in her mid-fifties when she had me, right? Except she didn't. I was ten when she took me in.

“Get the towel,” Mom said.

We dried him off, and wouldn't you know that little mutt was sort of cute. His coat was spiky. With the gunk gone his eyes were gold brown. I tucked his tongue into his mouth, but it fell out.

“Let's fatten him up,” Mom said.

Her saying yes to the dog so quick got me thinking. “Mom, all those kids in the group home. You could have adopted any of them. I've always been afraid to ask, but why me?”

“Why were you afraid to ask?” She started frying up some hamburger.

“Sometimes I think if I talk about it, it'll disappear. Living here, in the apartment. My own room. Dinner while we watch TV. You and me.”

“Traveler?” she said. “You and I will never disappear. We're forever. You know that, don't you?”

“Of course.”

“You're a terrible liar, son.”

“How do you know I'm lying?”

“Because you do this adorable little thing with your eyes. They open a bit too wide, and you look off to the right. Ben? It's like this: When Laura died so suddenly I was at a
crossroads. We'd always talked about becoming foster caregivers, and I thought, well, if I find the right kid, the one who really needs
me,
I'm going to do it.” She stopped cooking to look at me full on. “I just knew you were meant to be my son.”

“How'd you know, though?”

“Magic.” She wasn't talking to me now. She looked past me, at the picture on the wall above the kitchen table. Mom's partner Laura watched over us every night as we ate. She had a true smile, like she wasn't forcing it for the picture. She got cancer, the kind that hijacks your blood. “She would have loved you,” Mom said. Then she snapped out of it and got back to cooking. “There's not much here. You'll be hungry. You'd better go pick up some Chinese food.” Now
she
was lying. There was plenty of hamburger, even with the dog there, but I saw she wanted to be alone for a bit. She didn't like to be sad in front of me.

“Mom? They have this new cheddar at the supermarket. It's really terrific.”

“Good to know. Hey, our new friend here, what are you going to call him?”

“Not sure yet.”

“You'll know when you hear it.”

I made a leash from my bathrobe belt, but I didn't need it. That little dog trotted right alongside me, all the way to the Palace of Enchantment and back, and he never once took his eyes off me. Even when he was eating he wouldn't stop
staring at me. After dinner when we watched
Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan,
it was the same way, eyes on me the whole time. He had a thing about him that was hard to describe. Like this very golden stillness. His name had to show that.

“Why are you smiling?” Mom said.

“I don't know,” I said, but I knew. It was so perfect, just plain old hanging out, Mom, me and the dog. It was so safe. “Maybe we could call him Woody.”

“As in Woody Coffin?”

“Right, scratch that.”

“Coffin's a tricky name,” she said.

“It's awesome. Remember how you said I could stay a Smith if I thought Coffin was too creepy?” There were lots of Smiths in the foster homes, and Joneses and Washingtons. “That was the best, the day you let me share your name.”

“That was a beautiful day. Yes, it was.”

“I just felt different, like finally I was getting a little closer to becoming the person I was supposed to be, even if I didn't know exactly who that person was yet.”

“I like that you tell me these things. Oh, don't be embarrassed now. Ben, your friend is trying to get your attention.”

The little guy had slid out of my lap and trotted to the door. He put up his paw and yipped, just once. I took him out and he peed right at the curb. When bedtime came he wriggled under my shirt, into my armpit. I woke up to check on him, and his head was resting on my chest. He was looking
at me with those gold-brown eyes. It occurred to me that I hadn't taken a breath from my inhaler since the library, and I was breathing fine. I ran my fingers through his coat, back and forth, and like no hair came off him. My lungs were cool around dogs who didn't shed a lot. “You're awesome,” I said. He dove at my mouth and licked my lips. “Except for that breath. Whoa.”

When I woke up the next morning he was checking out the Chewbacca poster I'd tacked up by my bookcase. It was life-size—seven feet of Wookie staring right at you. The little mutt cocked his head, like, Dude, you are the weirdest dog I've ever seen.

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