When Friendship Followed Me Home (5 page)

BOOK: When Friendship Followed Me Home
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13

THE UNEXPECTED SOLUTION TO THE FLORIDA PROBLEM

Thursday was good all through school because Rayburn was “out sick” again. On the way home Mold wanted me to come over and chill for a round or two of
Infinite Crisis,
but Flip and I had a date with Halley, except it wasn't a date. “She's a
friend,
” I said.

“That's not what I asked,” Chucky said. He'd asked if she was a babe.

“She's beautiful,” I said.

Chucky rolled his eyes. “Compared to Mystique from X-Men,
beautiful
like that?”

“There's no comparison. Mystique is completely blue and this girl's a rainbow.”

“Mystique is also completely naked,” Chucky said. “A
rainbow, huh? Dude, the way you talk sometimes? You're a riddle wrapped inside an enchilada.”

“Enigma.”

“See, like right there. Quit looking so bummed out.” We were at the corner where we usually split up, but I guess Chucky could tell I needed to talk, because he went with me up the block, toward my building. Turns out he should've just gone home.

“I'm setting up this whole Read to Rufus thing, and in nine months I'm out of here.”

“So you set up another one in Florida,” Chucky said. “Of course the
rain
bow babe won't be in Florida, but there's still tons of chicks down there.” He slugged my shoulder. “Ow,” he said. “Bony shoulder you got there. Ow,” he said again.

Rayburn had just slapped him in the back of the head. “Pockets,” he said. Angelina giggled and Ronda just looked mean.

Chucky turned his pockets inside out: nothing but an empty Skittles wrapper.

“Let's go, Coffin,” Rayburn said.

“No,” I said.

“What?” Rayburn said.

“What?” Chucky said.

“What?”
Angelina said.

“Coffin, don't be mental,” Ronda said.

Rayburn shoved me, but I stayed on my feet. “No,” I said.

“Good for you, Ben,” Chucky said.

“Shut up, Mold.” Rayburn cracked him across the mouth. I shoved Rayburn and then everybody went nuts. Rayburn was belting me and Angelina was kicking Chucky and Ronda was yelling for everybody to stop being mental and shoving everybody in sight. Half a minute later they were gone and my pockets were empty. The idiot took my headphones too.

I don't know how long it was before I could breathe anywhere near normal. I was on my back, looking up. The pigeons were looking down at me from where they hung out under the elevated train tracks and pooped on everybody. Chucky kept asking me if I was okay, I think. I had a hard time understanding him because his lip was stuck to his braces. We huddled behind the dumpster—always dumpsters for us—and got ourselves together. “Do I need stitches?” Chucky said.

“No, it's just a fat lip. Quit crying,” I said. “Quit it!”

• • •

I wiped the blood from my nose and turned my sweatshirt inside out to hide the rest of it. No way was I telling Mom. She'd be on the phone with Mrs. Pinto before the words were out of my mouth, and things would be ten times worse in school. I'd explain away the fat eye with the old gym excuse, “I got nailed in dodge ball.”

When I got home Flip wasn't at the door waiting for me. “Flip? C'mon bud, let's go see Halley.”

He crawled out of Mom's room real fast to my feet. I picked him up and boy was he trembling.

This old lady was in my mother's room, facedown on the floor. It took me a few seconds before I figured out who it was, even though she wasn't supposed to be home from work for another two hours. “Mom?”

She was cold the way you can't be when you're alive. It looked like she died in the middle of putting on her sneakers. That was the other reason we were moving to Florida—her health. Her heart acted a little fluttery in the New York winter, she said.

The weirdest thing? I was kind of mad at her. What the heck was I supposed to do now?

14

ITCHY SOCKS

The next four days passed in a blur. I didn't sleep, didn't have one asthma attack, didn't cry one tear. I was actually kind of mellow. It's not like any of this was a surprise. Here was the proof: Nothing perfect lasts forever.

I do remember one thing very clearly, breakfast the first day of the wake. I was making myself some Cap'n Crunch when Aunt Jeanie came in and said, “That's not a proper breakfast, Ben. That's not even food. Let me make you something that's—oh!” She clutched her chest, like she was about to follow in Mom's footsteps. “Your slacks!”

They were a little short. I must have grown another inch in the last year, since the last time I wore them to my interview for my coupon delivery job, which everybody laughed at me for—but hey, I got the job. “You can see your socks!”

“Only a little,” I said, lowering my pants some, except they were already below where my butt crack started.

“They're white!”

“So?” That's what Mom would have said. “So they see your socks, Ben? Is the world going to stop spinning? You look cool. In fact, I might wear my slacks like that too.” And she would have hiked them right up and laughed. Aunt Jeanie, on the other hand, turned into a freakazoid. “Let's go,” she said. “In the car. Now.” The whole way over to Macy's she kept saying, “This is a disaster. You poor dear. If Tess could see us now, she'd have my head on a platter.”

Really, she would have said,
Jeanie? Take a pill.

“We'll get you fixed right up, don't you worry at all.”

“I'm really not worried, though,” I said.

“You poor thing.” She called ahead for them to have a pair of slacks ready for us. She was like the queen when we walked in there. The sales assistant practically bowed to her. She waved him off and said, “Abso
lute
ly not,” when the guy suggested a pair of pants that were only half lame, sort of comfy-looking like jeans but with dress pants material, very shiny. “We're not going out to a
night
club, Angelo. We're going to my big sister's . . .” She got all teary.

“Jeanie, I'm so sorry,” Angelo said, or would have said if Aunt Jeanie didn't cut him off.

“This young man has a classic look. No no, here.” She grabbed a pair of the thoroughly lamest pants in all of Macy's, the kind you see in the catalog where the models are all old men who would have like these tufts of frizzly gray hair growing out of their ears if they didn't trim it.
“Perfect,” she said. “Hurry, Ben, go put them on while I get you some proper socks.” I swear she picked the itchiest pair in the store.

• • •

By Sunday night all the people I never met till now but who hugged me like they knew me forever were gone, and it was just Aunt Jeanie, Leo, me and Flip at the kitchen table. Aunt Jeanie kept at it with the face cream but she couldn't hide the fact she'd been crying pretty much the whole way through the past four days. I heard her at night, through the wall. She and Leo were camped out in Mom's room. “Don't let the dog sit in your lap like that, Ben,” Jeanie said. “Not in those nice slacks. The fur. You'll never get it out.”

“Babe, easy,” Leo said. “You want to end up like your sister?”

“Nice, Leo,” she said.

“Ah honey, I'm sorry,” he said.

“Nice.”

“You know what I mean.”

I put Flip on the floor between my feet. He sat like he'd learned at the training place, front paws up, like give me high ten, and that's when I realized I missed his last certification class. I had one chance to make it up, or else we had to start all over and pay the whole fee again too.

“So we have to talk about how things will go from here,” Aunt Jeanie said. “Clearly you'll come live with us. Tess left directions, and that's what she wanted. She put away some
money for you too, enough to get you through the first two years of college, maybe. She left me in charge of the money until you turn eighteen.”

I already knew this stuff. Mom told me and asked if I'd be okay with what she had in mind for me in case she died. I was like, “Sure.” What choice did I have?

“Look, champ, it's all going to be okay,” Leo said. “I'm even excited about this in a weird way. Not in a weird way. You know what I mean. I can be your coach in Little League or something.”

Leo was huge, but a lot of that was fat. I couldn't see him throwing a ball without having a stroke. He was probably sixty-something but looked older. “I don't want to be a problem,” I said.

“Stop talking like that,” Aunt Jeanie said. “We're happy to have you.”

“Happy to have you,” Leo said too, almost, but Aunt Jeanie cut him off.

“The first order of business is to take whatever you want from the apartment. I have to return the keys to the landlord by the end of the month, and I'm having somebody come in to sell the furniture and such. Whatever you don't want, goes.”

“Champ, there's not a lot of room at the house. All those books. You might want to consider thinning out the collection there. I'm gonna get you the e-book versions, much more efficient.”

“It's okay,” I said.

“No no, I want to do it,” Leo said. “I want to buy you a present, okay? I feel bad for you, being orphaned again and all that.”

“Leo, really?” Aunt Jeanie said.

“No, I'm just saying,” Leo said.

“I can sell them back to Strand,” I said. “The used bookstore. That's where a lot of them came from anyway.”

“There you go,” Leo said. “Put a few dollars in your pocket. Very enterprising, my kind of guy.”

I looked around the apartment. My eyes settled on the picture of Laura. “Can I bring her?”

“Well, now, that will be fine, Ben,” Aunt Jeanie said. She patted my shoulder from a distance, leaning away as she reached in. “Yes, I suspect Tess would want that.”

Tess. Not Mom. Two years I knew her. I got kind of mad all of a sudden. It hit me: That was the longest I ever knew anybody. I excused myself, and Flip and I went to my room, which was about to be somebody else's soon. I pulled down my Chewbacca poster, rolled it up and slipped it into a tube of gift-wrapping paper that said
CONGRATULATIONS!
again and again.

I checked my phone. I had like a dozen texts from Halley. They started Thursday afternoon with
Where are you?
and ended Saturday morning with
I have no idea what I did to make you blow me off, but whatever it is I'm sorry.

I just didn't know how to get back to her. What, I'm going to tell her my mom died when I barely know her? I don't know, I just didn't want her feeling bad for me or bad at all, even though I knew I was making her feel bad not getting back to her.

“Ben?”

I practically jumped off the bed when Aunt Jeanie came in. Mom always knocked, even if the door was open, which it wasn't.

“Your principal left messages for Tess. Three. Apparently you've been fighting?”

I knew freaking Chucky would cave.

15

NO SMOKING IN MRS. PINTO'S

The next day after school we had a big meeting in Mrs. Pinto's office: Rayburn and his mom, Angelina and Ronda and theirs, Chucky and Mrs. Mold, and me and Leo, because Aunt Jeanie had to work. Turns out it wasn't Chucky who ratted out Rayburn. It was Ronda.

Rayburn's mom put one of those electronic cigarette things to her lips.

“Uh, excuse me,
no,
” Mrs. Pinto said.

“It's not real smoke,” Rayburn's mom said. “It's
water.

“It's not happening anywhere near school property,” Mrs. Pinto said. “Okay, so Damon, you have something for Ben.”

He gave me the headphones. I didn't even want them now that he'd worn them.

“And?”

Rayburn rolled his eyes. His mom yelled, “Damon, you want to get locked up? Shake those boys' hands.
Mean
it too.”

He was shaking as he shook our hands. He was this close to killing somebody or crying. Angelina was huffing and Ronda rolled her eyes.

“Now
sign
that contract,” his mom said. It said he promised to meet with the guidance counselor twice a week. He signed.

“That's it?” Chucky said. “He's not going to jail? Not even a freaking
suspension?
He punched me in the mouth!”

“Charles,” Mrs. Mold said.

“I kind of have to agree with Chuck here,” Leo said. “Look, I'm not saying we gotta hook Dennis to the ball and chain—boys will be boys and all—but don't you think he's getting off a little light? I mean, going to the
guidance
counselor? Do we really think that's going to work?”

“And what do you want
Damon
to do instead?” Rayburn's mom said, like she was ready to stick her non-smoky cigarette into Leo's eye.

“Let Chuck smack him back?” Leo said. “Hey, relax, I was just
kidding.”

Everybody stared at Leo.

• • •

Mrs. Pinto sent us kids out while she talked to the parents and Leo. Rayburn and Angelina stormed off, glaring at me like everything was my fault.

“Thanks,” I said to Ronda.

“I only did it because your mom died,” she said. “You're still not allowed to say hi to me in the hall.” She gave me
a halfhearted shove and went off the other way. I plunked down on the bench outside Mrs. Pinto's office. Chucky plunked next to me. “Me too, Coffin,” he said. “Sorry about your mom.” He put his arm over my shoulder, but I shrugged it off. “I'm
fine,
Mold, okay? Seriously.”

“Okay,” he said. Chucky's fingertip traced what somebody scratched into the bench:
THE OTHER WAY TO SPELL FAILURE? Y-O-U.

• • •

When we got home, or what used to be home, Flip was already by the door with one of my dirty socks and my collector's edition Wolverine action figure. Leo almost tripped over Flip. “We might have to start making him wear a blinking light,” he said. “I've seen rats bigger than him. I guess we better get you packed up now, champ.”

“I'm ready.” I nodded to where I'd put a bag of clothes and a box of books with the picture of Laura and my Chewie poster.

“That's it?” Leo said.

I'd already packed the other books and brought the boxes down to the mailroom that morning.

Leo clapped my shoulder. “Jeanie won't be back from work till eight. Let's play a video game or something. I'll order a couple of pizzas.”

“I have to walk Flip,” I said.

“When you get back.”

“Actually, I have to meet a friend.”

“Gotcha,” he said.

“What time do you want me home for dinner?”

“I mean, whenever Tess used to say, I guess, right?”

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