When Friendship Followed Me Home (8 page)

BOOK: When Friendship Followed Me Home
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21

DOGGY DAYCARE

“Mrs. Mold, I want to pay you for this,” I said.

“Don't be ridiculous, Coffin,” she said. “Molly and Ginger will love the company—especially GinGin. Now, you and Charles get your fannies to school.” She took Flip into her arms.

“I'm coming back, Flip,” I said. “I promise.”

He licked my face and whimpered and then Mrs. Mold closed the door. I wasn't in that house for even a minute and already I was a little wheezy.

I fell asleep in second period and then again in seventh. My face slipped through my hands and smacked the desk. Rayburn wasn't in school that day either, though. I was pretty sure he wasn't coming back. I was used to it, seeing people disappear. Except you never got used to it. And then you had the ones who were always in your face.

I was at the water fountain when Angelina came up behind me and knocked me into the stream a little, so the water
went down my sweatshirt. She'd stuck gum in the hole too, to make the water shoot into your eye. Why do people think that stuff is funny? Ronda wasn't laughing, though. She rolled her eyes. Come to think of it, Ronda never laughed. Never smiled either.

After school I ditched Chucky with the chess club geeks and hurried toward the Mold house. I stopped to pick up some donuts for the girls. One of them opened the door with Flip in her arms. She said, “Ooh, chocolate,” grabbed the donuts, gave me Flip and shut the door. I headed off. The door swung open and Mrs. Mold called me back. “Coffin, check this out.” She showed me a bunch of videos on her phone. Here was Flip's day:

First, he got an ear treatment from Ginger.

Then he wrestled around with the three-year-old girl. “That's Charlene,” Mrs. Mold said. “No, wait, Charlotte.”

Then Flip cuddled into the golden retriever's armpit for a nap.

Next, Flip found the garbage bin, and he spent a good five minutes investigating a diaper. Mrs. Mold giggled the whole time she videoed him.

Later the dogs went out into the small weedy patch of cement that was the Mold yard and played chase, sort of. Flip ran up to old Molly and nipped her neck and took off. The retriever wagged her tail and limped a few steps after Flip, who tore around the yard in circles.

The next video was Flip at the window in a staring contest with a pigeon.

Then at noon one of the girls came home from kindergarten and dressed Flip in a doll nightgown and put a bunch of ribbons in his hair, and he didn't mind at all.

In the last video, Flip, Molly, and Ginger the cat are sprawled out on the couch. They're snoring, and Flip is on his back with all four legs out like an upside-down flying squirrel. He wakes up and yawns and shakes himself off and goes to the front door and sits. He cocks his head. Then three minutes later his crooked little tail starts wagging, and a minute after that I show up with the donuts.

• • •

“Flip!” Halley said. Pink beret today. The button was a strawberry. She scooped him up and we went into the therapy dog certification place.

My teacher gave Flip a chew stick, and then she said, “Not yours.” Flip cocked his head, but he didn't drop the stick. The teacher told me to try. The way I learned it from the library book was to say, “Leave it.” Flip dropped the stick. The teacher put down a cookie. Flip went for it. “Leave it,” I said, and he turned away from it and trotted to me and sat and gave me his paw.

Halley hooted and clapped and said, “Woohoo Flip!”

Next was to make sure Flip didn't freak when he heard a loud noise, like if a kid shrieked. My teacher had me read
to Flip. Behind his back she dropped an aluminum pan. Flip spun toward the clatter.

“Flip, I got it,” I said. He turned right back to me and sat and listened to me read. Next time the pan clattered, Flip's ears went up, but he didn't spin around. “I got it,” I said, and he lay down.

Next was the most fun. My teacher's daughter, seven years old, sat on the floor and read to Flip. He cocked his head every time the girl said, “Right Flip?”

I got him to do this little trick I taught him. I said, “Flip, who wants a belly scratch?”

Flip tucked himself into the girl's lap and rolled over into the upside-down flying squirrel pose. His tail swept the floor probably a hundred times a minute.

“This guy has the gift,” my teacher said.

“He's a traveler,” I said.

“She was talking about
you,
moron,” Halley said.

Flip licked the girl's cheeks, then her lips.

“I can get him to stop that,” I told my teacher, but truth told, I was having a hard time getting him to not make out with every person he ever met.

22

THE MAGICIAN WHO RIDES THE MOON

Halley and I got tacos and went to the plaza near the dog training place and watched this skateboarder girl in baggy army clothes do crazy awesome tricks. Halley fed Flip chicken bits. “I swear he's trying to tell me something,” she said. “Look, you can see yourself in his eyes. Flip, what is it, boy?”

“You should call her Halley,” I said. “The novella, the girl on the trapeze? Your name's the most awesome ever.”

“It really is, isn't it? Still, it'll be too confusing. We'll call her Helen, as in Helen of Troy. You know, from the
Iliad
?”

“I skimmed the SparkNotes.”

“She was the woman who was so beautiful that all the Greeks and Trojans went psycho killing each other over her. Perfect, yes? I'm not really asking you. Just nod. Good. Now, the electrician dude. Gimme a hero's name than begins with
B
.”

“Bruce,” I said. “As in Wayne? Hello, Batman?”

“I'm looking for classical Greco-Roman tragedy, and you give me comic books. You want to be Bruce, fine. Either way, he's you.”

“Wow.”

“What now?”

“I'm flattered I made it into your story.”

“Our
story,” she said. “I've decided we're writing this together.”

“No way. I suck at stories.”

“You read like a vampire who feeds on ink. I need your help on this. Even if I write a book a year, I have a lot of catching up to do if I'm going to pump out a hundred and eleven before I die. You and me, twice as fast, twice as fun. And if you suck I'll fire you, if that will make you feel better. Look, Flip's doing the UDFSP for me.” That's what she called the upside-down flying squirrel pose. “What, Flip? What are you trying to tell me, you freaky little banana?”

“The Helen and Bruce in the book,” I said. “Just friends, right?”

“Best
friends. Okay, so here's what I have so far. It's night. Luna Park is closed. Bruce the electrician kid is hanging out on the platform with all the lights that light up the trapeze ride. The magician's with him.”

“We're totally calling him Mercurious, right?” I said.

“You have to ask? Mercurious and Bruce are watching the trapeze girl.”

“Helen.”

“Yup. She's at the top of the pole, getting ready to swing. Bruce has her lit up with a spotlight that's as bright as the moon. He's worried. So's Mercurious. It looks like the gorgeous Helen is unclipping her safety cables.”

“Why?” I said.

“That's what Bruce the superhero electrician wants to know too. Helen calls out from her platform, ‘The problem with the safety wires is you can only swing so far before the wires rein you in. I need to see how high I can go. I'll never be great if I don't know what it's like to soar free.' She swings away from the platform, and up, up until she's as high as the stars. The world is so beautiful from up there, Ben. Everything is sparkly, the moon on the waves, the city itself, lit silver and gold. Suddenly Helen realizes she's flown higher than she ever could have imagined, and she gets scared. Her hands sweat and slip away from the bar.”

“Bruce runs as fast as he can off the end of the spotlight platform,” I said. “He catches Helen.”

“My hero! Except, duh, now they're
both
falling—until time stops.”

“Hold on a second,” I said. “Time can't stop. It's mathematically impossible.”

“Math shmath; in our story, time can stop, and it does,” Halley said. “Bruce and Helen stop falling. The ocean freezes. It's like a snapshot. Luna Park fades to gold.”

“Luna Park 1905?”

“Exactly. They're not
out
of time at all. They've slipped through one of the little cracks in it, the ones between each moment. The golden tower rises up to meet them. They're in the top of it now, and the sky warms up with silky blond light. The stars spin out of place, into the pattern of the shooting stars on Mercurious's cape. He's sitting on the moon. ‘Well now,' he says to Helen and Bruce, ‘look at the mess you've gotten yourselves into.'”

“And?” I said. “What happens next?”

“Only the greatest adventure ever.” Halley shrugged. “We'll figure it out as we go.”

“This is cool, you bouncing ideas off me like this,” I said.

“I totally have to talk it all into my phone before we forget.” And she did. When she was done, she put a chicken nugget on her lips and leaned down so she was eye to eye with Flip. Of course he ate the chicken right off her lips.

“Feeding him from your mouth like that isn't helping me to get him to stop kissing people.”

“Why would you ever want him to stop?” she said.

The skateboarder girl did a backflip and the crowd cheered. The rush hour trains rumbled under the street. The bus brakes sounded like elephant calls. “So, it's definitely noisy here,” I said.

She nodded. “I still don't want to talk about it.”

“Okay. I just want to make sure you're, like, okay.”

“Ben, I'm kicking this thing's butt. Seriously, I am. I feel it. I'm going to get myself to the point I have zero cancer in my body. Then all I have to do is stay clear for five years, and they're going to tell me they're almost positive it's never coming back. Now hold my freezing cold hand, no more talking.”

We held hands and watched this boat-like cloud fly past the sun.

“Are you thinking what I'm thinking?” she said.

“You want to put a cloud ship into the story,” I said.

“Mind reader.”

“How about a spaceship?”

“I
knew
you were going to turn this into a sci-fi,” she said. “Okay, spaceship, but then I get to put in another magician.”

“We'll call her the Contessa of Starlight,” I said. “Tess for short.”

“Yes, and her wand is made of roentgenium.”

“Except maybe it's more like a magic staff,” I said. “Yeah, she has the littlest limp, a pinch of arthritis maybe, but you'll never catch her complaining about it—or anything else either. That's why everybody loves her. She takes the tough stuff that comes her way, and instead of letting it push her down, she picks herself up. She picks up everybody around her and carries them up the mountain.”

“She's sounds amazing, Ben Coffin. She sounds awesome. She's my kind of hero, the perfect character for our story. I knew there was a reason I hired you.”

23

LEO MEANS LION

“Hi,” I said.

Aunt Jeanie was on the phone. Leo was on the couch. He didn't say hi. He pouted and went into his office. Aunt Jeanie hung up the phone.

“Did I do something wrong?” I said.

“He was . . .
sad
that you didn't trust him with the dog.”

“It's not that,” I said.

Leo leaned out of his office. “It's
exactly
that,” he said. “I may look stupider than I am, champ, but I'm not, okay? When did they start letting people bring dogs into school anyway?”

I told them about the Mold situation. “It's just easier for everybody,” I said. “I exercise him while I deliver my coupons, and then there's another dog and all these kids for him to play with.”

“Easier,
” Leo said. “Right,
that's
the reason, Jeanie. It's
easier.
” He huffed back into his office and closed the door.

Aunt Jeanie patted the barstool next to hers and I sat. She took out one of those lint roller things and rolled it over my shirt to get the dog hair off. “I want to tell you a secret,” she said. “You have to keep this just between you and me. The word
Leo
means lion. He has a lion's heart. Big. Sensitive, you know? He wounds easily. Ben, I want you to be as comfortable as you can be here. We all need to work on our trust, right?”

“I do trust you.”

“I'm not so sure you do. It's horrifying, losing Tess so suddenly. Life is just awful sometimes, even most times. We have to be realistic about that and avoid the rough patches as best we can, you know? Even if you don't need Leo, pretend you do a little, okay?”

“Actually, I do need him,” I said.

• • •

I knocked on Leo's office door. It opened fast. He nodded at me, like what did I want now?

“I need a sponsor for my therapy dog certification test,” I said.

He frowned, then he shrugged. “Okay.” He put out his huge hand. I shook it. “You want to play a video game?” he said. It was this racecar thing on his computer, totally from a million years ago. He was the type who
really
liked to win. Flip hunkered under my arm, on the opposite side of Leo. His shirt said:
KEEP CALM, CADDY ON.
Wha?
He caught me looking at it. “Hilarious, right?” he said. “Here, I'll get you one.”

“That's okay.”

“It's no problem, really. I have boxes full of them.”

“Cool,” I said.

“Champ, speaking of boxes, maybe you want to go through those books and figure out which ones you want to sell. I don't mind, but Jeanie's a little nutty about stuff lying around the basement. She's kind of a control freak.
Neat
freak, I mean. Don't tell her I called her a control freak, whatever you do.”

“Never.”

“Us bonding like this, two guys keeping secrets? It's fun, right?”

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