When Friendship Followed Me Home (9 page)

BOOK: When Friendship Followed Me Home
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24

THE TEST

Flip and I trained all that night and then the next day after school at the park. Halley had to do some last-minute paperwork stuff with her mom to get the final okay from the Read to Rufus people that we could set up the program at the library, but she was definitely going to be with Flip and me for the test the next day, which was Rosh Hashanah, so no school. The test was at ten thirty, the last appointment available until November. I couldn't wait that long. The Read to Rufus people said the kids were psyched and ready to go, as soon as Flip passed the test.

I woke early that morning of Rosh Hashanah, of the test. I probably didn't sleep the night before either. I wore the shirt Leo gave me to make him happy. I brushed Flip so he'd look sharp for the test. Aunt Jeanie got her lint roller out and picked up the like two hairs that fell on the carpet before she went to work. I took Flip for a good long walk and fed him some cheddar bits. It was nine forty-five, and there was no sign of Leo.

I went to the bedroom door and knocked, and then I knocked louder. Nothing. I went in. Flip hung back in the hallway. “Thanks pal,” I said.

Leo looked dead, except dead people don't snore so loud you feel like Darth Maul's jabbing your eardrums with a serraknife. I shook his foot, hard. “Leo? Leo!”

I sat on the edge of the bed. I guess I wasn't surprised. Expecting to be let down didn't make it hurt any less. Just when you think things are maybe going to be okay, why does everything have to get messed up?

I called Halley to tell her the bad news. She was pretty mad. She wanted me to take a pair of cymbals and smash them together right by Leo's ear, except who ever has any cymbals lying around?
“Okay, look, we're not going to be defeated,”
she said.
“Just get on the train and get over there. I have an idea.”

• • •

Halley was waiting for us out front. So was Mercurious. He must have come from teaching a magic class, because he was still in his sparkly purple sweat suit. He wore a glittery Brooklyn Cyclones baseball cap. Halley wore no cap. Instead she wore a bright pink wig, a short one, with the hair spiked up. She looked totally freaking awesome. “Um, that shirt,” she said.

“I know,” I said.

“‘Caddy on'?”

“I have no idea either.”

“Never mind. Let's do this.”

We went in. “Huddle up,” Halley said. The three humans held hands, and Flip stuck his paw in there too. “Coffin? You rock. Flip? You rule. Take no prisoners. I have no idea what that means. Whatever. Dad, any words for the boys?”

He mussed my hair. “Just remember this one thing,” he said.

“Okay?”

“You're magic.”

The testing guy called out, “Ben Coffin?” His name tag said Mr. Thompkins. I said, “Thanks Mr. Thompkins,” and stuck out my hand to shake his.

“For what?” he said, and he didn't shake my hand. “The examination shall commence in five seconds, four, three, two, one.”

We had to pass nine things. Here's what they were.

  1. GREET THE TESTER. Flip gave the guy his paw. Check.
  2. STAY. I told him to, and then I walked away. He looked sort of totally suicidal and slumped to the floor, but he stayed. Bingo.
  3. COME. Like he wouldn't?
  4. IGNORE THE STRANGER. Some really mad-looking guy came in yelling about how somebody stole his bicycle. Flip checked him out until I said, “Flip, I got it.” Flip kept his eyes on me. Halley mouthed “Nice!” and Mr.
    Lorentz clapped until Thompkins said, “No encouragement allowed.
    Thank
    you.” He did a double take on Mr. Lorentz's sparkly purple clothes.
  5. VISIT A SICK PERSON. Thompkins sat in a wheelchair. “Go say hi, Flip.” He went to the chair and leaned into the tester's leg.
  6. STARTLE. Thompkins tried the old drop-the-aluminum pan trick. Flip yawned.
  7. LEAVE IT. Puh-lease.
  8. MEETING ANOTHER DOG. A German shepherd came into the room. Flip trotted up to her, sniffed her butt and then rolled over at her feet into the upside-down flying squirrel pose.
  9. APPROPRIATE AFFECTION. Here it was, the one place we could fail. Thompkins sat on the floor and called Flip over. Flip sat at Thompkins's feet. “Flip, cuddle,” I said. He nestled into the grump's lap. Just when I thought we were home free, Flip reached up to Thompkins's face and stuck his tongue in the old man's mouth. Thompkins made a
    yuck
    face. Halley and Mr. Lorentz looked like they were watching a ship sink.

Thompkins went to his desk and frowned while he wrote all over his stupid test sheet. He stamped it really hard and called me over. “I suppose the gentleman in the lavender exercise apparel is your sponsor?” he said.

“Yup.”

He waved over Mercurious. “Sign here, please.” Then he passed the paper to me and told me to sign it. This is what it looked like.

THIS LICENSE CONFERS TO HANDLER THE LEGAL RIGHT TO BRING THE THERAPY ANIMAL NAMED HERE INTO HOSPITALS, SCHOOLS AND ANY SUCH ESTABLISHMENTS WHERE THE ANIMAL'S GIFTS ARE NEEDED OR DESIRED.

HANDLER: BEN COFFIN

SPONSOR: MICHAEL LORENTZ

THERAPY ANIMAL: FLIP COFFIN

There was another page, a SPECIAL COMMENDATION. Thompkins wrote,
Mr. Coffin exhibits true grace with Flip. Rarely have I seen such genuine trust between man and dog. I expect this exceptional dog and his equally exceptional handler will go on to mend many hearts. The world is about to become a lovelier place.

Halley put up her fist for a pound. I bumped her knuckles. “You
so
slay,” she said. When I bumped Mercurious's knuckles, sparks shot up from his fist, but not like the Santa magician's sparks, the ones that came out of the magic box. Those were blood-colored, and Halley's dad's were pink and blue and softer, quieter, like a whisper instead of a scream.
Halley scooped up Flip and we went outside and then the craziest thing happened.

A pigeon's shadow raced up the side of a building and met the pigeon on the ledge, and
that's
when I cried, and so hard I thought my eyes might drip out of my head. I know, it was just some totally random thing that set me off, but it was really beautiful. Like even when the bird was darting about here and there so fast, all up in the air, her shadow was always with her, even though she couldn't see it. But when she landed, there it was, touching her again. This would have been the best day of my life if my mom was here to see it. I didn't say that to Halley and Mercurious, though, and I didn't need to. They hugged me and patted my back and didn't say “It's okay,” and I really appreciated that.

25

THE LAUNCHPAD

The Lorentzes invited me and Flip over for Rosh Hashanah. “You'll eat so much you'll totally be puking all over yourself,” Halley said.

“Sounds great,” I said. I called Aunt Jeanie and she said no problem, because she was working late anyway. I didn't tell her Leo overslept, and I guess he didn't either, because she didn't say anything about it. I thought she forgot about the test, until right after I said bye, she said,
“Wait, how'd the dog do?”

“He passed.”

“Oh, that's wonderful, Ben. I was worried.”

“Why?”

“Well, I just was. You know.”
I really didn't know.
“I'm sure Tess is proud of you, watching us from above. Right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Very proud. Yes, you go and enjoy yourself now. Be polite and thankful.”

“I will.”

“Good. Good. Okay, good-bye.”

• • •

The Lorentzes' apartment was nice, tons of books. The paintings were Halley's from when she was in pre-K until now. My favorite was this one of the planet Mercury. Her dad was standing on it. His arms pointed to the sky, and he waved a baton like he was conducting the stars.

Halley's room was wall-to-wall novels. She had every freaking edition of
Jane Eyre
ever printed, like one wasn't more than enough. Flip jumped onto her bed, and she jumped onto it after him while I checked out her books. “I read
Iron Man,
like you told me to,” she said. “How is it that I, a sophisticated young woman with near paranormal intelligence, am totally crushing on a cheesy comic book character? You're having a spectacularly negative effect on my reading life.”

“You're welcome,” I said. “Let's keep working on the novella. What's the title, by the way?”

“I've been thinking really hard about this. Don't freak out. I want to call it
The Magic Box
.”

“Hm,” I said.

“Ben, we're going to take the most negative thing in your life and turn it into the treasure you meant it to be.”

“How?”

“Okay, it's like this: Bruce and Helen have slipped through
a crack in time, and now they're back in the old Luna Park, right? The one from 1905.”


Dreamland at Night.

“Yupper. Mercurious tells Bruce and Helen there's only one way to survive their fall. They have to get to the exact moment before Helen decided to swing without the safety wires, and instead, she and Bruce will go to McDonald's and stuff themselves with Oreo cookie McFlurries and talk about their favorite books.”

“Like, they get a do-over?” I said.

“Exactly.”

“So how do they get from 1905 back to the minute before Helen jumped from the platform?”

“It turns out that the golden tower of light from 1905 is actually a spaceship.”

“Love it,” I said.

“Knew you would!”

“The spaceship is going to take Bruce and Helen to the Contessa of Starlight.”

“Go on?”

“Yeah, see, she's the only one who knows how to get Helen and Bruce back to the right place in time, to where they can skip the whole trapeze thing and go for McFlurries instead. Problem is, she's really far away, the Contessa, on a different planet, doing the speech therapy thing.”

“Of course. Which planet?” Halley said.

“It's not even in our solar system,” I said. “It's hidden in a whole other star cluster. The secret to its location is in the library, of course. They'll need to head to the Branch for Interstellar Travel, which is the main attraction on Libris, a newly discovered moon of Neptune.”

“I love Neptune. It's the most awesome shade of blue.”

“Which is totally why I picked it,” I said. “There they'll seek the guidance of—”

“Penny, Keeper of the Star Maps.”

“Your mom's name is Penny? The women in your family have seriously good names.”

“I know.”

“Penny the librarian. Cool.”

“Technically they're called media specialists.”

“Technically I need applesauce if we don't want the latkes to taste like I burned them a little,” Interstellar Media Specialist Penny Lorentz called to us from the kitchen. We went out and got the sauce and hurried back for the feast.

26

HALLEY'S RAP

The latkes were the size of waffles. We all snuck Flip pieces of brisket, which made no sense since everybody knew everybody else was sneaking. After dessert we played Scrabble for Cheez-Its and blue M&M'S. Mr. Lorentz started whistling a song from the musical
Man of La Mancha
, Halley told me. It was Mercurious's favorite apparently, and then Mrs. Lorentz started singing the words, and before you knew it we all were singing about this old man who never gives up, who keeps on keeping on no matter how bad things get, and then Halley said, “I feel a song coming on, a Halley Lorentz original if you please, oh yes I do.”

“Then sing it,” Mercurious said.

“Poppers, bass beat please,” she said. He laid it down, like really getting into it with some serious head bopping, and then she said, “Okay that's actually totally adorably lame, but it will suffice.” Then she rapped:

Got me a bestie, his name's Ben.

He can't see it, but he kills with the pen.

Poet don't know it, you've heard that before,

My boy's got stories, paste you to the floor.

He saved a dog, see, a friend to the end.

He saves me daily, Halley Lorentz.

How you heal me, you and mighty mutt Flip?

All's I can say is you make me feel hip.

Bad comes to worse, and you don't give in.

You don't mope or lose hope, you honor your kin.

You hustle those coupons come rain or shine.

You keep on keeping on in the toughest of times.

Rosh Hashanah means New Year, new wonder—you'll see.

Mom and Mercurious, Flip, you and me.

She raised her glass of sparkling cider. “Shanah Tovah, everybody. Happy New Year. I'm so grateful that we're all here together.”

Her mom patted my back and said quietly, “Yes, we're
all
here. We're
here.
” She touched her fingertip to my heart. Then she messed up my hair the way Mom used to and kissed my forehead and hugged me and didn't let go.

Mercurious pointed to the window. A gold laser beam pulsed from his finger and hit the glass, and a silent explosion of fireworks lit up the sky over Brighton Beach and in the distance Luna Park.
Dreamland at Night.
I knew it was only video projection, but it was shiny and beautiful and I wanted it to be real. The rides were spinning and the lights whirled.

27

THE RINGSIDE SEAT

They drove me home in Mr. Lorentz's sparkly purple SUV, and the whole way there we sang
Man of La Mancha
, and then that turned into pop songs, then somehow Christmas carols—in September—and then Halley's song. Flip tried to sing along too. “He's halfway between howling and that warbling sound Gizmo makes in
Gremlins
,” Halley said. The more we laughed at him, the more he did it.

The Mercurious-mobile pulled up to the house, and I pretended I wasn't the third saddest I'd ever been, having to get out of that car. The house lights were off, and the Lorentz family waited for me to get inside before they drove away. I clicked on the light and Flip whimpered. Leo was sitting on the couch—just sitting there, no TV, no iPad or music. I said hi and he shook his head. His eyes were glassy. “Jeanie's pretty mad.”

“Why? What'd I do?” I said.

“At
me.
Why didn't you wake me up?”

“I tried, I swear.”

“Then you didn't try hard enough,” he said. He was talking funny, quiet, slow-motion. “I thought I hit snooze, but I hit off instead.”

“It worked out anyway.”

“For
you
it worked out,” he said. “I look like the bad guy now. To her anyhow. Speak of the devil.”

Aunt Jeanie came in with red wet eyes. “Hi,” she said. She had a pretty wooden box under her arm, a little bigger than the one that triggered Kayla's asthma attack.

“What's in the box?” Leo said.

She did a double take on him. “How could you, Leo?” she said. “I can smell it from here. I'm
not
going through this again.”

“For cripe's sake Jeanie, relax, it was one freaking beer.”

“It
wasn't
one.”

“You have to embarrass me in front of the kid?”

“You embarrass yourself.”

“A guy can't even have a couple of drinks in his own house once every five years?” He got up and went to his office and shut the door and turned up the TV loud enough so we could hear it through the wall. Two wrestlers yelled about how they were going to mangle each other once they got into the ring. Aunt Jeanie sat on the couch and tried not to cry. “I'm sorry you had to see that.”

“It's okay,” I said.

“It's not,” she said. “It's not.”

I sat next to her. Flip shivered at my feet. I wanted to pick him up, but Aunt Jeanie had a rule of no dogs on the couch. She put the box on the coffee table. “Tess,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “That's like . . .”

“Like what?”

“I don't know.”

“I don't either,” she said. “I really don't.” She breathed in slowly and then breathed out fast and choppy and cried. I put my hand on her shoulder. “Thank you,” she said. She held my hand for a second, squeezed it, and then put it on my lap and patted it and took her hand away. “It's late,” she said. “You don't want to fall asleep in school tomorrow.”

We were off for Rosh Hashanah again but I said, “Definitely not. Good night.” I couldn't get away from those ashes fast enough. I forced myself not to run to my room. Flip stuck so close to my feet I was tripping over him.

“Ben?” she said. “I'm glad it went well today. With the dog, I mean.”

“Thank you.” I closed the door and then my eyes and I counted. I figured maybe I'd get to ten before it started, but it kicked in at six. I couldn't hear exactly what Leo and Aunt Jeanie were screaming at each other, but it was louder than the wrestlers.

Less than four years. That's how long we had to last before I'd be allowed to go live on my own, legally. I was a year ahead in school, and if I kept working really hard I could make up another one and graduate at sixteen. Flip and I would get the heck out of the city and tag along with Halley to the same college, and she and I would take the same English classes and become writing partners—except they probably didn't let you bring dogs into the dorm rooms.

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