Phallacy? No, It’s Totally True

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Exciting news!

Phallacy: a Little Shop of Porn Mystery is out and you can find it here.

I hope everyone has a chance to pick it up and enjoy it. I think it makes for a funny and saucy addition to the library of my works.

Sabine is a savvy business woman who has managed to make her porn shop a success by making it a boutique that promotes sex for couples. AJ and Rocko are her grandsons, working at the store until they figure out what to do with their lives, but generally being directionless. This all changes the day they come into work to find the store has been robbed. With no proof of a robbery, and the store’s reputation hanging in the balance, the brothers rise to action. AJ and Rocko bumble their way from seedy rival porn store to the dark dungeons of an S&M club in search of help. Rocko even works up the courage to call his ex-girlfriend, a cop on the vice squad, for help. Will they find the missing merchandise, or will each lead they chase turn out to be false? Find out in: Phallacy, the first Little Shop of Porn mystery.

Until next time: Be yourself, be well. Write yourself, write well.

The One With All the Updates

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Hey All!

Just thought I’d drop a line on what’s happening with everything.

So I’m currently working on three projects. The first is A Dinner for Crows, the story I was posting for National Novel Writing Month. Yes, I’m still working on it!! Things got a bit hectic here, and writing became a back burner thing for a couple (few) weeks, but things have been ironed out, and I’m back in the swing of things. I’m hoping to be done with Crows by the end of June. When it’s done I’ll be putting it up on the website for everyone’s enjoyment. 😀

The second project is actually an older project I recently found while rummaging around my computer. It’s called Phallacy: A Little Shop of Porn Mystery. I originally wrote the story to be a graphic novel. I met a very talented artist when I was going to conventions named AJ Sabino–you can find a link to his artist page on the sidebar–and his brother Rocko. I talked a lot to the two of them at my first convention. I just couldn’t get over their names; saying they sounded like an adult version of the Hardy Boys. With that statement, my mind went off on its own and came back with this story. I talked to AJ about him illustrating it, but life happens (on both our ends), and I ended up forgetting all about it. Well, I recently found it. Talked to AJ, asking if he minded if I just published it on my own as a story, and he said he’s cool with it. So, Phallacy should show up (I’m hoping) by the end of May or beginning of June. It’ll be up on Amazon, and due to the mature themes, it’ll probably be a bit more than my other novellas up there (to discourage all the youngsters reading my stuff). True to its name, it is a mystery story, but I was watching a lot of Venture Bros. at the time so all the humor is influenced by that.

The third thing I’m working on is a novel in short stories. Inspired by the world of Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant, I’ve been writing about a sorcerer by the name of Troublesome Knock. Troublesome Knock is the character’s taken name. This follows the rules of magic that state everyone has three names: 1) your True Name (which no one knows, not even you); 2) your Given Name (the name your parents give you when you’re born), if people know your Given Name they can control you, and you have no defense against their magic; 3) your Taken Name (by taking a name, you seal your Given Name, thus cancelling the power people have over you, unless they learn your True Name). So, the novel, which is four novellas following the same overall arc, follows Troublesome Knock who’s quit the magical world, but slowly gets pulled back into it. I’m having a lot of fun writing it. One of the things I’ve done, is have everyone’s magic manifest differently, so while each person can do the same spell the magic looks different. Troublesome’s magic manifests as shadows. Other manifestations in the stories include wind, light, smoke, and butterflies. I’m in the middle of editing the third story. I have extensive notes on the fourth. And when it’s all finished, I’m going to try throwing it in the ring of publishing. If someone picks it up, then who knows when it’ll see the light of day. If enough people pass on it (or I get frustrated with all the rejection), of course I’ll put it up on Amazon. In that case, it’d be next summer or fall for its release.

For those of you who are fans of Amsterdam and the Murder Twins, Reiner Rotterdam, and my Zodiac story, I haven’t forgotten about them. I’m hoping once I get the current projects in the finishing stages I can turn my attention back to those stories.

So that’s where I’m at right now. The writing is keeping me busy. Just the way I like it.

Until next time: Be yourself, be well. Write yourself, write well.

Determination Maturation

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Hey. There’s been a lot going on here. A lot of stress permeating the air. It’s put a damper on the writing.

And that’s what I’m here to talk about with you. Losing your determination, your will, to write.

This is not the same as writers’ block, though it can certainly contribute to it. It’s not the same as writers’ block because it can come over you even though you’ve been writing fine, and even have some great ideas coming to you.

It’s not about bad writing, or no writing, or over writing. In fact, I’d say, it’s causes are mostly external. Basically, it’s just life, LIFE, coming at you too much, or too fast. As life—LIFE—does this, you sit down to write. There’s nothing wrong with your writing, but in the back of your mind everything that’s going on keeps coming at you. [Yes, I know that other writers will tell you to take all that emotion and put it into your writing. And yes, I know that we—oh, I do it too—write to retreat from the world for a while, or help us process what’s going on.] I’m not saying this isn’t good advice, or that it doesn’t work. What I’m talking about is when, for whatever reason, that’s just not working. Then you have that thought. You probably know the one. The thought: ‘What am I doing?’ Then you start thinking of all the things you could be doing instead of writing. All THE THINGS that could be fixing your problems, or be better for you, instead of making up stories. This thinking leads to an apathy towards your writing. You don’t see the point of doing it.

As a writer, you’re part of a very subjective craft. There’s a lot of rejection involved in doing what we do, both professionally and personally. It can be easy at the beginning to lose your determination, but even long time writers can fall prey to this.

John Green wrote The Fault in Our Stars. It was an international bestseller, and they turned it into a movie. And then he stopped writing for a while. Which some of your, I’m sure, are confused about. Well, here’s the thing, everyone seemed to love The Fault in Our Stars. It was hugely successful. How do you follow that up? What can you do that tops that? Some people were calling it a masterpiece. There’s the expectation that anything he writes from now on is going to be as good, if not better. How can he care about his next story when he’s made his masterpiece? How can he care about his next story as much as he did that one? And if he doesn’t care as much about his next story as much as he did for that is it going to be nearly as good? Is it worth writing if he doesn’t care that much?

There are many pitfalls being a writer, putting yourself out there, including success. 😊

Elizabeth Gilbert tells a story in her book Big Magic about meeting a man at a book signing. This man had been writing for fifteen (twenty?) years, but hadn’t gotten published. He asked her what to do. She told him to try doing something else, but if he didn’t feel as fulfilled as he did when he wrote, then he’s a writer and he must deal with it. (It’s a good book. I recommend it.) This man had been writing for twenty (fifteen?) years, and had finally lost his determination. No writers’ block for him, but he couldn’t see the point anymore.

I think loss of determination is even more insidious than writers’ block. You’ve probably seen my post about writers’ block, and what to do about it. But with loss of determination, the setting in of apathy, you lose connection with the thing that drives you. It’s hard to pick that back up.

Now, there are two things you can do here. (There might be more, but I don’t see them, so we’re going to stick with two.) The first thing is, take a break while. Maybe a week, maybe two, possibly a month. Give yourself time to untangle yourself. Let the urge to write build up again. Maybe during this time some of things causing stress in your life will be resolved, thus taking that off your mind.

This can work, but the problem with this method can be getting back into the writing routine. Not always, but it could happen.

Of course, sometimes the loss of determination can be born of frustration. The frustration of not being published, of continuous rejections, of seemingly not getting anywhere with your writing. (Ironically, the only way to solve any of those things is to keep writing.) So, method one won’t really help.

In this situation, method two is the way to go. Method two is, what I like to call, finding the fun in writing again. It’s exactly like it sounds, find the fun. Go back to the first things you read that made you want to write and re-read them. It could mean finding something you’d never read (fluff reading) and reading that. It could mean writing something you’d never write, a short love story if your thing is horror. If you’ve been writing a novel, try writing a play (or taking one of your short stories into a play). Sit in a coffee shop and try to come up with stories for the people you see come in for coffee. I’m a big roleplaying nerd, so I create characters (in various gaming systems) and write backstories for them. Maybe write a blog post *cough, cough*. (Excuse me.) Do anything that’s truly only for you, so you don’t have to worry about it. It’s very freeing. It can help you re-connect with your writing, which is what you need to do when this happens.

Recently, I was talking to someone about getting my MFA in Fiction. The person looked at me with disdain and confusion and said: “What can you do with that?” At the time, I didn’t really say anything, the conversation including some bad news for me, but on retrospect I wish I’d said: “You dream.”

It’s all well and good to pay the bills, to eat, but that’s just the body. What soothes the mind? What makes you get up in the morning? As writers, we are the keepers of dreams. We have the privilege to share our dreams with the world. And that’s worth staying connected to.

Until next time: Be yourself, be well. Dream yourself, dream well.

Exposing Yourself, The Hard Way

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Let’s talk about the ultimate goal of writing.

Is that a foreboding enough opening for you? Are you scared? Because fear is what I want to talk to you about today.

The ultimate goal of writing is: sharing your work with people. That’s what getting published is, putting your work out there for people to read, to experience, to absorb, and to form an opinion about.

It’s that last part that a lot of people find terrifying. The fact that people will have their own opinions about what you wrote.

How dare they!

I know, right. I don’t know about your stories, but my stuff is great.

They should just enjoy the story I wrote and keep their mouths shut!

You see, we see eye to eye on this.

Okay, let’s be serious now. First, if they kept their mouths shut then they couldn’t tell if they liked it either. Secondly, the whole editing process—you know, the part I go on and on about as an integral part of the writing process—is based on people reading your work and talking to you about it. Lastly, even after the editing is all done, and you’ve made the story you want and love, there are still going to be people that comment and critique it, because that’s the way the world works.

Some people are afraid to write, or at least put their writing out there, because of this criticism. It’s a perfectly reasonable reaction. You’ve put so much time, effort, so much of yourself into this piece of literature. It’s your baby. You don’t want people to tear it down.

If you want to be a writer, one that shares their work with the world (gets published) then you just have suck it up and grow a thicker skin.

I really wish there was a secret for not letting things get to you, but there just isn’t. There are going to be people who read your stuff and just don’t like it. They won’t get certain things, or they won’t like the pacing, or how you describe something (combat for instance). They’ll feel the need to *ahem* blog about it, or write a review on your author page, or tweet about it. And you have to know their opinion is out there. There’s just no secret formula or method for dealing with it.

Let me share. There’s a review forAmsterdam and the Murder Twins in: The Oysters on Amazon.com (I’m not sure if it’s still there) that’s less than flattering. Overall the reviewer liked the story, but was confused about the pacing and didn’t know why there was a dirty cop in the story. They gave it a three -starred review, but the way they put it about the pacing and the dirty cop bugged me for a long time. To be honest, I’m not even sure why. It just did, but I got over it with time. I haven’t even thought about it until I went to write this. Another example (and this one is really personal), involves Superiority Complex. A friend of mine bought a copy of it, an actual physical copy, which was cool, they didn’t have too, and I saw it on their shelf. I took it down, amazed to see it there. I asked if they liked it, and they said they did; they liked the characters and the setting. So, I flipped through it, because that’s what I do with books (I like how the pages sound) and see all these pen marks all over the pages. Apparently, as they were reading they edited out spelling mistakes and some grammar things I missed (and it seemed there was a lot of them). At the time, I was very upset and embarrassed. I was upset because I don’t write in books, and here was a copy of mine scribbled in. I was embarrassed because this is out there online and in hard copy. It was a shock to me that my friend had done this. Why couldn’t they just read the book and liked it? Why had they taken a shot at me? Of course, they didn’t, but that’s how I felt at the time.

(I know they read the blog, so excuse me for a moment. I’m fine now. I actually find it funny.)

There’s a separate point to be made here about self-publishing not having the same support structure as mainstream publishing, but I’ll leave it for now.

I’m going to keep going, and these next ones are pretty cool. Keep reading.

I used to go to conventions before life got in the way, and money, and at one convention a group of guys came over to the table. These were teen guys. I wasn’t expecting them to buy anything, just because I was selling novels at a comic convention. But they came over, and I like talking to people, so I talked to them. As they were looking over my books, they asked if I was the same Samuel Eden that wrote Snowfall. I said I was and asked them if they’d read it. They said their friend read it and liked it so much they made them read it. Then they asked for my autograph. It was the first time that I’d ever met fans. It was really fun finding out I had some. The last example (yes, we’re getting to the end), also comes from a convention. I was at a local con, and this girl (also in her teens) came up to my table, her mother and brother in tow. She asked me if I was the author of the books I was selling, and I, of course, said yes. She proceeded to talk to me for half an hour (?), an hour (?), a while. We talked about writing, we talked about her writing, and the need to write, places to get published (there are a lot if you’re a teen—check the sidebar for one such place), and how to find more. Before she left, she gave me a hug. I guess I must have helped her. I’m glad I did. Now, she didn’t know me before she came to my table, but me putting myself out there as a writer made it possible for me to meet her. So it counts!

Here’s the point of today’s blog. When you put yourself out there, yes, you’re going to have some bad experiences (relatively speaking), but if you don’t put yourself out there then you don’t get the good experiences either. I vote for putting yourself out there. I hope you do too.

Until next time: Be you, be well. Write you, write well.

Editing is 20/20

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Hey, all! So, today I want to talk about focus. Focus in your writing, of a scene or of a chapter.

For example, say your main character is a hard worker. In the first chapter or two you show a couple, three or four even, scenes where they work hard. Now, chapter three is here, we’ll say chapter three is twenty pages, ten pages are filled with the character working hard, and ten pages are filled with an interaction with a family member. This interaction is supposed to be meaningful, a bonding point.

Based on this info, what should the focus on chapter three be?

That’s a bit of a trick question. Sorry.

See the way chapter three is set up now equal focus is given to the scenes of the character working hard as the family interaction.

Roughly speaking, equal space, equal attention/importance.

Let’s add to the example. Let’s say when asked about the story, you say it’s about this person’s life, their family bonds and becoming an adult.

Okay. Got it?

So, what should the focus of chapter three be?

If you said on the family interaction and bonding, you’d be correct.

If you want the focus of the story to be on this character’s life, family, and maturation, then that should the focus. Giving equal space to scenes of mundane labor that the character does, then leaves behind with no problem, only takes focus (the readers’) and time (yours) from the family interaction.

This isn’t to say the character being a hard worker isn’t important, but it becomes characterization. Once you’ve shown us they’re a hard worker then it can be dropped to the background. Unless their work begins to slip later on, or something interesting happens with/during their work, then, please, show the readers that.

Another example for keeping focus (from my writing group), was a story that’s a quilt of several people’s lives. Each character got their own section. So, we got to (let’s say) “Claire’s” section. The author introduced “Claire”, then promptly introduced “Roger”, who we learned a lot about. Then the author introduced “Stan”, who we got a lot of information about. Then we met “Stephanie”, who was this nice girl with mean ambition. Then “Claire” came back, and the section ended.

When I read this section of the pages the author gave the group, I found it difficult to see why “Claire” was there. We got very little of her in her own section. I think what the author was going for was a sense of “Claire” feeling out of control in her life, feeling like a bit player. This can work, the author had a solid idea for it, but the execution of the section made “Claire” a bit player. It took the readers’ focus away from “Claire”. The other characters can come into “Claire’s” life/section and be larger than her, but the readers must always have a firm gaze on “Claire”; what she’s feeling, what she’s thinking, while these larger characters are horning in on her. However, at least in the draft I read, “Claire” seemed to fade to the background completely when these characters were on the page. Then when it came back fully to her, we didn’t get that much reflection from her, almost none, before the section was over.

My point: you have to keep the focus where you want the focus.

This may sound simple, but everyone, EVERYONE, struggles with this. It demands an awareness of your writing. An awareness that takes time to build up, to hone, and to keep. The thing that makes this awareness a slippery thing to hold on to, is that you’re you, writing your story. You have all the information in your head, something that’s obvious to you about the story/in the scene might not be obvious to someone else who’s reading the story.

An interesting exercise to try, is finding an older story of yours. Just read the title, maybe the first page, to remind yourself what the story was about. Then write down the point to the story, the focus, what you wanted to accomplish with the story. Now go put that off to the side, and go read the story. Does your story conform to what you wrote down? Where was it lacking? Were there any bits of information that weren’t in the story that needed to be there/or you thought were there?

There have been several stories of mine, where people have read them and been confused by something; and I’m like: “How can they be confused? It’s obvious why this is important!” Only to re-read the story and realize I never actually explain the important thing. It was all in my head why the important thing was important, but I never actually put it in the story. My bad.

Whenever I think about focus, I think about an old black-and-white Humphrey Bogart movie, The Maltese Falcon. In the movie the Maltese Falcon has been stolen, it’s all over the news, which they show you. Bogart’s character is a private eye who is hired to find the Maltese Falcon. At some point, he’s attacked by people who want him to stop looking for the Maltese Falcon. He starts to have feelings for the woman who hired him to find the Maltese Falcon, and is ultimately betrayed by her because she wants the Maltese Falcon.

Can you guess what the focus of the movie is? Yes, there’s violence, there’s love and betrayal, there’s the underlying issues of trust and relationships, but these all happen, the characters all meet to participate in said acts, because the Maltese Falcon has been stolen.

So, that’s what I think about when I think about focus.

Until next time: Be aware of yourself, focus on yourself. Be aware of your writing, focus on your writing.

The Potential of Potential Explained…Potentially

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Oooo, first post of the new year. Lots of pressure for something good. It was so much pressure that I kept put it off. Then I got to thinking about things, things writer-ly and whatnot. I came to the decision to talk to you about something deep and meaningful to me as a writer.

The blank page.

There is something beautiful to me about a blank sheet of paper, or a blank Word document. Winter is my favorite season because of the snow, and I guess that’s what it reminds me of, snow. The type of landscape after a good long and hard snow, that makes the world a white, pristine thing.

It’s calming for me to look at a blank page. It’s a space of nothing, of empty. A few times, right before I’ve started a story, I’ve sat back and stared at the blank page, soaking up the anticipation. There’s a silence to blank page that allows me to order my thoughts, the calm before the storm you might say.

Just think about it, the blank page. It’s a simple thing, flat, empty, featureless. Yet, it’s so much more. It’s whatever you put on it. If you use it for notes, then it’s a source of knowledge, a mini-library for science, or history, math, your own thoughts. As a receptacle for fiction it’s an even grander. What will it become today, for you? Will it be a pirate ship (a lot of my wonderings start with pirate ships). Will it be a space pirate ship, or a Spanish galleon? Will the focus of the page be on the hero or the villain? Will its views be as simple as black and white, or will it be covered in gray? Will the page be magical or hard bitten?

The potential (bringing us back to the title) is endless. Not only for the page, but for your words.

If there’s any resolution the new year brought to you as a writer let it be this one: take time to study a blank page, give it a good, long look. Then, by all means, fill the damn thing up!

It’s great to still be here with you.

Until next time: Be you, be well. Write you, write

Have You Met My Brothers: Na, No, Wri, and Mo?

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Okay, so let’s talk about November, the National Novel Writing Month.

It’s clear from my posting that I “lost” NaNoWriMo. A lot of things happened in November that made it a rough month. First, I started off the first week sick, but I still wrote that week. A part of the writing was stubbornness, a part of it was me making a promise to everyone out there in the ether of the Internet that I was going to do it. All I did that first week was write and sleep though, so it was a rough start, but a good start. I like to think the second week went well too. It was the third week that things started to unravel. I seriously hurt my ankle on Monday of the third week, couldn’t take time off work, and I have a job where I’m on my feet all day. So, I was completely wasted when I got home. I tried to work, but my quota of pages took a nose dive. It was clear by the middle of the third week that I was not going to complete NaNoWriMo. It took some of the pressure off. I was able to get some really good writing squeezed out of what I did do.

This was the first time I’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo; and one of the points of the exercise was to share my impressions of it. Which are, as follows. 1) It was fun. I had fun. Not because of the deadline, not just because of the story, but because every time I sat down to write I thought of all the other people that were writing that day/week/month as part of NaNoWriMo. Writing is a very solitary act (at least the beginning part of it where it’s just you), and taking part of NaNoWriMo made me feel a part of something, a community of writers. This, in turn, made me think of everyone that follows this site, and how I hoped seeing me writing would inspire you to write. So, the togetherness (as separate as it was) was pretty cool. This was a surprise for me. 2) Writing with life is hard. Especially if writing isn’t what you use to pay the bills. I want to stress what I’ve talked about before: if you want to write, you need to cut out time to do it. I got a few pages after work, before my wife got home, and in the mornings on the weekends before she got up. Sometimes my wife has to work on the weekend, Saturday, and that’s a boon of a whole day! Yay! My point is: if you’re a writer you have to write, so you have to find time to do it. 3) Just because you “lost” NaNoWriMo doesn’t mean you’re not a writer, and it doesn’t mean the story you’re writing is over. The story is done when you say it’s done. I felt bad, at first because I didn’t get the fifty thousand words. I’ve written that in a month before, so I was upset with myself. However, my situation was different when I did that, so that mitigated some of the despair. The other thing that dulled the grief of the lost, was the fact that the end of NaNoWriMo isn’t the end of the story for me. I’m going to continue the project because I liked it so much. I’ve got a good start on my hands, I like the concept and the characters so I’m going to keep going. I think, for any writer, that’s a good thing to take away from NaNoWriMo, it’s a challenge, but (and I think this is the point they’re trying to make) it’s not about whether or not you actually get fifty thousand words in a month, but that you’re writing, and that you keep writing. My wife works with someone who “finally beat NaNoWriMo” and got the fifty thousand words, but the story “needs about forty thousand more to be complete,” so she’s finishing it. That’s awesome! Again, NaNoWriMo is a jump start, a starting point for creativity and writing, not an end goal, not a finish line.

Those are my biggest impressions of the NaNoWriMo challenge. I think it’s fun and useful. If you’re not a writer, I think you should try at least once to see what comes out of you. You might be surprised. If you are a writer, it can help you find the fun in writing again (it did for me), and can help you feel a part of a community that sometimes is sorely lacking in the profession.

I would like to say, in case it was too subtly slipped into the last paragraph, that I am continuing A Dinner For Crows. Like I said, I like the concept and the characters. So look for it around the website (not soon-soon, but soon-ish).

Until next time: Be you, be well. Write you, write well.

A Dinner For Crows-Part 3 (21865 words)

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Po rubs at his still stinging eyes, the tears haven’t fallen yet, it’s more a nervous tick at this point. Clarissa looks at him with concern writ huge on her face. She glances towards the living room, but rushes over to him instead of going after Danny.

“Are you okay?” She whispers it, but Po doubts Danny would hear her if she shouted.

Po nods forcefully. “I wasn’t expecting it to be this bad. I thought…I hoped he was past this.”

“At least he’s calm.” Clarissa darts a look over her shoulder. “That’s good, right?”

Music booms from the living room, causing them both to jump. Po might have screamed, he’s not sure, it was drowned out by the music if he did. Clarissa looks at him and gives a slight smile. She reaches out and squeezes his shoulder. Po holds up his phone, Mr. Carver’s number on the screen, all he has to do is hit the call button. Clarissa nods, they slowly walk into the living room.

The Carvers have a surround sound setup in their living room. There are speakers mounted in the corners of the room with a few tower speakers scattered about too. Danny stands in the middle of the room, hands up in front of him, face straining, pushing on the air in front of him, looking for all he’s worth like he’s trying to move something that isn’t there.

“I can see the music.” He shouts at them. “If I concentrate hard enough I can make it visible.”

Danny stands there dumbstruck. Watching his friend strain at nothing, hearing him talk about seeing things; Po’s heart drops into his stomach, he’s breathing too fast. The words ‘he’s seeing things’ loop through his mind, they make him dizzy. He turns away from the scene, unable to see his friend like this. There’s a pain in his hand. Looking down he sees his fingers white, wrapped around his phone, his whole hand shaking.

He brings the phone up, ready to call Mr. Carver.

Clarissa hits his shoulder, Po jumps from the contact, forgetting for a moment she was even there. He looks at her, she hasn’t taken her eyes off Danny. She still doesn’t look away as she paws at Po’s shoulder, finally getting a grip and turning him around.

Po turns to see Danny still straining at the air. He’s about to look away again, when something shimmers in the air around Danny’s hands. Po blinks several times to clear his eyes. He decides there’s too much going on for him, between Danny, the blaring classical music, Clarissa. Po takes a step back, wanting to get outside so he can call Mr. Carver in peace.

There’s a burst of static from the speakers. When the music comes through again, there’s golden lines pulsing through the room.

Po stops moving, stops breathing, his mind seizes. The world seems to lose its color, everything but those golden lines. They pulse with the music. Po cocks his head, the lines don’t pulse with all the music just the percussion. Danny reaches out, grabs at something, and red lines appear in the air. They vibrate with the violins.

Still holding the lines, Danny twists around and smiles at them.

“How are you doing this?” Clarissa shouts over the music, a smile splitting her face.

“I told you, with magic.” Danny lets go of the golden lines, they fade slowly, reaches out, and the green of flutes appears.

“Stop it.” Po pants where he stands. His voice doesn’t carry past him.

Clarissa moves up to the flute lines, tentatively reaching out and touching them. Her fingers go through them with nothing happening to them, she runs through the line, giggling as she does. She turns around with a grin barely contained by her face. “Nothing happened.”

“Why would it?” Danny shakes his hand around, and the line wobbles back and forth, but the music is unaffected. “It’s just a visual representation of the music you’re hearing. It’s a harmless Glamor.”

Po takes four sharp breaths to fill his lungs. “Stop it.” He pushes the words out, but there’s no force behind them.

Clarissa runs back through the flute lines, and over to stand next to Danny. “Show me another one.”

Danny lets go of the violins, reaches out, and brown lines, humming with the oboes, appear in room. “They remind me of chocolate.”

Clarissa laughs. “They do, don’t they?” She reaches out and twiddles her fingers in the oboe line.

“Stop it.” Po finally finds enough voice to be heard. Danny and Clarissa turn to look at him.

“Po, what’s wrong?” Clarissa takes a step towards him, her joy muddied with concern for him.

Danny stands there grinning. “Isn’t this great?”

“I said, stop it!” Po runs over to one of the tower speakers and throws it to the floor, the sound fades from it, but the room is still too full. Po races to a wall mounted speaker and jumps for it. He only manages to push it facing the wall.

He tries to jump for it again, but arms wrap around him from behind. “Po, stop.” Clarissa’s voice in his ear is panicked.

Po pulls himself out of her arms and jumps for the speaker again. As soon as his feet leave the floor he feels hands on his back, and he’s smashed against the wall.

“Po, don’t do this.” Clarissa’s voice in his ear, her breath is warm and steady. “Danny’s not crazy.”

“Isn’t he?” Po push back off the wall. When he feels Clarissa move away from him, he turns to look at her. “What’s that mean then? Huh?” He looks her directly in the eyes, and he can see how confused she is. “That’s means magic is real, does it?” He takes a moment, hoping she’ll answer him. “That means the world is crazy.”

“I was just as surprised as you.” Danny steps next to her. Po realizes the music is off. Danny gives him an apologetic smile. “Not that the symbols meant something, I’ve always believed that. I mean, I was surprised when…” He waves his hand around in the air. “You know.”

Po looks at his friend. For the first time in years, he doesn’t know what to think about him. Best friend. Crazy friend. Magic friend.

“I need to go.” Po pushes off the wall walking out of the living room.

“Po, don’t.” Clarissa runs after him. At the front door, she reaches out and grabs his arm.

He wrenches his arm away. “Don’t touch me!” He spins around to glare at her, eyes wide and unblinking.

She takes a step back. “Po, this is good news.” He lets out a bark of a laugh. “Danny isn’t craz-”

“Stop saying that!” Po steps towards her, closing the space between them to almost nothing. Clarissa holds her ground. “Magic isn’t real!”

“What if it is?” Clarissa’s voice is a rush of air, barely audible. Her gaze turns distant as she says this, a smile slowly growing on her face. After a moment, her eyes focus again and she leans in, nose-to-nose with Po. “What if it is?”

Po steps away, back hitting the front door, panic rising in his chest. “It isn’t.”

“Excuse me, Clarissa.” Danny steps out from behind her, steps up to Po. He smiles at Po, and for a moment Po remembers his best friend before the journal. Without really wanting to, Po relaxes some. “Rough day?”

Po almost screams at him, feels the urge boiling inside of him. Instead, he forces a jittery smile onto his face. “You could say that.”

“You were worried about me.”

“Of course I was.”

“You’re so protective, it’s one of the things I love about you.” Danny reaches out to put his hand on Po’s shoulder. Po’s whole body tenses, Danny’s hand hovers over his shoulder for a second or two before coming to rest on it. When Po doesn’t feel anything but the weight of his friend’s hand, he relaxes. Danny gives his shoulder a light squeeze. “I’m seeing auras, flashes of symbols around people. When I answered the door, I saw a horseshoe on your chest.”

“Great, so I’m your good luck charm.” Po squirms under Danny’s hand, but Danny doesn’t move it.

Danny lets out a low chuckle. “Of course you are, but the horseshoe is also a symbol of protection. You’re a protector. You’ve certainly protected me over the years.” Danny looks him in the eyes. “Even from myself.”

Po looks down at the floor. “I don’t know if I can live in a world with magic.”

Danny squeezes his shoulder again. “I know I can’t live in a world without my best friend.”

Po’s head darts up, he stares into Danny’s eyes, searching. “Do you mean that?”

Danny nods. “Say the word, and I’ll never bring up magic, or symbols, or the journal again. I’ll put it all away.”

“You never have before.” Po shakes his head in disbelief.

“You’ve never asked me before.” Danny smiles turns reassuring.

“You…you’d do that for me?” Po reaches up and grabs his friend’s arm.

“I’m not going to lie; it’d be hard as shit. The way this feels is awesome. It’s not just physical, but knowing I know something about the world no one else does is a kick.” A snicker escapes his lips. He clears his throat, the smile dropping from his face. “But yeah, if that’s what you want.”

The boys stand there looking at each other. Their history, all the years they’ve known one another, filling up the space between them. Po takes a deep breath.

“Do I get a say in this?” Clarissa’s annoyed voice, comes from behind Danny.

Danny half turns, stepping to the side, so both him and Po can look at her. “Of course you get a say.” Clarissa smiles and nods. “Club rules, majority vote wins. I’m voting with Po.”

Clarissa’s expression immediately turns sour. “How is that fair?”

Danny shrugs. “That’s democracy.”

“How could you do that?” Clarissa crosses her arms. “You’re the one who translated the symbols. You’ve been doing magic all day. You said yourself, that it feels great knowing something about the world no one else does.”

Po looks from Clarissa to Danny, watching his friends as they debate this. He watches Danny nod, only years of experience with him allows Po to catch the twitch of Danny’s eye, indicating he’s sad.

“I said it would be hard as shit.”

“See.” Clarissa flings her hands into the air.

Danny’s eye twitches again, but he doesn’t raise his voice. “Let me ask you a question.” Clarissa nods. “Do you trust Po?”

Surprise strikes Clarissa dumb for a moment or two. “Of course I trust Po.” Clarissa looks past Danny at Po. “You’re my best friend.”

“Would you say he’s got the best judgement out of the three of us?” Danny continues like this is an interrogation.

Clarissa shakes her head from side to side and shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe? He’s the most mature, I guess.”

“Okay.” Danny crosses his arms across his chest. “So, I’m not going to do this without my best friend. The person we both agree has better judgement than both of us.”

Clarissa opens her mouth to say something, closes it, opens it again. She taps her foot for a minute or two, clearly she’s trying to think of an argument. After a minute, she sighs heavily. “Fine. You know what I want to do, but I’ll go along with the vote.” She stares at Po. “What do you say, Po?”

Po feels panicked again, being on the spot. He’s only seen a look this intense on Clarissa’s face when she’s taking tests. He looks to Danny. Danny still has his arms crossed, leaning against the wall with his eyes closed. Po wonders how he could be relaxed right now. He thinks maybe it has something to do with his fate being in someone else’s hands. Po can’t believe his friend trusts him so much. He takes a deep breath to steady himself.

“You know,” Danny speaks without opening his eyes. “Even if we decide not to do this, there’s nothing stopping you from learning magic on your own.”

Clarissa has been slouching, but at Danny’s suggestion she stands up straight, arms dropping to her sides. Po can see her mind working already. He knows she’s thinking about what books she’d need, and where she’d need to go to find them. He knows that’s what she’s thinking about, because that’s what popped into his mind as soon as Danny said what he did.

“Okay, let’s do this together.” The words are out before Po can stop them.

Clarissa looks at him, confused. “Are you sure?”

Danny smiles and pushes off the wall, opening his eyes to look at him. “We don’t have to.”

Po shakes his head. “No, I want to.” Clarissa smiles, her eyes lighting up. “But the first time something crazy happens we stop. Okay.”

Danny reaches out and squeezes his shoulder again. “Of course.”

Clarissa shakes her head. “It’s magic. Define, “crazy.”

Po shrugs. “Someone gets hurt. If someone gets hurt, we stop.”

The smile drops from Clarissa’s face. “Yeah, okay.”

Po swallows several times, mouth dry. Immediately he wishes he could take back the decision. His eyes dart from Danny to Clarissa, both so excited. Some of his regret over the decision melts away, knowing that if they didn’t do this together Clarissa would probably do this by herself. The tightness in his chest doesn’t lessen with the consolation though.

Po tries to take a deep breath, but only pulls in half as much air as he wants. Coughs rattle his chest. Danny and Clarissa look at him with concern. He waves his hand in front of him. “I’m fine.” He takes a slow breath to calm himself. “How do we do this?”

Danny looks to both of them, grinning. “Wait here.” He runs upstairs.

Clarissa stands at the bottom of the stairs, tapping frantically on the railing. Po’s hand cramps again. When he looks down, he sees he still has his phone in a death grip. He shoves the phone in his pocket, fingers aching when he lets go. He concentrates on breathing. Danny pads down the stairs too soon for him.

“Okay.” Danny flips through the pages. “I was looking over this part of the book last night.” He turns the book around to show them. Po doesn’t move from the door, afraid to get close to the journal now that he knows it’s real. He can make the symbols though, still confusing as ever.

Clarissa reaches out and touches the page. “Which part is this?” She looks at Danny questioningly. “This isn’t a part we normally focus on.”

Danny nods. “It isn’t.” He turns the book around to look at it. His eyes gloss over, go distant.

After a moment, Clarissa reaches out and pokes him. “Danny?”

“What?” Danny starts, looks from the book to Clarissa. “Sorry.” He shakes his head, walks into the living room. Clarissa follows him, looking back at Po, motioning him to do the same. Po sighs, pushes off the door, and follows his friends back into the living room. “This isn’t normally a section we look at, no.” Danny continues. “But after what Christine and Riley said yesterday I started re-thinking what we knew about the book and the symbols.”

“Wait, Christine was right about the symbols?” The joy in Clarissa’s voice is unmistakable. “Wait, Riley was right about something?” As is the disbelief.

Danny holds up his hand. “I’m not going to tell him.”

The gesture, the comment, is so “Danny” it brings a smile to Po’s face.

“So, as it turns out the book might be written in code.” Danny closes the book, keeping his finger in it to hold his place.

“You mean other than being in symbols?” Po can’t help speaking up. Since he got Danny’s text the world has felt on fast forward. He keeps looking for a way to slow it down.

“Yeah, besides that.” Danny doesn’t seem to have caught the sarcasm. “It’s like Christine said: symbols are symbols because they’re universal. So, I looked back at my notes and applied her theory that the writer of the journal layered in meaning.”

It’s hard for Po to pay attention to what Danny says. Half his brain keeps yelling at him that magic isn’t real. Another part of his brain keeps waiting for Danny and Clarissa to break out laughing, the whole thing a gag somehow. A tiny part of his brain believes Danny, it hasn’t made up its mind on whether magic being real is good or not.

“…That’s when I translated the sentence: Follow the light.” Danny smiles at them. “I didn’t know what that meant at first, and then I remembered what Riley said about the blank pages and the reflective pages being a code.” A look of distaste comes over Danny’s face.

Po wants to yell at him. To say: ‘If you don’t want your business known by people, you shouldn’t talk about it in front of them.’ He doesn’t speak up, realizing it’s just a way to derail the conversation, put it on a track that’s more comfortable for him.

“…book is written in sections. The sections following the flashes are real.” He opens the book up and shows them the pages again.

Clarissa’s face scrunches up. “That’s like a third of the way through the book.”

Danny nods. “Yeah. It’s behind a section that starts with a blank page.” Danny closes the book and sets it on the coffee table. “I think the sections after the blank pages are fake, intentional gibberish.” He shrugs at them. “I’m not sure. I have to double check.”

Clarissa nods in agreement.

Po’s brain won’t stop screaming at him. “This doesn’t make sense. Yesterday, you were you, and today you can do magic? Just like that? Overnight?”

Danny smiles at him. “It’s more complicated than that.”

“Explain it to me.” He glances at Clarissa. “Explain it to us.”

Danny holds up his hands defensively. “Okay. It was late by the time I figured everything out, but I didn’t want to stop.” He shoots Po a look that says, you know how I am. Po nods. “I was translating a section, it’s about connecting with primordial power, I was half asleep. At some point, I must have fallen asleep, but the symbols didn’t go away. I dreamed about them. When I woke up, things were different. I was different.” He holds his hands up in front of his face, moves his fingers around. “I can understand the symbols, and other things. The book mentions connecting with power on a subconscious level. So, I hypnotized myself, put in key phrases to help me access the power.” He smiles at them, shrugs again. “It’s not so much that I know magic, but I have access to a pool of power. I can manipulate it to do things. Not much at the moment, but I’m sure with practice-”

“And this is what you want to share with us?” Po still can’t believe what he’s hearing. “You want to hypnotize us?” Po remembers when Danny became obsessed with hypnotism, a couple years after finding the journal. Danny jumped on anything “mystic” back then. It never seemed to work when they tried it.

“I kept the books. I’ve been practicing. Why do you think my grades are so good?”

“Hypnotism?” Clarissa laughs.

“Not hypnotism per se, but the study of mental-ism has helped me improve my memory.”

Clarissa’s face scrunches up again. “You’re cheating?”

Danny shake his head at her. “It’s not cheating. I’ve maximized the potential of my mi-”

“Shut. Up.” They look at Po with open mouths. “You want to hypnotize us.”

After a moment, when he doesn’t continue, Danny nods. “I want to put you into a trance state, through which I can guide you to the power I’ve accessed.”

“You sound like a cult leader.” Po rubs at his chest, the tightness still hasn’t gone anywhere.

Danny wiggles his fingers at him. “Join me. Join me.” He laughs. “It’s not like that, bro.”

“It’s never worked before.” Protests keep popping up in Po’s mind.

“We were young. I didn’t have magic before.” Danny’s smile deepens. Po’s getting tired of seeing his friend’s face like that.

“I’m up for it.” Clarissa steps in front of Danny. “Hypnotize me.”

Po’s gut twists, an acid taste fills the back of his mouth. “Do me first.” Po steps around the couch and sits down.

Clarissa glares over her shoulder at him. “Why can’t I go first?” She narrows her eyes at him.

Po looks at her, doesn’t want to say, but she doesn’t look away. “In case something goes wrong.”

Her eyes go wide. Po’s guessing it hadn’t occurred to her that something could go wrong.

“Nothing’s going to go wrong.” Danny reassures them.

“Then it won’t be long, will it.” Po settles into the corner of the couch, tries to get as comfortable as he can.

“You don’t have to this.” Clarissa is back to glaring at him. “I told you, I can take care of myself.”

“Yeah.” Po meets her eyes. “And sometimes that means letting others take care of you.”

Again, surprise rushes over her features. Her face flushes, Po will deal with her anger later. She turns away from both him and Danny. “Fine. You win this time.” She walks out of the living room.

Danny looks after her and then at Po. “Chicks, right?”

Po wonders just what it is she thinks he’s won. “Yeah, right.”

“Okay. Are you comfortable?” Danny’s voice is suddenly serious. Po nods. “Good. Do you remember how this goes?”

Po nods again, closing his eyes, and breathing deep and slow. He concentrates on his body, relaxing every part of it. Everything relaxes quickly, until he gets to his stomach. It’s been doing flips and heaves for a while now, and it takes more than a few seconds to calm it. He’s surprised by the amount of tension there is in his shoulders. Relaxing his back, he falls deeper into the couch.

“You look relaxed.” Danny’s voice comes at Po soft and steady. “You’re in the first trance state.” Po thinks he hears Danny move, but he’s not sure. His first instinct is to open his eyes and look, but he curbs it. If he doesn’t trust Danny this isn’t going to work. “I want you to focus on the sound of my voice. Let everything else drop away.” The world goes quiet for Po. “I’m going to reach out and touch you. Don’t open your eyes.” Po feels Danny’s hand take his, he doesn’t move it off his lap though. “You’re doing fine.” Danny applies a steady pressure on Po’s hand. “I want you to sink lower with me. I want you to imagine your limbs are made of stone. Your arms. Your legs. They’re so heavy you can’t move them.” Po imagines his limbs are stone, cool, gray, and heavy; just like that he can’t move his body. “Good, you’re in a deeper trance state. But we’re going to go deeper. I’m going to take you deeper.” There’s that steady pressure on his hand again. “You’re going to feel warmth spread from my hand into yours. You’re not going to worry about this. There’s nothing to worry about. I’m just helping you get into a deeper trance. I’m helping you connect with what I connected with.” Danny’s hand heats up, almost uncomfortably so. Po tries to move his hand away, but his arms are still made of stone, so they don’t move. The heat lessens, entering Po’s hand and shooting halfway up his arm. He feels his muscle twitch involuntarily. From there the heat seeps upward, to and then past Po’s shoulder. It passes into his chest, and his middle begins to fill up. “I want you to take as much of the warmth as you can.” Po takes a deep breath, imagining he’s sucking the warmth into his body. It plummets into his stomach, pools there for a moment, then rushes into his legs. Four more deep breaths and his entire body is warm. Sweat breaks out on his skin, everywhere at once. “That’s good.” Danny’s voice sounds strained. “I’m going to count to three. When I get to three, I want you to open your eyes. I want you to observe the world. I will continue to talk to you, to guide you, but I want what you see to take priority.” In the state Po’s in, all he can do is accept everything Danny’s saying. “Nod your head if you understand.” Po nods his head. “Good. One, two, three, open your eyes.”

Po languidly opens his eyes. Danny sits on the coffee table in front of him, still holding his hand.

A Dinner For Crows-Part 2 (17,703)

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Danny stops them at the top of the stairs. “Do you hear that?” Danny takes a half step forward, listening.

Po looks around the hall, wondering what Danny has up his sleeve. “What is it?” Po whispers, staying in character.

Danny turns, fear coating his face. “Dinosaurs!” He grabs the front of Po’s shirt, and pulls them into the room at the top of the stairs, closing the door behind them.

It’s Grams’s sewing room. The sewing machine on a table in front of the window. Po goes over to a bookshelf filled with material, reaching out to run his fingers across the fabric. There are several pattern packets on the shelf too. He takes one off the shelf. The picture on the front shows a long flowing dress in red. Po looks at the shelf, finding the fabric on the bottom of a pile, it feels silky when he touches it. He wonders why Grams never made the dress.

“Hey, Sara Lee, you done playing dress up?” Danny taunts him from the door.

Po puts the pattern back on the shelf. “Sara Lee is a baker.” He turns back to his friend.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were an empyreal soldier, not a baker.” Danny puts his fists on his hips.

“Why can’t I be both?” Po honestly wants to know.

Danny strides across the room and grabs his shoulders. He shakes him from side to side. “Stick with me, man. Don’t let the isle take you. We’ve got cannibal natives and dinosaurs to sneak past if we’re going to find this treasure.”

Po smiles. “I didn’t mean to lose my head. It won’t happen again, sir.”

Danny narrows his eyes at him, then squeezes his shoulders. “That’s what I like to hear.” He makes his way back to the door, opening it and peeking out. “The natives are restless.” He closes the door. “Don’t forget about your rations.” He reaches in his back pocket and pulls out a piece of cookie.

Po does the same, munching on pieces of cookie until one of his back pockets is empty of all but crumbs. The entire time he eats, he watches Danny at the door. Danny keeps opening the door and peeking out into the hall. Po can see his friend’s head moving back and forth like he’s watching actual natives and dinosaurs move around out there. Po wonders if his friend has a better imagination than him.

“What’s the plan of attack?” Po finally asks.

Danny starts in on his other back pocket, not taking his eyes from the hallway. “I’ve got a plan.”

Po chuckles. “Let me guess, does it-”

Danny flings the door open. “Run!” He’s out the door without waiting to see if Po’s following him.

Po jumps when Danny hollers, but he’s only a few steps behind him.

“Watch out for traps.” Danny ducks, but keeps running.

Po imagines a log with spikes coming at him and ducks too. He almost loses his balance, but keeps his feet. When he looks up, Danny is high-stepping and jigging from side to side. Po’s expression is grim determination as he enters the arrow trap. He drops into a roll, when he gets to his feet he spins and lunges for the end of the hallway. Smashing his back against the wall, making himself as flat as possible, he looks to Danny who’s doing the same.

“These traps are ancient.” Danny pants at him.

“I’m surprised they still work.” Po pants back.

“You’ve got to admire the craftsmanship.” Danny laughs, bending over and sucking in a huge gulp of air.

Po points down the hallway. “Wouldn’t setting off the traps alert the cannibal natives?”

Danny freezes for a moment, then looks up at him with surprise. “Into the cave!” He pulls the attic door open, jumping up three of the steep steps to let Po get in too. When Po is inside he closes the door behind him. “Hurry, help me barricade the opening.” Danny pretends to stack rocks up in front of the door; Po joins him. After a few minutes of this, they’re both satisfied that no cannibals will get them. Danny grins widely at Po, punching him in the shoulder. “Now! Time to find that treasure.”

They pad up the stairs together, coming out of the floor in the middle of the room. The attic runs the width and length of the house. It makes for a huge open room. Open, except for all the boxes piled neatly around the floor. Several small windows let in the day’s light. It’s more than enough for Po and Danny.

The two of them have spent many afternoons up here. They run past the boxes of Christmas decorations, containers of receipts, and old clothes. The back corner of the attic is where they know the treasure is. The back corner of the attic is where most of Danny’s grandfather’s things are, along with mementoes of his and Grams’s youth. They’d found the stuff by accident one time, just playing around up here. Ever since then the boxes have become the treasure in their games of pirates.

The first thing Danny goes for is his grandfather’s service jacket, he always goes for that first. He shrugs it on, shoving the sleeves up so his hands are free, and poses. “You can call me captain now, sir.”

Po lets out a laugh. Neither of them know if the service jacket symbols mean captain or not, but Danny insists that they do. Po grabs the stack of letters from the same chest, and sits down in a pool of light. They’d found the letters in the bottom of the trunk, looking for more military stuff. It had taken them a couple visits to the attic to decipher his grandfather’s handwriting, but once they did the letters were the things bringing them back.

Jacket securely in place, Danny joins Po on the floor. He takes half the letters, and they start reading. For the next few minutes the boys sit in silence as they reacquaint themselves with Grandpa Carver’s scrawl. Danny is the first to break the silence.

“Listen to this.” He tugs on Po’s shirt to get his attention. “Me and the boys were out on patrol this morning. A group of enemy combatants came up over a rise. I think we surprised each other. The fighting broke out soon after that…” Danny grins at Po. “How cool is that?”

Danny puts the letters down and jumps up. Pulling a cane from a half open box, he holds it across his chest like a rifle. He ducks behind some boxes, peering around cautiously. When he decides the coast is clear, he sprints to another box and squats behind it.

Po picks up the letter and keeps reading where Danny left off.

…when the gunfire died down Jennings and Cooper were wounded, but most of the enemy were dead. A couple of them had run off. A few of the boys wanted to go after them, but I put an end to that. I had Jennings and Cooper looked after, and we had to look over the enemy bodies, for intel.

Olivia, I know they’re the enemy, but some of them were as young as us. I started to wonder if they had girls back home they were writing to. They tell you it’s us versus them, and it is, but sometimes-

“Soldiers! Enemies on the ridge!” Po looks up to see Danny do some quick hand gestures. Then he puts the cane up to his shoulder, taking aim. “Pewch! Pewch!” Danny jerks the cane up like he’s firing a gun. “Jay! Coop! Flank on the left side! Pewch! Pewch!”

Po watches his friend order around his troops, and fire on the enemy. Then, coming around the box to take some more shots, Danny jerks backwards and falls to the floor. Despite himself, Po jumps when he sees this. As Danny gets up, holding his shoulder, Po lets out a sigh of relief.

“Fall back!” Danny lets off one shot, then runs back towards the corner, sliding onto his stomach.

“You may have to call this one.” Po smiles down at him.

“They’ll never take me alive.” Danny ducks his head as more imaginary bullets fly by.

“I think that’s the plan.”

Danny sticks his tongue out at him. Looking frantically around the attic, Danny finally sees what he’s looking for, turning to Po and smiling. “We just need to get to higher ground.” Danny jumps to his feet, fires off a couple shots, then runs for an old dresser against the wall. A couple feet from it, he jumps. Unfortunately, his foot kicks a stack of boxes. He makes it onto the top of the dresser, but two of the boxes ‘thunk’ onto the attic floor, the top one popping open, spilling its contents.

Po and Danny stare at each other for a long moment. Their eyes dart at the same time to the attic stairs. They don’t move for what feels like an eternity. Eventually, Danny eases off the top of the dresser.

A slow grin spreads across Danny’s face. “That was a close one.”

“Boys!?” Mrs. Carver’s voice comes to them from downstairs.

“Yes?!” They yell together so it’ll carry all the way down.

“Are you okay?!”

“Yes!” Again, together. They rush over to the fallen boxes. Po picks up the first box and puts it back in the stack. Danny sets the second box up and starts throwing the contents back in it.

“You’re not in the attic, are you?!” Mrs. Carver’s voice sounds closer to Po.

“No!” His voice comes out alone, he doesn’t think she’s heard him. He turns to look at Danny. His friend has stopped moving, in his hand is a leather journal.

“Earth to, Po!” Someone grabs Po’s shoulder and shakes him. Po looks up from the page of symbols, Danny’s slightly annoyed face stares down at him. “Hey, bro, our prison sentence has been commuted. We can go.”

Po blinks. His head hurts. It’s too bright. He looks around him, he’s sitting at a table, there are shelves of books around him. “Wha?”

“Are you okay?” Clarissa bends and twists to look at him. “Po?” The concern in her eyes scares him.

“Hey, you finished the pages.” Danny reaches over his shoulder and takes the pile of symbol pages from him.

It’s like someone turns the volume up to ten, reality comes crashing back to him. Po tries to grab the pages back. “Wait. No I didn’t.”

Danny fingers through the pages. “It looks like you did to me.” He gets to the end and smiles down at Po. “Yep. All finished.” He looks at Clarissa. “Ms. Denning, I’ll take your work as well.”

Clarissa stands up straight. “I can’t give it to you, I didn’t finish.”

Danny shakes his head. “Mr. Allen finished.”

She cocks her head and frowns at him. “Well, Mr. Allen is an overachiever, now isn’t he?”

“Apparently so.” Danny shoves the pages into his backpack. “Can we at least get out of here? All this learning is depressing me.” He turns and heads for the doors.

Po watches his friend go, things still feel fuzzy.

Clarissa puts her hand gently on his shoulder. “Hey, you, are you okay? Seriously?”

Po sighs, shaking his head. “No, yeah.” He looks up at her and blinks several times. “I’m just tired I guess.”

She smiles at him. “Your parents riding your ass too?” She blows a stray strand of hair out of her face. “Mine already want me to apply to colleges. Every time I come down to breakfast there’s another flier for me to look at.”

Po smiles despite himself. He wonders if Mr. and Mrs. Denning got that from his parents, or his parents got that from them. “I know, right? I finally told mine I’d start looking after Christmas. That’s seems to have stopped the fliers and cereal combo.”

She laughs. Po’s not sure what he said that was funny. “I’ll have to try that.”

“They mean well.” Po shrugs.

Clarissa shakes her head. “I wish they’d mean it a little less.”

“I know what you me-”

“Are you two coming, or are you planning on spending the night here?!” Danny’s voice crashes through the stacks at them.

“I guess we should go.” Po pushes away from the table grabbing his backpack. Clarissa nods, rushing past him for the door. Po jogs to keep up.

* * *

The walk home isn’t long, but the three of them take their time. This is part of the “down time” Po wanted so badly this year. Clarissa asks about homework. Po answers, clarifying what Mr. Parks wants. Danny grumbles about slave labor. Mostly the trio walks silently. They’ve known each other for years, and they settle into each other’s company.

Po keeps waiting for Danny to bring up the journal and the symbols. He keeps waiting for him to remind Clarissa to finish her pages as soon as she can. He doesn’t do either. For some reason Po doesn’t find this comforting.

When they get to Danny’s street, Po and Clarissa stop, but Danny keeps going. Danny’s so lost in thought he doesn’t even notice he’s walking alone.

“Hey!” Clarissa can be surprisingly loud when she wants to be. “Danny!”

Danny jumps, looks to either side of him, and spins, fear on his face. When he sees them standing on the sidewalk his features clear. He makes his way back to them. “Don’t do that to me.”

“Do what?” Po can feel the weight of his friend’s obsession settling over him.

Danny waves his hand in the air, vaguely. “You know.” He bumps his shoulder into Clarissa and then into Po, his version of a hug, and heads down his street. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”

Po watches him go. He wonders what Danny’s thinking about exactly. He wonders why it goes to the places it does.

“It’s cute how much you care about him.” Clarissa bumps her shoulder into his.

“You know what he’s like.” Po feels himself frowning, but he can’t seem to stop.

“I do.” Clarissa tilts from side-to-side a couple times. “I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

Po shakes his head. “You just said you know what he’s like. He didn’t even remind you to finish the symbols.”

“Wait for it.” Clarissa holds up three fingers in front of them. When she gets down to one, she points at Danny. He takes a couple more steps before stopping and looking back at them. Clarissa waves.

“Don’t forget to do the symbols!” Clarissa’s wave turns into a thumb’s up of acknowledgement. Danny nods a couple times, then turns back around.

Clarissa turns and smiles at Po. Po pretends to keep watching Danny. Eventually he has to turn and look at her. He just stares at her staring at him with that smile on her face.

“Fine.”

“I told you so.” Clarissa lets out a laugh at him.

“Shut up.” Po moves past her, heading down the sidewalk.

Clarissa hurries to catch up, falling into pace next him. “It could be worse, you know?”

“Hmm?” Po’s lost in his own thoughts already.

“Danny. He could be a druggie.” Clarissa offers a small smile when Po looks at her.

“I guess.” Po feels his face frowning again. “I just wish he didn’t get so obsessed with the book.”

“Yeah.” Clarissa shrugs her backpack into a better position. “You know, people like him get jobs at the NSA, or start tech companies that make billions of dollars. He’ll be okay.”

Po can’t think of anything to say to that, so he lets his thoughts wander. He thinks about the day, about how much work he needs to get done that night. Finally, his thoughts come back to the library and the pages of symbols. He tries to remember circling them, but he can’t. What he does remember is him remembering when Danny found the book. They were both there when Danny found the book, but it’s always felt to Po like it was Danny who found it.

“Or maybe it found him.”

“What was that?” Clarissa’s head whips away from him when he looks at her.

“Nothing. Sorry.” Po shakes his head to clear it. It’s thinking like that, he feels, that’s gotten Danny in so much trouble. “I was just talking out loud.”

“Yeah, of course.” Clarissa stops walking, they’ve reached Po’s street, the next one down from Danny’s, but Po keeps going. “Hey, I haven’t lost you now, have I?”

Po turns, walking backwards. “No. I thought I’d walk you home.”

“What? Really?” Clarissa smiles, nervously shoving a strand of hair, possibly the same strand she blew out of her face in the library, behind her ear. “Why’s that?”

To Po it looks like she’s blushing. He shakes his head again, believing he must be seeing things. “I just don’t feel like dealing with my parents yet.”

“Yeah. Of course.” Clarissa nods a couple times, and starts walking again. “Let’s go.” She walks past him, walking quicker than she was.

Po spins and lengthens his stride to keep up with her. “Hey, wait up, lady.”

Clarissa doesn’t slow down. “Am I going too fast for the wittle baby?”

“A little, yeah.” Po picks up the pace so he can walk next to her. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” Clarissa takes several deep breaths, the pace wearing her out a bit. “Shouldn’t you text your parents to let them know you’re going to be late?”

“Eh, they’ll be fine. I think they actually like not having me at the house. Can you believe it?” Po sees Clarissa’s mouth twitch into a smile.

“Heresy.” She tries to flatten her lips, but they keep curling up at the edges.

“I know. The other day, before I left for school, I saw them,” Po shudders for good measure. “Kiss.”

A laugh bursts from Clarissa, her steps falter, and their pace slows.

“I think they liked it too.”

This sets off a string of laughs from Clarissa. “Parents these days. You don’t think they’re into the,” she leans in close to Po, “sex?”

Po stands up straight, shock on his face. “God forbid.” They both laugh, leaning on each other for a few steps.

Almost on cue, Po’s phone vibrates. He takes it out of his pocket to see a text from his father.

Mom’s worried. Where r u?

Po shows the text to Clarissa, who giggles some more. “Poooo’s in trooouble.”

Po makes a face at her.

Walking Clarissa home. B home in a minute.

Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.

Okay.

“What did he say?” Clarissa leans over, trying to see what’s on Po’s phone.

“You know.” Po turns the screen off and puts it away. “He just wants me to stay out of trouble.”

The two settle into a nice, silent pace. Po likes feeling like he’s not being watched over. He can only think Clarissa feels the same. He knows both their moms wear the brand ‘tiger mom’ with pride, but he’s see some of the really controlling parents at their school, and he’s glad neither of them are that bad. Still, it’s a relief to have a few minutes of fresh air and space.

Po doesn’t stop at the top of the street when they get to the road Clarissa’s house is on, he walks with her to her house.

“You know, we’ve got that test in AP Chemistry coming up. We should get together and study.” She pushes the strand of hair behind her ear again.

Po nods. “Yeah. I’ll give Danny a call and see when he’s free.” Po pulls out his phone and types in a reminder.

“Yeah. Of course. Danny should definitely be there too.” Clarissa lets out a sigh, shuffles her feet a bit. “You know, I’m sure he’s fine.”

Po feels his face automatically go into frown mode. He tilts his head to the side, cracking his neck, working his jaw up and down a few times. He lets out a sigh of his own. “You’re probably right. It’s not like he’s ever climbed a tree and refused to come down because “they” were coming to get him.” It comes out harsher than he wants. Clarissa takes a step back from him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

Clarissa steps forward, closer to him than she was before. “I’m a big girl, Po. I can handle myself.” She leans into him. “Besides, I said it’s cute how much you care about him.” They look at each other. Po feels like Clarissa is waiting for something. Suddenly she moves to the side, and shoves his shoulder with hers. Then she turns and jogs up to her house.

Po hopes she’s right about Danny. He doesn’t want to see his friend like that again. Phone still in hand, he turns from Clarissa’s house, heading back up the street. He texts his dad to let him know he’s on his way home, steps crisp and quick. As much as he longs for space, without his friends by his side he quickly gets lonely.

Roughly five minutes after leaving Clarissa’s house, he walks through the front door of his own. He can smell dinner cooking. Heading for the kitchen first, he sees his mom moving around efficiently, chopping something here and stirring something there.

“Can I give you a hand?” Po walks over to the stove, leaning over, and taking a deep breath.

His mother pushes him out of the way with her elbow, dumping some chopped onions into the sauce. “Did everyone get home alright?”

“Yeah. We’re all snug in the bosom of family.” Po puts his head on his mother’s shoulder.

“You mock, but we hover because we care.” She kisses the top of his head.

“I mock because I care.” Po puts his bookbag on the floor and stirs the sauce.

“You mock because you’re a teenager.” His mother moves back to the counter to chop some more. “Go do your homework, dinner will be ready in about half an hour.”

Po stirs the sauce some more, soaking up the heat from the stove. “You sure I can’t give you a hand?”

His mother stops chopping and looks at him. “You don’t have any homework tonight?”

Po sighs, eyes rolling automatically. “You know, I could always do my work after dinner.”

Mrs. Allen points the knife at the door. “Go do your work. Your father had to check some e-mails, and then he’s coming to help.”

“Alright.” Po grabs his bag, kisses his mom on the cheek, and heads for the door. “Slave driver.”

“You’ll thank me when your older and successful.” His mother goes back to chopping.

Po stops himself halfway to the stairs and comes back. “Mom?”

“Hmm?”

“Why didn’t you tell me Danny called?” Po watches his mother closely.

“Danny hasn’t called tonight, dear.” She moves over and dumps peppers into a pan.

“No, I mean last week.” Po leans forward on the island.

“When was this?” Po can hear a faint lilt to his mom’s voice. She had the same lilt when he asked her if Santa Claus was real.

“Mom.” Po puts a slight edge in his voice.

“You were busy. With your piano.” Po’s mouth twists as he tries to smile and frown at the same time. It’s been ‘his piano’ since he took up jazz.

“Which is why he called the house when he couldn’t get a hold of me.”

“You see?” His mom turns and smiles at him like that should explain everything.

Po smiles back at her, mockingly. “That doesn’t explain why you didn’t tell me he called.”

“I didn’t want to bother you.” She turns and stirs the peppers. “I know how much you like jazz.”

“That doesn’t explain why you didn’t tell me when I was done.” Po can’t help getting more and more annoyed at her.

“It must have slipped my mind.” The lilt almost turns the sentence into a beginning of a song.

“Mom!”

Mrs. Allen puts down the knife and turns to look at her son. “I worry about you.”

“Mom.”

She holds up her hand, and Po closes his mouth. “I worry about you. It’s a parents’ duty to worry. What happened with Danny a year ago-”

“A year and a half.”

Mrs. Allen frowns, and Po closes his mouth again, hanging his head. “I don’t want anything to happen to you, and with Danny going through…Well,
whatever he went through. I just-”

“He’s my friend.” Po’s eyes hurt, he takes a deep breath to steady himself.

“I know, but-”

“The Carvers are your friends too. You’ve known them as long as Danny and me have been friends.” Po looks at his mother, and she can see the
concern on her face.

“They’ve pulled away a lot since the incident.” She gives him a half shrug.

“So I should disown my best friend because he’s a bit…sick?” Po rubs at his face to keep the tears from running out of his eyes.

“Honey, no…I’m sorry-”

“Ah, the prodigal son returns.” Po’s dad’s voice booms in from the hallway. He strides into the kitchen and over to the stove. “Everything smells delicious.” Turning towards them, he freezes. “What are we talking about?”

“Just the usual pre-dinner casual conversation about life and friendship.” Mrs. Allen’s voice cracks a little as she confesses to her husband.

“Oh.” His face turns down. “Lifetime movie of the week, or Kevin Hart promo?”

Po and his mother smile at the same time.

“More after school special material.” Po ops for a middle ground.

Mr. Allen nods his head considering. “Not that bad then. Verdict?”

Mrs. Allen wipes at her face. “It turns out our son is a much better person than we are.” She smiles at Po.

“Of course he is,” Mr. Allen looks at his son proudly. “We raised him right.”

Po laughs and shakes his head. “I’m going to go do my work.” He fixes an appraising gaze on his mother. “I’m not going to miss any more calls, am I?”

His mother holds up two finger. “Scouts honor.”

Po nods.

“Don’t believe her, son.” Mr. Allen wraps his arms around his wife and nibbles at her neck. Mrs. Allen squeals in surprise. “She was never in the scout’s.”

Po shakes his head and goes up stairs to his room.

Entering the room, he throws his bookbag on his bed. For a moment he considers join it, but then he hears his mother squeal again, and puts his earbuds in, turning the music up as high as he can take it. He snatches his bag off his bed and pulls out his government book. Over the next twenty minutes he finishes off the chapter, jotting down notes as he goes. Between the music and concentrating on committing the chapter to memory, he doesn’t think about Danny.

He jumps when his dad touches his shoulder.

“If you’re surprised, maybe your music is too loud.” His dad gives him a halfhearted frown.

“You know what they say.” Po throws the earbuds on his desk. “If it’s too loud you’re too old.” He gives a cocky smile to his dad.

“True dat.” His dad makes devil’s horns with his hands, putting them above his head, and headbanging.

Po laughs at his father. When Mr. Allen is done re-living his youth, he and Po go downstairs and join his mother for dinner. As good as everything is, he barely tastes it. Out of the book, with no music to drown things out, his mind jumps to all the things he needs to do. He’s still got math to finish up, something for English that he can’t remember, but he’s sure he’s written down somewhere. Remembering the test coming up in AP Chemistry, he tells his parents Clarissa suggested a study session.

With that, Danny comes back to the forefront of his mind. He knows Clarissa isn’t worried, but she’s more optimistic than he is, at least where Danny is concerned. The tree incident last year was just the most recent incident, the most blatantly bad. There are others that led up to it. Maybe they weren’t as flashy, but thinking back on them, instead of enjoying his dinner, Po can’t help but think they were just as drastic.

The incident before the tree, Danny had been up for three days convinced he was on the right track to decoding the symbols. It had scared Po to see his friend become more and more erratic over those three days, but the third day had been Friday; he thought a couple days at home with his parents would get him settled down. Then, that night, the Carvers called his parents looking for Danny. They couldn’t find him all weekend. On Monday, they found Danny in one of the school’s classrooms. He’d been there all weekend “translating” the journal. He’d filled all the lesson boards in three classrooms with his scribblings. Some of his writing was in French, some in Spanish, pages ripped out of text books left in the rooms organized to help him. When they brought Po in to talk to Danny, he said some of the symbols only made sense in French or Spanish. Po had cried in front of Danny, the assistant principal, and the janitor when he saw his friend like that. Danny broke down into tears too, but only when Po was able to talk him out of the room and into the paramedics’ waiting care. He screamed about his notes even as they drove away.

They treated Danny for dehydration and sleep deprivation. His parents even took him to a therapist. Po came over every day after school to check on him and bring him his work. Danny didn’t talk to anyone for a week. The therapist eventually said what happened was due to the sleep deprivation, and suggested they make sure Danny got the sleep he needed. The therapist didn’t mention the journal much; neither did Danny. Two weeks after the incident Danny came back to school. Po was excited, but when he saw his friend he knew something was wrong. When Po asked him about it, Danny angrily confessed that he couldn’t see the patterns in the symbols anymore. To Po’s relief, Danny didn’t do anything with the journal for a few months. Po thought he might have seen the last of it, but he hadn’t.

“Po, are you listening to us?” His mother’s voice cuts through his thoughts like a knife.

“What?” He sits forward and shoves a forkful of cold food into his mouth. “This is really good. Thanks for cooking, mom.”

“Oh sure, she did all the cooking, all by herself.” Mr. Allen puts on a face of mock hurt.

Po’s mother shoots him half of a glare. “Sweet child of mine, that’s not remotely what we were talking about.” She offers up a small smile.

“Oh…” Po tries to think what they were talking about, and comes up with nothing, his mind was too far away.

His mom reaches out, putting her hand on his. “What’s on your mind?” Po opens his mouth to say something, then shakes his head. Mrs. Allen looks across the table at her husband.

“You know you can talk to us, right, bud?”

Po moves his head in a half nodding gesture.

“Is it girls?” Mrs. Allen probes.

Po sighs. “No, it’s not girls. I’m not going to talk about girls with my mom.”

“No, heaven forbid you talk to the one person in this house who used to be one.” His mom makes a ‘hrmph’ face and crosses her arms.

Po knows his mom is being overly dramatic for his benefit, but he still feels like he should apologize. “Mom, I didn’t mean it like th-”

“It’s not drugs, is it?” His dad pipes in.

“What?” Po looks from his mom to his dad and back again. “It’s not drugs. Why would I be on drugs?”

“Oh my god!” Mrs. Allen sits up and grabs his head in both her hands. “Has the pressure gotten to my baby? Have you turned to the pot to take the edge off?”

Po freezes in place, not exactly sure what to do. “What edge? Why would I blow my chances at getting into a good college by smoking pot?”

“My baby!” Mrs. Allen half stands, pulling Po into a half standing position, smashing his head into her chest in an embrace.

“It’s not girls and drugs, is it?” His dad seems to be oblivious to the scene in front of him. “’Cause I did girls and drugs at the same time, I know how awesome they are.” He looks wistfully off into the distance.

Mrs. Allen lets go of Po and stands all the way up. “When did you ever do drugs and girls?”

Mr. Allen waves his wife’s question away. “It was before I knew you. They were glorious days.”

“Roooggeer.”

“What? They were.” Po’s dad still looks off into the distance.

“Roger!” Mrs. Allen throws a napkin at her husband. He jumps and looks at her. She nods her head towards Po.

“Oh, right.” Po’s dad finally seems to get the message. “Listen here, young man. I don’t care how much fun drugs and girls are, you can’t do them in this house. You’ll just have to wait until college like every other self-respecting American.”

Po’s mother had been nodding along up until the part about waiting for college for the girls and drugs. “Roger!”

Mr. Allen looks from Po to his wife and back again. “Your mother’s right. You should wait until you’re out of college for the girls and drugs. In the privacy of your own home.”

“Rooogeer!” Mrs. Allen throws another wad of napkin at him.

“I’m sorry, Patty. If he’s already tried the girls and the drugs there’s no going back now. The best we can do is hope he becomes successful so he can afford the habits.” Mr. Allen hangs his head in mock mourning.

“Oh, no!” Mrs. Allen sits back down, holding her head in her hands.

They sit like that for a few minutes in silence.

Po finally decides he should get up. “Since I have the weirdest parents in the world, I’m just going to head up to my room and finish up my homework.” Po gets up from the table and heads for the stairs.

“Hard work and determination, son. They’re just useless attempts to fill the hole where girls and drugs used to be.” His father calls after him.

His mother sobs.

Po takes the stairs two at a time. When he gets to his room he hears his parents laughing downstairs. He closes the doors behind him, automatically grabbing his earbuds before sitting down at his desk. As the music blares, he lets a smile crack his face. He loves his parents, but sometimes their humor is…well, it’s their humor.

It takes Po another couple of hours to get things finished up the way he likes. He even finds time to look at AP chemistry and jot down some notes for the study session. His parents are reading, their pre-bed ritual, when he goes down to let them know he’s going to bed. They seem to have calmed down, and they wish him a good night.

Po falls into bed physically and mentally exhausted. It still takes him longer than it should to fall asleep. He keeps thinking about Danny, wondering if his friend ate dinner that night, or ignored his food, if his friend is laying down at that moment, or caught in the throes of useless symbols.

Groggily, Po rolls over, reluctantly coming out of sleep, and grabs his phone. The screen reads, 3:15am, before he thumbs it to accept the text. Not surprised in the slightest, he reads the text from Danny.
I’ve done it. Talk 2 u 2morrow.

Po lets the phone fall from his hand onto the bed. “Great. It’s going to be one of those days.” He rolls over and goes back to sleep.

* * *

In the morning Po makes coffee. When his father sees him filling up a travel mug he raises an appraising eyebrow at him. “Long night.” His father reaches for a mug and pours his own cup of coffee. When Po grabs a second travel mug, his father whistles. “It was a very long night.”

Mr. Allen nods. “Is that for Danny?”

Po stops, feeling like he’s been caught. “He texted me a little after three this morning.”

“You know.” Mr. Allen puts down his mug, steps forward, and wraps his arm around Po in a quick hug. “Your mother was right, you are a better person than us.”

Po gives his dad a quick smile. “I’m going to be late.” He leaves the house, getting to the top of the street only a minute or two before Clarissa.

“Oo, is that for me?” She reaches for Po’s second travel mug.

Po moves it out of her reach. “Get your own. This is for Danny.”

“He texted you too?” Clarissa falls into step next to him.

“Of course he texted me too. He woke me up.” Po’s more than a little annoyed about that.

“And you’re supposed to be smart.” Clarissa ‘clucks’ her tongue a couple times. “I turned my phone off last night just in case of that.”

Po’s face scrunches in frustration. He does wish he’d thought of that. He could have always seen the text this morning, at a reasonable hour, when he turned his phone back on. Letting out a long, exasperated breath, he stops at the top of Danny’s street.

“He’s not here.” Po shuffles the mug around and brings out his phone to check the time.

“Hey, you are smart.” Clarissa smiles at him. “He’s just late. Give him a minute.”

Po and Clarissa wait for more than a minute. The three of them have a five-minute rule. So, Po and Clarissa wait the pre-requisite five minutes.

When the five minutes are up, and they don’t see Danny coming up the street, Clarissa grabs a mug out of Po’s hand. “Mine now.” She takes a swig and moves down the sidewalk. She’s half a dozen steps away when she realizes she’s walking alone and turns around to look at Po. “We’re going to be late.”

Po waits for a couple beats, sighs, and turns away from Danny’s street. He keeps looking back as they walk away.

“He’s fine. He’s done this before.” Clarissa tries to be encouraging as she slurps more coffee.

“That’s what I’m afraid of.” Po sips his own coffee; more to cover his nervousness than for anything else.

Po tries to concentrate on school work. Mainly it’s useless. His notes are scribbles, his answers are half-hearted, his attention short. All day he keeps waiting for Danny to show up. Clarissa is right, Danny has done this before. Sometimes, when Danny doesn’t meet them in the morning, he shows up during first or second period. Ten minutes after the start of second period, Po’s eyes are locked on the door to the class room, but Danny doesn’t come strolling through, hair barely combed.

Po keeps his head down during class after that. He doesn’t want to keep looking at the clock, he knows it’ll only feel like forever if he does that. Plus, he doesn’t want to interact with anyone at the moment, he feels too frantic. He keeps seeing images of Danny in his head, of Danny doing crazy things.

“He’s probably just sleeping. The asshole.” The thought of Danny sleeping on his couch brings a smile to Po’s face.

He jumps when his phone vibrates in his pocket. Looking up to see if anyone heard that, his eyes dart around the room. Mr. Parks is at the board, diligently explaining the lesson, which Po has barely paid attention to, and no one around him seems to have noticed. Putting his head back down, he slides his phone from his pocket and sets it on his leg. He knows it’s a weak effort to be stealthy, but he hopes the effort is enough not to disrupt class.

He lets go a breath he doesn’t know he’s holding when he sees it’s a text from Danny.

Where r u?

Po shakes his head, but can’t help the smile that appears on his face.

Class. Where r u?

Before Danny’s response comes back, Po quickly turns off ‘vibrate’ on his phone so the communication is silent.

Discovering new worlds. >/ Ur supposed 2 b here!

The room turns cold, Po’s heart beats in his throat, his breath comes in short jolts. Po reads and re-reads Danny’s text. He tries to figure out what it means, he hopes it doesn’t mean his friend has had a psychotic break, he hopes Danny isn’t hallucinating. After the tree incident, Po spent some time researching mental illness, he’s as much of an expert as the Internet could make him. Sitting in class, staring at the text, he tries to figure out what he should do next.

Looking up, he searches the classroom for Clarissa. Her face is already turned towards him, concern writ large on her features. She mouths the words, Are you okay?

Po shakes his head, no, and mouths back, Danny.

Re-re-reading Danny’s text Po types with a shaking finger.

Do you need me to call someone? Where r u really?

Po stares at his phone so hard his eyes start to burn. Smashing them shut, when he opens them, he focuses on the Mr. Parks and the lesson board. He takes the time to jot down some of what’s there, but his eyes keep flicking down to his phone. Finally, the screen lights up with a response.

What?! I don’t need ‘someone’, I need you. I’m at home.

Po taps his screen to keep his hand from shaking. He lets out a long breath and comes to a decision.

I’m calling your parents.

The response is almost instant.

Don’t! Just come here!

“Mr. Allen, can I ask what’s so intriguing in your lap?” Mr. Park’s voice snaps Po’s head up, bringing his attention back to the class. Several kids laugh, and Mr. Park waves it down.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to disrupt class.” Po stammers out quickly.

Mr. Park deflates a little. “So you’re on your phone.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Po sees Clarissa jump and then sneak her phone out of her pocket.

“Need I remind you of school policy, Mr. Allen?” Mr. Park looks at him with disappointment.

“I’m checking on a friend.” Po blurts this out before he can stop himself.

Mr. Park narrows his eyes at him.

Po looks around the classroom, some of the students look at him disdainfully, thinking he’s just trying to get out of trouble. One or two of the faces have recognition painted on them. Po knows not everyone knows about what happened with Danny, but enough know that his outburst could make its way through the school.

“And how is your friend, Mr. Allen?” Mr. Park isn’t the biggest fan of Danny. It’s not, Po believes, that Mr. Park doesn’t think depression and things aren’t real problems, it’s just that Mr. Park thinks Danny is using what’s happened to him as excuses to get away with more stuff.

Po gives him a weak smile and shrugs. “Touch and go?”

“That’s too bad. Now, if we can-”

The bell cuts off the end of the sentence, and of class.

“Don’t forget about tonight homework; it’s on the board.” Mr. Park hollers over the rush of kids leaving the room. “Mr. Allen, I don’t want to see your phone tomorrow.”

Po nods as he passes Mr. Park and heads into the hall. He catches Clarissa as she leaves the room. They fall into step, their own little island in a sea of bodies. “What did Danny send you?”

She flips her phone towards him.

Talk to him. U need to come over.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean? Talk to you about what?” Clarissa looks at him with the spark of fear in her eyes. She’s not panicking yet, but Po thinks she’s not far off.

Po grabs her arm, slowly and steadily steering her down the hall and off to the side of their classmates. He looks around the hall, making sure none of the teachers that are out in front of their rooms are looking. With a suddenness that causes Clarissa to yelp, Po pushes her into the boys’ bathroom, following close behind her.

There are a couple boys in there already, one checking his hair in the mirror, the other at a urinal. The boy by the sink flinches away from the mirror when he sees Clarissa, then sneers at both of them and leaves. The boy at the urinal glances over his shoulder and chuckles when he sees Po pushing Clarissa towards the back of the room.

“Po, stop pushing me.” She tugs at her arm, but Po doesn’t let go until they’re in the back corner. “What a wonderful smell you’ve discovered.” She glares at him, but underneath he can see the panic rising, turning from a spark into a fire. “Now are you going to tell me what this is about?”

“It’s about this.” Po hands her his phone. While she reads the texts, Po keeps glancing at the bathroom door.

“This sounds like Danny.” She hands the phone back to him, annoyance and confusion on her face.

“Yeah. That’s the problem, it sounds too much like Danny.” Po thumbs through the messages, re-re-re-reading them.

“Po, I don’t think-”

“I’m going to see him.” Po reluctantly turns off his phone and puts it in his pocket.

Clarissa nods. “Do you think Mr. Murphy will let us skip out on tutoring today?”

Po shakes his head. “I’m going to see him now. He needs me.”

“You’re going to skip school?” Her faces twists with disbelief. “You never skip school.”

“Desperate times and all that. Are you coming?”

Clarissa opens and closes her mouth several times trying to form an answer. “Don’t you think you’re jumping the gun? He’s at home, how much trouble can he get into?”

“He’s at home alone, and in five hours who knows where he could be. Are you coming?” Annoyance spreads through Po quickly, not that he’s made his mind up he doesn’t want to waste any time.

“Won’t your parents be mad if you skip school?” Clarissa looks unsure, Po doesn’t know if he’s ever seen her unsure of anything.

“They’ll understand-”

“Are you sure?” There’s panic in Clarissa’s voice now.

“I don’t know! Okay? But Danny is my friend, and I’m worried about him.” Clarissa backs up against the wall. Po wasn’t expecting the words to come out so rough.

“He’s my friend too.” Clarissa looks hurt and a little scared. “Look, I remember the tree incident-”

“Do you? Do you really?” Po can feel the annoyance turn to anger. “Do you remember the look on Danny’s face as he sat in the tree. Do you remember having to convince your friend of twelve years that you are who you say you are? Do you remember him mapping out the conspiracy to keep the symbols secret? Do you remember the lies you had to tell your friend to get him out of the tree and into his parents’ car?” Po’s eyes sting and his face is wet. He sucks in a deep, snotty breath, trying to get himself under control.

Clarissa’s face quivers, tears filling her eyes. “Oh, Po. I’m sorry. I didn’t know that. Why didn’t you say something?” She reaches out for him.

Po takes a step away, and she puts her hands down. “Because that’s just the way it is. When Danny goes off the deep end, they call me.” Po swipes at his face, but talking about what happened as sprung something inside of him, the tears won’t stop. “I don’t want to see my friend like that again. So, I’m going to skip school, of course I am. And I don’t care if my parents are mad or not, or if they’ll understand. Alright?” He takes another long breath, this time when he wipes away the wet on his face no more tears fall. “So, are you coming with me or not?”

Clarissa nods, wiping away her own tears. “I’m not going to let you do this alone.”

Po nods. “Alright then.”

* * *

It takes them twenty minutes to get out of the school and to Danny’s house. They have to keep reminding each other not to run. There were a couple close calls, a teacher in the halls, on their way to make copies, and a parent arriving out in front of the school, but neither of them said anything to them. The thought that it pays to be a good kid, because when you do something bad no one expects it of you, goes through Po’s head. The more he thinks about it, the sourer it feels. Po’s not a fan of breaking the rules, but he’s willing to do it for his friends. That thought doesn’t feel sour in his head, and he looks at Clarissa and smiles. He likes to think if he were in trouble her and Danny would break the rules for him.

In front of Danny’s house, a chill settles over Po. It makes him jittery, makes him want to keep moving. He practically jogs up to the house and bounds up the porch steps. He’s surprised to find Clarissa lagging, walking hesitantly up the walk and the porch steps.

When she finally joins Po on the porch she gives him a small smile. “I’m a bit nervous.”

Po nods slowly. “It’ll be okay.” He turns and raises his fist to knock.

Clarissa grabs his other hand, holding tight. “What…What should I expect?”

Po sighs and lets his hand drop from the door. “It’s hard to explain.” Po turns to her, fear blatant in her eyes. “Before, he’s been…consumed? Consumed with the symbols and what they mean.”

She smiles, a jolt of her mouth muscles, then it’s gone. “Nothing new there then.”

Po shakes his head. “No, it’s not like normally. He’ll…He might not know who we are.” She looks at him confused, but also like she wants to try to hug him again. “It’s like his obsession pushes everything else out of his mind.”

A tear falls down her face. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

Po squeezes her hand, still in his. “The important thing to remember is, he’s still Danny. And he’s never tried to hurt anyone.”

Clarissa nods and wipes the tear away. “Okay. I’m ready.”

Po sets his face, takes a deep breath, and turns back to the door. Before he can knock, the door opens slowly, Danny stands there smiling at them.

“It took you guys long enough.”

“Danny!” Po drops Clarissa’s hand, reaching out and grabbing his friend by the shoulders. “Are you okay?”

Danny reaches out and draws a ‘u’ on Po’s chest and giggles. “I’m wonderful. How are you?” He looks at Po with wide eyes, reaching towards his shoulder to pet at something.

Po takes a step back, getting a good look at him. “Are you high?”

“Jesus Christ, really?!” Clarissa pushes past Po, leaning in close to Danny to look at his eyes. “His pupils aren’t dilated. That’s good, right?”

“Oo, pretty.” Danny reaches out like he’s going to touch Clarissa’s hair, but stops just before he does and make a petting motion. “You have such a pretty aura.”

“Nope. He’s high as balls.” Clarissa takes a disgusted step away from him.

“Guys, I’m not high.” Danny protests.

“Goddammit, Danny. You had me worried.” Po steps back in the doorway. “I thought you were in trouble, and it turns out you’re just at home doing drugs.”

“I’m not high, Po.”

“Where the hell did you even get drugs?” Clarissa shouts over Po’s shoulder.

“Didn’t your dad hurt his ankle running last year? Are you on his leftover painkillers?” Po pushes past Danny into the house. “Where are they?” Po spins around in the front hall, now that he’s in he doesn’t know where to look.

“You idiot! We’re missing class because you.” Clarissa strides past him, picking up the shoes by the door and tipping them over looking for the pills. Po moves to join her.

“Stop!” Danny holds up his hand and a spark flies out from it.

Po and Clarissa freeze in place, not sure they saw what they did.

“What the hell was that?” Clarissa looks from Po to Danny.

Danny grins at them. “It’s magic.”

Po narrows his eyes at his friend, trying to figure out what’s happening this time around.

Clarissa looks at Po, confused and concerned. “Has that happened before.”

Po looks at her askance, not sure if she’s being serious or not. He shoves past her and grabs Danny’s hand. He examines it, turning it over and over, spreading the fingers, looking for flash paper, or oil, anything that could explain the spark.

“Are you finished, detective?” Danny is still grinning.

Po looks at his friend. “How did you do that?”

Danny takes his hand from Po and cupping Po’s face with it. “I translated the symbols. Some of them anyway. They unlock magic.”

Po looks Danny in the eyes, his breath coming in short bursts. He swallows hard to get his voice working. “Danny, you’re sick. We need to get you help.” Danny shakes his head, taking his hand away from Po’s face. “I’m going to call your parents.”

“I can’t believe you don’t believe me, Po.” Danny actually sounds hurt. “I want to share this with you. With both of you.” He looks at Clarissa and smiles.

Po has his phone out, but he hasn’t called anyone yet. It’s like he’s moving in a dream, he’s scared if he moves too fast it will break Danny’s calm.

“Do it again.” Clarissa’s voice shakes.

“What?” Po reluctantly takes his eyes off Danny to look at her. He mouths, what are you doing?

Danny smiles at her. “Do what again?”

“Do the spark thing again.” She looks to Po. “You looked at his hand, he doesn’t have flash paper, or…or whatever else, right?”

Po can’t believe she’s suggesting this. “No.”

“Okay then. We both saw the spark, right?” She looks at Po for confirmation.

“Yeah.” He can’t see where she’s going with this.

“Okay.” She nods, looking at Danny. “You want us to believe, you show us some of this magic.” Danny smiles, starts to say something. Clarissa holds up her hand to silence him. “Here’s the deal, you show some magic, but you have to agree to abide by our ruling. If we don’t see the magic, then you have to sit with us quietly while we wait for your parents to arrive. Deal?”

Po shudders inside. It’s something like this he wanted to avoid. He doesn’t want to go through this again. He has to admit that Clarissa has a good plan though.

Danny considers what she said for a minute, then nods. “Okay, but the spark was an accident. I didn’t mean to do it.”

“I’m calling your parents.” Po thumbs through his contacts until he finds Mr. Carver’s work number.

“Po,” Clarissa’s voice is clear and authoritative. “We made a deal. We’re going to let Danny show us his magic first.”

Po sighs, and nods. “Just try and do it again. Okay?” He looks at Danny expectantly, his eyes stinging again.

Danny looks at them for a moment, then walks past them into the living room. “I can do you one better.”

A Dinner For Crows-Part 1 (8,378 words)

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Po hears the rumble of the train coming from behind the school, and his mind drifts from his government homework. It drifts back to the train, wondering where it’s going and what it could be hauling in its steel cars. When he was younger, when he heard the trains late at night, he would imagine bright, comfy passenger trains, like in the Harry Potter movies. He’d imagine people dressed in suits and dresses. Sometimes these suits and dresses were formal, and the passengers were attending a fancy train party. Sometimes the suits and dresses were business like, the passengers are commuters, traveling home “heavy” with a day’s worth of adulthood.

A smile comes to his face that he ever thought of anyone “heavy with adulthood.” He tries to remember the last time he thought about the trains that pass through their town as passenger trains. All he can remember is that he was very young. He knows since he’s been in high school he’s only thought of them as freight trains, which they are, no passengers except the ones from his imagination.

Still he wonders about the trains, where they go. He didn’t think that many trains still ran, but, apparently, the ones near them still did. They don’t stop in town. Po thinks that’s what holds his attention, the trains’ other destinations, the places not here. Once or twice he almost looked up where the tracks led, but in the end, he didn’t. He doesn’t really want to know.

“I can’t find the coefficient.” The voice brings Po out of his thoughts and back into the library of Hubert Humphrey High.

“What?” He turns to look at Riley, the freshman, sitting next to him.

“The coefficient, I can’t find it.” He holds his notebook and math book out for Po to take.

Po forces himself not to scowl. It’s not Riley’s fault Po’s parents won’t let him have a job during the school year. It’s not Riley’s fault that Po chose to tutor as his afterschool activity for his junior year. Po blames himself. In his defense, there’s only so much piano practice, and online SAT courses someone can take before they just want a break. Tutoring is his break.

He lets out a sigh. “Check the back of the book. All the answers are in the back.” He peers down at his government work looking for where he left off.

There’s a jab in his shoulder from the corner of a book. “Only the even numbered problems have the answers in the back. Mrs. Wadsworth only assigns the odd numbered problems.” Riley shoves the book at Po.

Po shakes his head. He remembers Mrs. Wadsworth. She does only assign the odd number problems. He grabs the book from Riley and opens it on top of his government work. “You have the coefficient right here.”

Danny snorts from across the table. Po glances up to see his best friend tilted back in his seat reading a collection of Lovecraft stories, a smile that’s almost a sneer on his face. Most of the underclassmen are nervous of Danny, so he rarely has anyone to tutor. Po flips him off.

Mr. Murphy clears his throat two tables away. Po looks over to see him glaring in their direction. Mr. Murphy is the junior year math teacher, and head of the afterschool tutoring program. Po smiles at him by way of an apology, turning back to Riley.

“You’ve already got the answer.” He closes the book.

“But I don’t know if it’s the right answer.” Riley’s voice is high; it lends everything he says a whiny quality. “Can you check it for me?”

Po might not be able to blame Riley for him being a tutor, but he blames him for being so needy. He thinks the freshmen was homeschooled before he enrolled. It doesn’t make him feel better. He opens the book, copying the problem onto a fresh sheet of paper.

Po scans the opposite page of the math book to make sure he knows what Riley’s supposed to be doing. On his second run down the page he remembers learning this stuff and sets in on the problem.

He ignores the sound of Danny’s chair hitting the floor a few seconds later. When Danny pushes away from the table and gets up, Po glances back towards where Mr. Murphy was sitting. The teacher is gone. Po sighs again as he speeds up finishing the math problem.

Danny comes back from peering through the shelves of books and claps his hands. “Alright, lady and gentleman, the Hubert Humphrey High Occult and Arcane Club is officially in session.”

Despite himself, Po smiles. He still can’t believe Danny calls them that, has been calling them that since they got to good old triple H. Before that they were the West Washington Paranormal Detectives. Before even that, when they used to meet in their rooms and homework was little more than basic math and picture books, they were the Pepper-Pike’s Magicians’ Circle.

No matter what Danny calls them, it always centers around the-

Danny slams the leather-bound journal down on the table. “I call this meeting to order.”

Po freezes, staring at the book. Usually Danny is reluctant to take it out of its hiding place. Ever since his parents tried to take it away from him freshman year, he’s almost paranoid about keeping it squirreled away. If he’s brought it out in public, to school, then they’re about to go through a bout of complete obsession on Danny’s part. There will be new theories about what could be in the book, there will be sleepless night for Danny, and early morning texts for Po and Clarissa. The last time this happened Danny hadn’t slept all of Christmas break, and Po had to talk him down out of tree in the park.

“You know, I checked the school’s club directory. This isn’t a real club.” Riley’s voice hurts Po’s ears, it shakes him out of his thoughts again. Po looks down at the problem Riley wants him to check and scribbles out the rest of the work.

“It’s a secret club. Why would a secret club be on a directory?” Danny leans over the table, doing his best to be menacing. “In fact you shouldn’t even know about it. I may have to kill you.”

“If a club isn’t on the school directory it isn’t sanctioned by the school,” Riley doesn’t seem to be menaced by Danny. “So your ‘secret’ club is illegal, according to school rules.”

Danny’s features darken. “Well, according to school tradition you being a freshman means you get to get beaten on-”

“Here,” Po shoves the math book into Riley’s chest. “You’ve got the right answer. Finish up the rest of the problems, and when they’re all done I’ll double-check your answers.”

“Okay.” Riley takes the book and immediately starts in on the next problem.

“Yeah, you do your homework.”

“So, Danny, you brought the book out of hiding. What’s the special occasion?” Po tries to divert Danny’s attention away from Riley. As annoying as the freshman can be, Riley doesn’t deserve a shot of double-barreled Danny.

Danny’s eyes dart down to the book then to Po, a smile breaks out on his face. “Research, my brother. Research.” He turns and pulls his backpack from the floor to the table. Opening it, he pulls out a pile of pages.

Po has no doubt it’s covered in symbols and definitions and speculated meanings. As Danny gets his bag, Po sees Clarissa, the other member of their little club, and the freshman she’s tutoring, Christine, pull out piles of papers from their backpacks too. He suddenly feels left out.

“So did everyone get a call about the new research except for me?” He smiles at Clarissa and Christine. Clarissa smiles back, Christine ducks her face down, but not fast enough to avoid Po seeing her blush.

“Hey, bro, I tried to call you about it. But your mom was being all education-Nazis about you needing time to study.” Danny flips through his pages to about halfway then shoves the pages across the table at him.

“When was this?” Po gathers the pages, they’re full of images. Some of them are articles printed off the Internet, but most are just filled with images of symbols.

“A couple days ago?” Danny glares at Christine, who looks up, sees his glare, and puts her head back down. “And I don’t remember calling any freshman.”

Po thinks back to a couple days ago. He doesn’t remember studying for anything in-particular that day. He’s just finished an ACT prep test online and the next course doesn’t start for a couple of weeks. He has been practicing his jazz piano a lot, a compromise with his parents to get him to keep playing, that might be why he didn’t hear the phone. He makes a mental note to talk to his mom about screening his calls.

“I called her.” Clarissa speaks up. Danny affixes his glare on her.

“Why would you do that?” Po smiles at the absolutely baffled look on Danny’s face.

“Well, she’s seen some of the papers at my house, and I told her about the book. She-”

“You did what now?!” Danny’s features darken again. For her part, Clarissa rolls her eyes at him.

“I made her tell me.” Christine jumps in. “I said I would tell on her. Said I say she was a devil worshiper.”

Clarissa puts her hand on Christine’s shoulder. “Relax. Danny’s mostly just a loud bark.” It’s time for Clarissa to glare at Danny. “Right, Danny.”

The two stare at each other for a moment. “Woof.” Danny finally deflates into his seat.

“Besides, Christine is eager to help.” Clarissa smiles at the freshman girl.

Po smiles too. He’s aware of Christine, has seen her around school, mainly since she’s been hanging around Clarissa. Everyone knows Christine has three older brothers, her dad picks her up from school, and that her mom left town a couple years ago. It was some gossip back then, but it faded pretty quick. Po remembers hearing his mom talking about it with some of the other PTA moms. If Po had to hazard a guess, he would say Christine doesn’t need any help with math, she just wants to hang out with another girl. So, Po is happy that Clarissa has made friends. Not that he thought she wouldn’t, she’s like that. It’s one of the reasons he likes her.

Clarissa nods at the papers Christine holds.

“Right.” Christine shuffles through the papers she’s clutching. “I noticed one of the symbols Clarissa copied is a bird.” She shuffles quickly through the pages. “And I found all this stuff…on…where is it? Here,” she pulls a page out from the stack and flips it towards Danny. “I found all this stuff about the ibis bird in Ancient Egypt, and how it represented Thoth and knowledge and writing-”

“I know all this, Christy.” Danny tilts back in his chair again, arms crossed, looking bored and annoyed. “I knew all this when I was twelve.”

The freshman puts her head down, putting the paper on the table. “It’s Christine.”

“What?!” Danny practically spits the word at her.

Clarissa glares at him. She puts her hand back on Christine’s shoulder. “Keep going.”

“Okay.” Christine goes back to shuffling through her papers. “So then I thought, what if the person who put down the symbol didn’t mean the ibis specifically, but was just drawing a bird symbol in general. So, I looked up what the bird means…it’s here…I just saw it.”

Danny lets out a heavy sigh. Po stares at Danny until he looks in his direction, then he purses his lips and tilts his head at his friend. Danny takes his meaning, rolling his eyes and shrugging, but turning back to Christine with more patience.

“Here it is.” She pulls the paper from the pile. “The bird can represent the human soul, but it can also represent the swift power of thought.” She looks up, smiling.

There’s a silence as everyone waits for her to continue.

“Is that it?” Danny looks from Christine to Clarissa and back again. “First, we know all that. Second, it’s clearly an ibis in the book.”

The smile falls from Christine’s face. “Yeah, okay.” She puts the paper back on her pile and smashes it against her chest.

“Jesus, Danny!” Clarissa starts the yell before realizing where they are and quickly pitches her voice down to a whisper.

“What? What’d I do?”

“She knows you already fucking know that.” Clarissa puts her arm around Christine.

“Then why did she bring it up?” Danny lets his chair slam down on the floor.

“Guys, please.” Po jumps from his seat, moving quickly to the shelves to check them for Mr. Murphy. When he turns back around Clarissa and Danny are staring at him. He shakes his head and goes back to his seat.

“Because she has a theory.” Clarissa’s voice is low, but Po can hear the strain in it to keep it that way.

“Why didn’t she start with that then? Why did she start with stuff we already know? It’s stupid-”

“Because you make her nervous. I don’t know if you know this, but you make a lot of people nervous.” Clarissa pulls Christine into her when she says this, like a protecting sibling.

“I can’t help it if people can’t handle-”

“Guys,” Po snaps his fingers a couple times to get their attention. Danny’s mouth clicks shut as he turns his eyes on him, Clarissa rubs Christine’s hair. Po lets them look at him for a moment so they can calm down a bit. When he sure Danny’s about to speak again, he beats him to it. “What’s the theory?”

Clarissa whispers something in Christine’s ear, the freshman nods. She sits up from Clarissa and takes a minute to rearrange her papers needlessly.

“O-okay. So, I was looking at the ibis drawing Clarissa had, and after a while the edges blurred. You know, like when you say a word enough times, it kinda loses its meaning. And it started to look like a different drawing, like an eye.” She shuffles through her pages again. Po can feel Danny roll his eyes. “So…so I…” She pulls out another piece of paper. “So, I looked up eye hieroglyphs, and came up with the Eye of Horus.” She shows the paper to the table. “But then I thought, ‘that’s really dumb.’ Why would they use symbols at all if they were that bad at drawing?” She lets the paper fall to the table. “But then I thought, ‘what if they meant just a general bird symbol and they drew a symbol that closely resembles an ibis.” She looks at Danny and smiles. “That’s when I looked up what birds mean in other cultures.” Danny smiles back at her, a thin, strained smile that isn’t reassuring. Christine ducks her head to stare at her stack of papers. “But while I was reading all of that I had another thought, what if the bird symbol in the book is both an ibis and a bird?” She looks up again, this time looking between Danny and Po.

Danny narrows his eyes at her. “What do you mean?”

Christine, sort of half smiles. “I mean…well, the point of symbols is that they’re universal. That’s why they’re symbols.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Danny waves his hand in a faster-faster motion. “We’re all glad you got basic philosophy down.”

Clarissa huffs in frustration and shakes her head.

Christine doesn’t seem to notice this; she sits excitedly forward in her seat. “Clarissa said you think the book is written in code.” Danny shoots Clarissa another dirty look. “So I was thinking, if that’s true, then what if it’s a double meaning? Double bluff? Am I using that right?”

Po smiles at her confusion, and her theory. At the very least the theory is making Danny look confused. Po loves the guy, but every once and awhile he needs to be reminded he doesn’t know everything.

“Explain?” Danny takes out a pen and opens his notebook to jot this down.

“I mean what if the drawing of the bird is supposed to be an ibis and a general symbol of the bird. In that case, it’s like an emphasis of how important things are, and it’s supposed to connect the meaning of ibis to the meaning of the bird symbol.” Christine watches Danny write this down with joy plastered to her face.

Danny stops writing, chewing on the end of his pen. “If you’re right about this-”

“It could change the meaning of the whole book.” Clarissa finishes for him.

Po’s impressed. His opinion of Christine goes up. Although, he wonders how much of that was the freshman thinking all by herself, and how much Clarissa helped out with all that.

“That’s a pretty awesome theo-” Po sees Danny staring off into the distance, eyes far away. He’s seen that look before. “Danny-”

“We’ll have to go over the entire book from the beginning.” The words come out just above a whisper.

Po looks over at Clarissa. She meets his eyes with the same trepidation and fear in hers.

“Danny?” They intone together.

“What’s so special about this book that it needs to be hidden?” Riley’s voice cuts through mood of the table.

Po turns towards him, and freezes. Riley sits next to him flipping through Danny’s book. “Riley, give that to me.”

“It needs to be hidden so nosy pricks like you can’t take it.” Danny leans across the table, tries to swipe the book from Riley’s hands. Riley, more aware of his surroundings than any of them would have guessed, leans back in his chair, and Danny just misses grabbing the book.

“Why don’t you photocopy it? Or scan it into a computer? That way even if nosy pricks like me take it, it’s only a copy?” Riley stops on a page, looks at it, turns the book upside down and continues to stare at it.

Danny jumps up from his chair and half runs around the table. “The pages won’t copy. There’s something with the ink that makes it blend in with the page or reflect the light from copiers.”

Po sees the look on Danny’s face, sees his friend clenching his fists, and stands up in his way. Danny bumps into him, not hard, and tries to go around. Po steps in front of him. “Danny, don’t.”

Danny looks at him, the anger in his eyes fading to annoyance. “You get it back from him then.”

Po nods and turns around to say something to Riley. He sees Riley lick his finger. “What are you doing?”

“I want to test the ink.” He brings his finger up to the page.

“If any of your saliva touches that book, I’ll cut off that finger and feed it to you.” Danny’s voice is calm and even as it comes over Po’s shoulder. Riley’s finger stops almost touching the page. Even Po’s shoulders tense at the threat his friend issues.

Po steps forward and puts his hand on top of the book, but he doesn’t try to take it yet. “Riley, I’m going to ask for the journal back once, and if you don’t give it to me I’m going to move out of Danny’s way.”

Po sees Clarissa and Christine at the end of the table, beyond Riley. The freshman keeps shooting her gaze between Danny, behind Po, and Riley, in front of Po. She’s got a look of frightened awe on her face. She’s scared to see what happens next, but she’s also intrigued. Po gets it. That’s how he usually feels when Danny’s around. Clarissa, on the other hand, has a wide, thin smile on her face. It looks like she’s giggling under her breath. For as many years as she’s known both Po and Danny, Po knows she gets a kick out of them and the situations they get into. She calls them a double act. Po can’t figure out why she gets such a kick out them.

“I just wanted to take a look.” Riley lets go of the book so suddenly that Po almost drops it.

Po gives Riley a measuring look, and decides he doesn’t like the freshman. He hands the journal back to Danny. Danny snatches the book from Po’s hands. He caresses the page Riley was on, Po guesses to check it for any dampness. When his hand leaves the page, and he’s satisfied, he starts toward the other side of the table, flipping through pages.

Po takes his seat next to Riley, and waits for his friend to sit down. “I told you to finish your homework.” He doesn’t look at Riley, doesn’t think he can at the moment.

“I did finish. You have to check them now.” Riley slides his book over in front of him, pushing his government book to the side.

Po ignores the math book, still focused on Danny, who hasn’t looked up from the book yet. There’s a tap on the table, and when he turns away from Danny, Clarissa frowns at him. She mouths, ‘Is he okay?’ Tilting her head to indicate Danny.

Po smiles, then shrugs. He mouths back, ‘I don’t know.’

“Did you ever think that was a code?” Riley pipes up again.

Danny’s head whips up to look at him. “Are you still here?” Danny’s shoulders slump slightly and he sits down, closing the book.

“You know, the pattern of blank pages versus the pattern of reflective pages?” He looks from Danny to Clarissa and then to Po. “It could be some type of code too.”

“No, Riley. I’ve only had the journal since I was eight years old. I’ve never thought that everything about it was a code or not.” Danny halfheartedly glares at him.

“I’m just sayin-”

“Don’t you have any other work to do?” Po interrupts him before he punches the freshman let alone having him set off Danny again.

“Yeah, but this is math tutoring.” Riley looks at him like this should explain it all.

“Why don’t you start something else while I check your work.”

Riley gives him an annoyed look, but he reaches for his bookbag.

“What did you want to go over today?” Clarissa chimes in, bringing attention back to the book and not Riley.

Danny smiles and nods. “Right.” He looks through his pile of papers, pulling out a chunk of them and sliding them across the table to Clarissa. “Recently, I’ve been having dreams about the journal.”

Riley snorts as he opens his science book. Everyone does their best to ignore him.

“And this got me thinking,” Danny continues. “I want to try a memory exercise with you and Po.” A broad smile spreads across his face. “I’ve given each of you the same forty pages of images. I’d like you to look at them and circle the ones you remember from the book.”

Clarissa picks up the pages and flips through them quickly. “Forty pages? Really?” She looks at Danny forlornly. “And what is this supposed to do?” She circles a couple images on the first page absently.

“Well, your pet freshman has a point.” He points to Christine. She doesn’t correct him about her name this time. “Symbols are universal. My thinking is, if you both circle the same images from memory then those must be the most important symbols. It will give me something to focus on.” He tilts his head back and puts his hands behind his head like he’s just put forth a flawless hypothesis.

Po shakes his head as he scans the first page of images. Danny’s riding the high of a new theory. It’ll last a few days, even extending into a week or two as he tries to translate the book according to his new code. It’s the frustration and anger on the other end as the new formula fails to break through the code that may or may not be in the journal he’s worried about.

Po looks over the first page of images for a third time. He’s only circled three on the front page. Squinting at the images, he can’t believe he only recognizes three images. He starts at the top again, this time moving slowly across each line of symbols. He circles one, looks at it again, and then scribbles out the circle. Getting to the bottom of the page he can’t believe he still only has three symbols circled.

He holds the page in front of him at arm’s length, trying to take all the image in at the same time. Suddenly all the images seem familiar to him. Then, just like that, he’s not even sure the ones he circled are right. His eyes relax, like he’s looking at one of those optical illusion pictures, and all the symbols blur.

He puts the page down and shuts his eyes. He counts to ten in his head before he opens his eyes again. The symbols aren’t blurred when he opens his eyes, but none of them look any more familiar. Even the ones he’s already circled look foreign to him. Deciding to leave the circled ones alone, he moves the page to the bottom of the pile and focuses on the next one.

With this page, he takes his time. He tries not to see past the line he’s looking at, but it’s hard not to look at the symbols surrounding them. “Could you have put more symbols on these pages?” Po puts the pile down and rubs his eyes.

“That’s sort of the point.” Danny grins at him. “I’m looking for gut reactions. Bombard you with just enough images that you’re confused so you have to go on instinct.”

“Great.” Po can feel a headache coming on.

Riley taps his shoulder. “Can you check my math work first?”

“This is important.” Danny’s back to glaring.

“Math is important. This is…” Danny stands up, leaning on the table expectantly. Riley looks at him for a moment. “I don’t know what this is.” He points at the symbols on Po’s pages.

“Damn right you don’t.” Danny sits back down.

Po slides Riley’s book across the table at Danny. “You check his work. I’ll check the symbols.” He holds up the pile of pages. “Two birds with two stones.” Po smiles at Danny then at Riley.

“I’m not doing anything for him.” Danny snatches the book from the table, pulling back his arm to toss it back at them.

“It’s not for him.” Po’s statement freezes Danny in place. “It’s for me.” Danny looks at him, unconvinced. “If his work doesn’t get checked, he could complain to Mr. Murphy. Then I get in trouble because I’m his tutor. If I get in trouble here, I’ll get in trouble with my parents. I could get grounded. Then who are you going to research your book of symbols with?”

“Hellooo. You do know I can hear you, right?” Clarissa waves at both of them when they look at her.

“Sorry. Other than Clarissa.” Po adds, smiling at her.

She huffs, is about to say something.

“You’re right.” Danny admits.

“Hey!” Clarissa grabs a piece of paper from Christine’s pile, crumples it into a ball, and chucks it at Danny.

Danny ducks to the slide, and the ball flies into the stacks behind him. He sticks his tongue out at her when he sits back up. She returns the sentiment, before going back to the symbols.

Danny flips open Riley’s math book, taking out the freshman’s problems.

Po turns to Riley and smiles reassuringly at him. Riley stares at him for a moment, frowning, then he looks at Danny, before returning to his science book. Po shakes his head, then goes back to looking at lines and lines of symbols.

He tries to keep in mind what Danny said about going with his gut. The next few pages he gets through quickly, circling one or two images here and there. After flipping the fifth page, his brain kicks in, and he starts feeling like he’s missing something going so fast. He brings the last five pages back to go over them again.

What’s frustrating is that after looking at the pages again, more slowly, he doesn’t circle any other images. He can also see Riley out of the corner of his eye, the kid keeps looking across the table at Danny nervously and tapping his pencil on his notebook. Po wants to tell Riley to give it a rest; that Mr. Murphy wouldn’t have let Danny in the tutoring program if he didn’t think Danny knew his stuff.

He wants to say this, but he’s worried if he says something it will set Danny off again. Danny’s his best friend, and one of the smartest kids in he knows, but he knows how he looks to everyone else. Danny’s behavior is erratic. It’s not so bad for Po and Clarissa, they know how to navigate their friend’s moods, but it’s hard for everyone else. When Danny’s parents took away the journal their freshman year, Po was relieved. That was when he had to talk him out of the tree in the park. He hoped not having the book around would have Danny focus on school. It’s just too bad they didn’t hide it well enough.

Po shrugs mentally. Danny’s been tree free for more than a year now, and he has been doing well in school. To be honest, Po thinks Danny does so well in school to prove his parents wrong. He doesn’t really care why Danny does it. Po just wants to survive high school, appease his parents, and get to college, preferably one across the country. He hopes Danny wants roughly the same thing, but sometimes he wonders about his friend.

Meanwhile, he’s got “club duties” to attend to. He skims over the last five pages one more time, just to make sure he hasn’t missed anything. Then concentrates on the next page. On this page, he circles ten symbols before he’s halfway down it. He starts to feel that maybe his memory is playing tricks with him.

Although, he can’t discount the fact that Danny may be messing with them. Danny put the pages together. It’s possible Danny mashed the images up on purpose.

Po pushes thoughts of his friend’s diabolicalness out of his mind and re-focuses on the images.

In the last line of images on the page, there’s an image that looks like a flag in the wind. It makes Po think of what started this whole thing, pirates.

Danny’s face, a smiling, chubby face, swims out of the depths of memory into the front of Po’s mind. They’re in the back of Danny’s parents’ car, the mid-morning sun making the interior overly warm. Neither one of the eight-year-old boys care. They bounce up and down on the seat, barely able to contain themselves.

Po had spent the night at Danny’s house last night specifically so he could go with him and his parents on their monthly ritual. They were going to Danny’s grandmother’s house, and the two boys grinned at each other because of it.

Danny’s grandfather had died a couple years after he was born, he never knew his dad’s dad. However, he loved his grandmother dearly, and got to see her on a regular basis. Danny’s parents made sure to take one weekend out of every month to drive over to his grandmother’s house, do work that needed to be done around the house, and have a big family meal afterwards.

Po had been coming along for some time now. He didn’t get to come every time they went, but he’d been there enough times that Danny’s grandmother now insisted that he call her Grams. Po still called her Grandma Carver sometimes, and she would scold him every time. Every time Danny would laugh.

This might not sound like something two eight-years, especially boys, would be excited about, but as Mr. Carver pulled into the driveway the boys jumped out of the car before it fully stopped moving. Po and Danny stopped side-by-side on the front yard, like they always did, and looked up at Grandma Carver’s house.

Po had never seen a mansion before coming with Danny to his grandmother’s house; and while the house might not have been a mansion, strictly speaking, it was one of the biggest houses in town. It was three stories tall, the first floor, the second floor, and a full attic, there was also a full basement. The two boys had searched and played in much of the house, but they always felt like there was something else to find when they were here.

The car doors slammed behind them. “Boys, how many times do I have to tell you to wait for the car to stop before you-”

“Grams!” Danny sprints for the porch and his grandmother, as she steps out of the house. Po is hot on his heels.

Danny slams into her at a full run, wrapping his arms around her in a tight hug. Po sees her stagger slightly, and stands off to the side.

“Well, now.” Grams’ smile looks as warm as the sun feels. She wraps her arms around Danny. “Is this my grandson or some type of weed? You must have grown six feet since I last saw you.”

Po sees Danny squeeze her tighter and smiles himself. “Hello, Grandma Carver.”

“Oh! Another one? It’s an invasion.” She holds out her arms towards him. “Well, come in here.” Po eagerly steps forward and wraps his arms around her and Danny. “And what did I tell you about calling me, Grandma Carver?”

Po lets go and stares up at her. “Sorry, Grams.”

She smiles down at him. “That’s better.”

Mr. and Mrs. Carver come up the stairs of the porch. “Okay, Danny. Give your grandma room to breathe.”

“Richard, if you’re going to bring weeds into my yard, then you’re going to have to start doing the gardening.” She leans forward and kisses him on the cheek.

“Hi, Mom.” When Mr. Carver moves away from her, he pulls Danny along. Mrs. Carver moves in for her own hug. “I thought we’d rake the lawn today, maybe check the gutters.”

“Whatever you want to do, dear. I’m just glad you haven’t forgotten about your old mother.” Grams puts the back of her hand on her forehead, swaying slightly.

Po smiles at the interaction. He never got to know his grandparents, but he likes to think they’d be much like Grams.

“Are those cookies?” Danny sniffs around the open front door like a dog.

Po inhales deeply, catching the faint whiff of chocolate chips.

“Oh, dear.” Grams looks overly concerned. “Are they? I just don’t know. Why don’t you boys go investigate.”

Danny turns quickly to smile at Po before taking off into the house. Po pounds after him.

“Only one or two! You don’t want to spoil yourselves for dinner!” Mrs. Carver’s voice follows them into the house, but the boys are too focused on the thought of cookies to care about what she said.

In the kitchen, sitting on the island, is a plate of over a dozen chocolate chip cookies. Danny grabs one in each hand, and Po follows suit. They’re still warm. When Po takes a bite the edges crunch, but the center is soft, almost liquid chocolate chip falls into his mouth. The two boys grin at each other as they shove first one cookie, then the other into their mouths. Simultaneously, they grab two more cookies from the plate.

“Mom, it doesn’t make sense for you to pay someone to rake your lawn. We don’t mind, do we Megan?”

“Of course not.”

Po and Danny look at each other as they hear his parents coming. They shove the rest of their cookies into their mouths and grab two more. Danny spins Po around and shoves the two cookies into his back pockets, then turns for him to do the same.

“I’m just saying, I don’t mind paying for someone to do the work. I just like spending time with my family.”

Po and Danny grab for another cookie.

“Boys, how many is that?” Danny’s father asks from the doorway. “Your mother said only two, Danny.”

“This is only our second, Dad.” Danny looks at his dad when he fibs, something Po can’t do, but Po can see him turning red.

“Are you sure?” Mr. Carver tilts his head forward, examining Danny.

“Oh, leave them alone, Richard.” Grams winks at them. “Growing boys need their sugar.”

Mr. Carver puts his hands on his hips, puffs out his cheeks, and narrows his eyes at them in a look Po has seen many times. “Alright, boys,” his voice comes out in a thick Southern drawl. “I’m not going to make a federal case about it. You’re gonna need your energy for all the rakin’ anyhow.”

Danny laughs at his dad’s voice, spraying crumbs into the air. This sets off Po’s own laughter, and he adds his own spray of crumbs to the atmosphere.

“Now, you boys, don’t go makin’ a mess now, ya hear?” Mr. Carver wags his finger at them.

“Richard, please. You’ll make them choke.” Mrs. Carver slaps her husband’s shoulder lightly.

“I can’t believe he still does that voice.” Grams puts in her two cents.

“He thinks it’s funny.” Mrs. Carver whisper is almost louder than her normal voice.

“I would think as his wife you would have trained it out of him by now.” Grams doesn’t even pretend to whisper.

“I would have, but so many other things took priority. Besides it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Mrs. Carver reaches out and pats Mr. Carver on the head.

“The sacrifices we make for our men.” Grams nods sadly.

Po watches the whole scene play out, slowly munching on the cookie in his hand. He leans over to Danny, “What are they talking about?”

“Huh?” Danny looks at him, finger in his mouth as he sucks chocolate from it.

Grams and the Carvers, minus Danny, burst into laughter. Po smiles hesitantly at them, not sure what’s funny, not sure if they’re laughing at him.

Mrs. Carver steps forward and takes a cookie off the plate. “You’ll understand when you’re older.” She pats the boys on the head. “I’ll help Grams start lunch, and then I’ll come out to help with the leaves.”

Mr. Carver steps forward and kisses Mrs. Carver. Po looks away nervously, he’s never sure if he’s allowed to see that or not. Mr. Carver steps to the side of his wife. “Well, gentlemen, I think that’s our cue.” He scoops Danny up by the waist and carries him on his hip through the back door of the kitchen into the yard. Danny laughs uncontrollably the whole way. Po runs out after them.

Mr. Carver hands out three rakes from the garage, and gives them their “plan of attack.” He’ll start at the house and work his way back, and Po and Danny will start at the middle of the yard and work forward. They’ll meet in the middle and sort the leaf piles from there.

Even as an eight-year-old Po recognizes that splitting the work like that will make it easier to finish. When he gets to where he and Danny decide the mid-point of the yard is, and looks back at the house, it seems much bigger than he thought. Po doesn’t say anything. He likes coming with Danny’s family to his grandma’s house, and he doesn’t want to mess that up.

So, he starts raking at one side of the yard, and Danny starts raking at the other side. They figure they can meet in the middle too. Two minutes later when they bump into each other Danny takes the opportunity to start a rake fight. They clash rake handles, making clanging and humming noises.

“You’ll never take me alive!” Danny lunges for Po’s stomach with the tip of the rake.

Po jumps to the side. “You will serve the Empire!” He swings at Danny and almost hits him in the head.

“Boys!” Mr. Carver’s voice cuts through their pretend. “Be careful!”

“Yes, Mr. Carver!”

“Yes, Dad!”

Danny pokes Po in the side with the rake. Po tries to poke him back, but he’s already running back to the side of the yard. Po runs back to the other side and continues working. He’s almost to the center again…

“Hey, Po!” Danny calls out to him, and without thinking he turns to see what his friend wants. A clump of leaves flies into his face. “Got you!” He can hear Danny’s laughter through the shower of leaves.

Wiping the dead tree from his eyes, Po scratches the ground with his rake, picking up his own clump of leaves and throws them at Danny. Immediately Danny gags and coughs.

“Ugh! That got in my mouth!” Danny spit leaf and dirt back onto the ground.

Po bursts out laughing.

“That’s it!” Danny flings his rake at him, lobbing more leaves in Po’s direction.

Po ducks, rolling back across the yard, like he’s seen in movies. The hail of leaves comes down between them. “You won’t catch me off guard again, rebel scum!” Po lobs leaves back in Danny’s direction.

The next few minutes the back yard is a blizzard of ballistic leaves. Each boy trying to catch the other in as many leaves as they can.

“Boys?!” Mr. Carver’s voice crashes over them, and they let the storm of leaves die down. “Are you being careful?!”

“Yes, Mr. Carver!” A clump of leaves hits Po right in the face. He tastes dirt in his mouth. He spits leaf and dirt into the yard.

“Now we’re even.” Danny grins at him.

They set back to work re-raking all the leaves they threw at each other. After a few minutes of that Grams comes out and hands them each a broom.

The boys toss the rakes to the ground. “What’s this for?” Danny hesitates before taking the broom from her.

“Well, if there are leaves down here.” She nods at the ground. “I’m sure there are leaves up there.” She looks up.

Po’s confused for a second before he realizes they’re under the big oak tree in her back yard. He looks at Danny, who grins back at him, and they both look up at the treehouse.

“Race you!” Po takes off through the leaves, almost losing his balance, but staying up. The slip gives Danny time to pass him though, and he’s the first one at the ladder up to the house.

Po’s smile is so big as he climbs the ladder up the tree, it hurts his face. The treehouse is one of the reasons the boys love coming to Grams’s house. He half suspects that Grams has given them a reason not to work, but there are leaves in the treehouse when they get to the top of the ladder. Po frowns, until he sees Danny run across the floor like holding the broom like a hockey stick and throwing the leaves off the side of the treehouse. The boys watch the leaves scatter and flutter to the ground. When most of the leaves have landed, they pound across the floor and do the same thing, only together, making an even bigger scattered cloud of leaves. After five times of this all the leaves, except for a few in the corners, are out of the treehouse.

As the last of the leaves hits the ground Po, breathing heavy, turns to Danny. “What now?”

Danny looks up at the sky thoughtfully. “I don’t kno-En Garde!”

Po jumps back, barely getting the broom handle in front of him to deflect Danny’s swing. “Oh, ho! Dirty tricks, is it?” Po swipes at Danny and he ducks under the handle. “Attacking a man by surprise, is it?” This time Danny brings his handle up to meet his, and there’s a satisfying ‘clak’ of wood hitting wood.

Danny’s grin broadens. “Pirate.” He taps his chest, then lunges forward.

Po deflects the handle to the side, then spins toward Danny, bringing his handle around as he does. Danny hops back twice, bringing the broom handle up in a salute. Then he yells, advancing, bringing the handle down and up in front of him wildly. Po can only bring his handle up to block and retreat.

“I should have recognized your kind. This is the last time you’ll befoul my ocean.” Back up against the railing, Po holds his handle out in front of him defiantly.

Danny stops yelling, letting the broom handle drop in down. “Befouled?”

Po lets his own handle drop. “It’s in one of the books my mom made me read. I looked it up, I’m using it right.”

Danny nods. “Okay.” He snaps the handle back up and takes four quick swings at Po. Each time Po defends, then starts his own advance on Danny. He retreats, “You don’t fool me. You don’t want justice. You’re just after my treasure.”

“Idle boasts! If you had a treasure, would you have a better ship?” Their handles make another loud ‘clak’ as they meet and neither pulls theirs away.

“This is why you’ll never make a good pirate, you don’t think deviously. Obviously it’s a secret treasure.”

Po shoves Danny’s handle away. “From you, sir, I will take that as a compliment.”

They advance and retreat, retreat and advance several times across the treehouse. There’s lots of ‘clakking’.

“It seems we are equally matched, empyreal pig-dog.” Danny says through mock heavy breathing.

“Yes, I have to agree, criminal scum. Your skills as a pirate do equal my own. Somehow.”

They ‘clak’ around the treehouse a couple more times.

“Perhaps, we can make a deal then.” Danny wiggles his eyebrows at Po. Po almost bursts out laughing, breaking character, but keeps his empirical cool.

Po takes a couple more swipes at him. “I don’t make deals with cutthroats.”

Danny takes a couple swipes at him. “A pirate never goes back on his deals.”

Po narrows his eyes at him. “Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure.” Danny cocks his head to the side, thinking.

“Good enough for me. What do you propose?” Po tries to sound as official as possible, but he keeps smiling.

“A truce. I don’t try to kill you, you don’t try to kill me, and we split the treasure.” Danny winks at him.

Both the boys crack up laughing. After a few minutes, Po gets himself under control again. “Deal.” He drops his “sword” to the floor.

Danny brings the tip of the broom up to Po’s chest. “And now,” he smiles at Po. “To find that treasure.” He tosses his “sword” to the floor too.

Po lets out an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Where are we headed?”

“Ah, yes. We’re headed,” Danny beckons Po to follow him as he steps through the treehouse and out the other side. “There.” He points at Grams’s house.

“No.” Po tries to put as much fear into his voice as he can.

“That’s right.” Danny looks at him, also in mock terror. “Hangman’s Isle.”

“Oh, no!” They intone together. Laughing, they run back to the ladder, scooping up the brooms and chucking them over the railing to the yard. Going down the ladder is slower than going up, but they force themselves to move slowly. Neither one of them wants to slip and get hurt, again.

Picking up the brooms, Danny crouches behind the tree. He points to the yard. His mother is out, putting the piles of leaves into garbage bags. Mr. Carver is up on a ladder cleaning out the gutters.

Danny makes a shushing motion. “The Isle is guarded by fearsome creatures.”

Po snorts, then clears his throat. “Do you have a plan for getting past them?”

“Of course I do.” Danny smiles. “On my signal.” Po nods. Danny looks around the tree, holds up his hand, and counts to three with his fingers. “RUN!”

He darts from around the tree. Po, smiling because this always Danny’s plan, sprints after his friend. They kick up leaves as they go full speed for the back door.

Mrs. Carver looks up from the leaves she’s shoving into the bag. “Boys, no running in the house.”

“Okay, Mom.” Danny blows past her without looking.

They pound up the back stairs.

“And don’t go into the attic!” Mr. Carver shouts down at them.

“Right, Dad.” Danny rips the back door open, barely slowing down. Po follows after him.

“Leave the brooms in here.” Grams is busy checking something in the oven.

Danny skids to a stop, Po running into his back and almost pushing him over. “Yes, Grams.” The boys look around for a spot to put the brooms. Danny finally settles on leaning them on the wall next to the pantry.

“Thank you, boys!”

“You’re welcome, Grams.” The boys stand there, waiting to see if she has something else to say to them.

“Well, off you go.” She smiles at them, wiping her hands on her apron.

They take off at a full sprint out of the kitchen and down the hall. Danny stops at the bottom of the stairs. He puts his hands on his knees, and Po joins him. “Now that we’re on the isle, we must tread even more carefully. There are many dangers here, and there might be booby traps.”

Po nods knowingly, he partially straightens and looks around them. “Are there cannibal natives?”

“And more besides.” Danny assures him.

“We better find the treasure and be on our way then. Tell me you have a map.”

“Of course I have a map.” Danny reaches behind him and brings his fist back around. He unrolls an invisible map and studies.

“What’s it say?” Po can’t wait to hear where Danny says the treasure is.

“It’s in a cave up the mountain.” Danny smiles at him.

Both boys bolt up the stairs, headed for the attic.