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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.

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