NaNoWriMo-2016-First Draft

INTRODUCTION

So, back in November 2016 I decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month. The idea was to write everyday, or close to it, and post what I did at the end of the week. For those of you that follow the blog (thank you, by the way), you know that that’s kinda what happened, but not really. I “failed” NaNoWriMo, meaning I didn’t get the 50,000 word mark (life and things do get in the way sometimes).

Fear not though, I decided to continue the project. I would write the story to completion and post it for your enjoyment. Cut to, three hundred and fifty-four pages and a year later. Some of you out there in the ether of the Internet may have been waiting with bated breath for this (thanks for your patience), and some of you may have stumbled upon this by accident (in which case: welcome!). Whichever the case, I’d like to put a disclaimer here.

DISCLAIMER: The project has yet again morphed. You’re still getting a story, in fact, you’re getting two. The project has morphed and grown, as these things can do sometimes. What started as a fun, month long side thing, has eaten a year of my life. As such, I’ve decided to give it the respect that means (for me). So, instead of a month long writing exercise this is now a trip down my writing process.

What you have here, if you’re paying attention to the link/title, is the first draft of the story. Other than light spelling and grammatical editing (and I’m sure not all of it was caught) there is no editing done. I might include the scanned pages with the editing notes at some later date if enough people comment about wanting to see them. I want you to know: this is a rough draft. It is a hot mess. Certain scenes shift tone dramatically from the rest of the book. There are characters that should be a big deal, but aren’t developed enough. The ending comes out of nowhere (though not really…in my head). More than one scene is completely out of character for the main character. More importantly, I want you to know that I know this, that’s why this is a first draft.

While reading (if this hasn’t put you off to the whole thing), I’d like you to remember a couple things I’ve talked about, mainly: editing lets you craft the story you thought you wrote the first time around.

Without further ado: the story!

A Dinner for Crows

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.

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.”

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.

The first thing that occurs to Po is how nothing is different. Then the wrongness sets in. It’s just a feeling, nothing he can put into words. The world just seems crooked. Tilting his head to the side helps.

Danny still sits in front of him, mouth moving, but Po can barely hear him.

Po tries to say something; a frigid wind blasts him in the face. With the sound of stone grinding on stone, the world rights itself. It feels to Po it takes as much effort to straighten his head.

Unfortunately, despite the world being straight again, Po still feels it’s wrong. The perspective is wrong, everything looks like there’s more to it. Po gets dizzy, is glad he’s sitting down. He tries to close his eyes, but Danny says something that catches his attention, at least he thinks Danny says something, and he keeps his eyes open.

His head hurts. Between straining to hear Danny and how vast everything is…A realization slams into his mind, washes over his body. It’s not the world’s perspective that’s off, it’s his.

The world snaps back into place, even as the house shakes and rumbles. Po tries to jump up, but he can’t move, his limbs are concrete. Danny continues to talk to him, as if nothing’s wrong. Cracks appear on the walls.

Spiders, hundreds of spiders, thousands, stream from the cracks. They spread across the walls and out the doors; they spread up the walls and across the ceiling; they spread down the walls and over the floor. They scurry over Danny and Po. Po feels himself scream, no sound escapes him. Danny leans closer, squeezes Po’s hand. Po lets the scream fade, taking a deep breath, he stares into Danny’s eyes and feels reassured. Slowly he turns his attention back to the spiders.

Already the living room shows signs of their hand work. Instead of webs, vines criss-cross the ceiling, hanging down in spots. More vines cover the walls and floors. Looking down at himself, Po sees he’s been lashed to the couch. Spiders dance in-between, under, and around the vines. Po loses track of them.

Leaves sprout on the vines, further obscuring his view, but captivating his attention. Each leaf has a different pattern on it. One on his chest has a blue starburst, one on the wall has jagged red lines, another has yellow lines that look like an eye. As he watches the leaves bloom, the patterns begin to glow, pulse.

Po smiles, the scene reminding him of Christmas. He tries to find a pattern to the pulsing, but gives up after a while. Each leaf pulses separately from the others. Each has a beat all its own, like a heart. Po swivels his head around trying to see as many patterns as he can.

What sounds like a trumpet blares in the distance. The leaves stop pulsing, their light gets brighter. For a moment, Po’s smile broadens with the light, then his eyes start hurting. The light is too bright. The patterns run like paint, still glowing, off the leaves and onto the floor. Po doesn’t know if it’s the leaves that scream or him again.

The colors mix and churn, small waves beat against the walls, the couch, and Po and Danny’s legs. Flames ignite across the surface of the paint. Blue flames crash against green flames in a burst of yellow. Pink flames seemingly dodge out of the way of purple flames. The sea of color chars and blackens. The colors drain from the flames until they burn white. When the waves crash against the walls, the couch, Po and Danny’s legs, the flames stick, lighting them on fire.

Po panics as the flames crawl up the walls, reach for the throw pillows, and lurch up his and Danny’s legs. Again he tries to move, to kick the flames off him, to pull Danny to his feet so they can run, but he still can’t move. He tries to yell at Danny, but his voice doesn’t come. He watches the flames burn away Danny’s clothes as they race up his body, then eat away at his skin. Tears cascade from Po’s eyes as he watches Danny’s skin shrivel and fall away. He grasps Danny’s skeletal hand harder.

“Po? Can you hear me?” Danny’s voice falls from his lipless mouth. “Nod your head if you can hear me.” Po moans, slowly nodding his head. “When I count to three, I want you to open your eyes.” Po nods again for lack of anything else to do. “One. Two. Three.”

Po’s eyes fly open. His head is back against the couch, so the first thing he sees is the ceiling. His face feels wet.

“You okay, bro?” Po feels Danny squeeze his hand.

Po jumps to his feet, pulling Danny up with him. The two boys stare eye to eye with one another. Po can’t catch his breath, can’t believe Danny is all right. He flings his arms around Danny, wrapping them as tight as he can. Danny returns the hug. Without letting go, Po searches the living room for signs of fire, but the living room is fine, just as it ever is. Po squeezes Danny tighter.

Po feels his heart beat at the same time as Danny’s.

Po’s standing in Danny’s grandma’s attic, there’s a box on the floor. Po stares at Danny staring down a leather journal in his hands. It’s then he notices a red ribbon sprouting from his chest connecting to Danny, and another red ribbon sprouting from Danny’s chest connecting to Po. Po tentatively reaches up to touch the ribbon, before he can, the ribbon connecting Danny to him pulls out of his chest and flings away from him, wrapping itself around the journal in Danny’s hands. Po takes a step forward, wanting to rip the journal from his friend’s hands.

Their hearts beat in unison again, and Po is back in the living room, still holding his friend.

“It’s okay. I got you.” Danny whispers into his ear.

“I don’t feel so well.” Po clutches tighter at his friend.

“It’s a bit rough in the beginning. You’ll get used to it.” Danny eases him back down onto the couch, then stands there smiling down at him. “Isn’t this great?”

Po touches his chest, but the ribbon isn’t there. Slowly he looks up at Danny, his friend looks darker somehow, like someone has gone over his edges several times with black marker. “Isn’t what great?”

“This feeling.” Danny takes a deep breath. “Everything is just more.”

Po looks around the room, things do look…brighter. He holds up his hand. He can feel the air shifting around it. A scar he got when he was a kid catches his eye. He can remember exactly when and where it happened. He could almost relive it…The world fades around him; he smells wet earth and pumpkin.

Po shakes himself, bringing his concentration back to the present. “Is this what it feels like?”

Danny nods at him. “And this is just level one.”

“Level one?” Danny blurs, an after image of him bending down and picking up a piece of paper from the coffee table.

“That’s what I’m calling it.” The real Danny continues. “I told you, we can’t get at this stuff on a conscious level. And I figured if that’s the case, maybe we shouldn’t get at all of it all at once.” Danny bends down and picks up a piece of paper from the coffee table, he hands it to Po. “I pulled this from your subconscious. These are key phrases that access each level of access to the power.”

Po looks at the paper without reading it, then looks at Danny. “From my subconscious.”

“Yeah. It’s something your mind identifies you with, or with you.” He looks into the distance for a second before coming back to himself. “The more you recite the more deeply you’ll sink into the power.”

“We’ll sink into the power.” Po squints at Danny. They both turn towards the dining room doorway as Clarissa walks into the room and stands there. After minute she fades away, and they turn back to one another. “That doesn’t sound like the safest thing.”

Danny nods. “That’s why we’re doing it in levels. That’s why there are blocks.”

Po doesn’t see how that helps if they have the means to take away the blocks any time they want. “I’m not sure-”

They both turn to the dining room doorway as Clarissa walks into the room and stands there. “Are you two done yet?” The two boys continue to stare at her. “What is it?”

“We’re waiting for you to fade away.” A giggle escapes Danny’s lips.

“Well, that’s fucking nice.” Clarissa looks hurt. Po feels her insides quiver as she fights back angry tears.

“That’s not what he meant.” He’s quick to come to Danny’s defense. “It’s…it’s…it’s hard to explain.”

Danny nods, a smile still on his face. “If you’re you, then you can take a seat. We’re done.” Danny motions to the other end of the couch, he sits down on the coffee table and slides down to the opposite end.

Po watches Clarissa walk across the room, a trail of yellow following her.

The couch ripples when she sits down. The ripple hits Po, and he can feel Clarissa’s breath in his lungs, his heart speeds up to match hers.

She turns and looks at him. “Am I going to have that weird look on my face when I’m magical?”

Po knows she meant it to be a barb, his throat hitches with hers as it catches on the words. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want.” He feels his face flush a second before he gets mad at himself.

“Don’t try to talk me out of this.” She picks up a pillow and throws it at him. “We took a vote.”

The pillow hits Po in the chest, he looks down, seeing a yellow ribbon sprouting from his chest leading to Clarissa. Looking across the ribbon at her, there’s a red ribbon coming from her chest connecting to him. “You’re nervous, afraid.” He reaches up and touches the yellow ribbon, it feels silky. “I can feel it.”

Clarissa narrows her eyes at him. Po gets angrier at himself, but it’s an anger tinged with fear. “You’re reading my mind?” She looks from Po to Danny. “Tell him to stop!” Her eyes dart back to Po. “You’re not allowed to read my mind!”

“Shhh.” Danny reaches up and cups her cheek. She jumps, not expecting the contact. Danny moves her head to look at him. “Po’s not reading your mind,” he smiles. “Not yet anyway. He’s just more connected to things.”

Clarissa tries to move her head, but Danny won’t let her, her eyes slide to the side to take in Po. “What’s it like?”

“Clarissa, look at me.” Danny’s voice is soft and low, but insistent.

Po knows she doesn’t want to look away from him. “I’ll stay right here.”

She nods and looks at Danny.

Danny smiles at her. “I’m going to show you a new world.”

She smiles. “Okay.”

“Do you trust me?” Danny moves his hand down to her shoulder and pushes her back against the couch.

“Do I have a choice?”

Danny leans in, making sure she can’t look at anything else. “Of course, you do.”

Po feels her fear flare, then she lets it go, leaving behind a cool feeling of acceptance.

Clarissa nods. Danny leans back. “Good. Now close your eyes and get comfortable.” Clarissa smooshes herself into the corner of the couch. “I want you to focus on the sound of my voice.”

Po looks away from the scene. He can feel Clarissa relaxing, falling into the first trance state. With concentration Po pulls his awareness away from his friend. He tries to focus on the room around him, but nothing holds his attention. He keeps finding himself pulled back to Clarissa and Danny.

He gets to his feet, the paper with his hypnotic triggers, pulled from his subconscious, falls to the floor.

Po reaches out to snatch the paper, the movement knocks it from his lap and onto the floor. He bends down, reaching for the double image of the paper, he misses it on the first grab, but then his vision clears, and he picks it up. His head swims. He decides not to get up at the moment. Instead, he looks at the paper, reading it this time.

Railroad Bill was a conjure man
He could change hisself to a bird
He could change hisself to a brook
A hill he could be what he wanted to be.
One time old Bill changed hisself
to a dog and led a pack on his trail.
He led the hounds around and
around. And laughed a-wagging his tail.

Po reads the words over and over. He didn’t know what to expect. He can’t remember where he’s heard these words. As he reads them, they seem familiar, a part of him. Concentrating on the words, the world fades again. He can smell chalk, feel heat.

A spike of icy fear stabs him in the chest, bringing him back to the present. He turns to look at Clarissa. She sits on the couch unmoving, head back, eyes closed. A giggle escapes Po’s mouth the same time one pops from Clarissa’s. The fear is gone.

Po rubs his chest. Glances down at his paper again, then up at Danny. “What’s-”

Danny’s already holding a piece of paper out to him, his attention not wavering from Clarissa.

Po takes the paper from him and reads it.

Many there be who die in throes,
And groans, and fearful anguish:
And there be those, who waste in woes;
And many there be who languish;
But few there be, who die like me,
Then wake again to sorrow;
Who strive with death, and feel them free,
But are bound again to-morrow;

A shiver runs down Po’s spine. He can’t tell if it’s his. He reads the words again, then looks at Danny. For the second time that day, he looks at his friend as if for the first time. Images flash Danny, an eclipsed sun, a black carriage, an eye crying blood.

Po jumps up and hurries into the dining room. Placing his hands on the table to support himself, he takes deep breaths. The table hums under his fingers.

“Your grandmother wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Mr. Carver sits at the head of the table.

He looks younger to Po. The table is filled, edge to edge, with food. Po smells spaghetti, turkey, cabbage. He sees a very young Danny sitting at the table with his head down. Po can feel the despair radiating off him.

“That’s not how grief works.” Mrs. Carver says from Po’s side. She’s too close to him, but he’s afraid to move. “That’s why we’re doing this.” Despair comes off her too.

“That’s right.” Mr. Carver picks up the thread of sadness, tears glisten in his eyes. “These are all your grandmother’s favorite foods.”

Po looks over the table again, his heart aches. He remembers when Grandma Carver died.

“We’re going to eat and talk about what we loved most about Grandma.” Mr. Carver puts his head down, tears falling into his lap. Mrs. Carver reaches over and rubs her husband’s arm.

She looks across the table at Danny. “Where do you want to start?”

Classical music blasts around Po. He jumps back from the table. The Carvers are gone, the food is gone. Po’s chest is still filled with grief. He reaches for the table again.

Clarissa’s laughter floats from the living room. Po turns around to see her. She dances in the center of a sea of color, the biggest smile Po has ever seen on her face. He steps into the living room, and as he crosses the threshold he’s bombarded by joy.

Clarissa finishes a spin and sees him. She rushes over, grabbing his hands and pulling him into the center of color with her. “Isn’t this great?” She shouts to be heard over the music.

Po can’t stop himself from smiling. “It is pretty awesome.”

They spin around, passing through the music as it paints the room. They come to rest, out of breath, against a wall.

Po reaches out and twiddles his fingers in the colors. “Why do think the music lights up, but our words don’t?”

Clarissa forces a laugh out of her lungs. “That’s what you’re thinking about right now? Not how beautiful it is?” She gives him an inquisitive look. Po can feel the accusation, the indignation, under the question. The smile falls from Clarissa’s face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”

Po puts his hand on her shoulder and shakes his head. “It’s okay.” He turns back to look at the music. “It is very beautiful.”

“Maybe…” Po feels the wave of awkwardness come from Clarissa. “Maybe it’s because music is so keyed into emotion for us, and we hear words every day. They’re more utilitarian.”

Po nods. “Maybe.”

Danny steps through the music, smiling. “I want to show you guys something.”

Po and Clarissa step forward, almost running into Danny as he steps through the music.

“Whoa. Look out.” He holds up his hands to stop them.

For a moment, Danny is double exposed in front of them, then the other Danny disappears. Po shakes his head to clear it.

Clarissa laughs. “This is going to take some getting used to.”
Danny nods, his grin widening. “It’s a trip, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Clarissa leans forward and bumps Po with her shoulder. “What did you want to show us?” Clarissa rubs her head. Po notices a dull pain in his own.

Danny smiles. When they got here Po thought that smile was, at best, annoying, or, at worst, crazy. Now he can feel it, Po knows Danny is elated. There’s a sense of satisfaction coating Danny, and relief, and joy, not just because he’s right about the journal, but because he gets to share it with his friends.

Po feels his face pull back into the biggest smile he’s ever had.

“Po, are you listening?” Clarissa reaches out and grabs his shoulder. “Oh!” She freezes as soon as she touches him. A giggle escapes her.

Po turns towards her, seeing another giant smile. “Weird, huh?”

Clarissa talks around the smile stuck on her face. “Weird, but cool, yeah.”

“What is it?” Danny’s smile falters slightly. Po knows he feels left out.

“Don’t be like that.” Clarissa frowns. She reaches for his hand. “Here.”

“Don’t be like wh-” Clarissa’s hand wraps around his. His eyes go wide. “Oh, shi-” Danny’s eyes roll upwards, he tilts back.

Po’s hand shoots out and grabs his arm. A wave of emotion floods him, so strong he feels himself falling. When he doesn’t hit the floor, he forces his eyes to open, to focus.

Danny’s hand has his forearm in a death grip, a smile still broad on his face. “I’ve got you.”

Po basks in the delight flowing into him from Danny. “No, sir. You’ll find. I have you.” Po latches onto Danny’s forearm with his own death grip. The boys smile at each other both thinking of their treehouse romps.

“And I’ve got you.” Clarissa slides her hand down Po’s arm and grabs his hand. Po turns, looking Clarissa in the eyes. A wave of affection, of infatuation, of love crashes into him. Clarissa looks quickly towards Danny. “Both of you.” She holds up his hand.

“And we have you.” Danny brings her hand to his chest, holding it there.

The air pulses. The three of them pulse in unison. The world pulses. The color drains from everything, leaving a white expanse around them.

“What’s this?” Po feels panic rising in Clarissa. She tries to pull her hand away from Danny.

“Don’t let go!” Danny keeps her hand firmly in his grip. “This is beautiful. Can you feel it?”

Po’s breath can’t leave him. His insides are filled with Clarissa’s fear and Danny’s joy. His body doesn’t know which to follow.

“Can you hear that?” Danny looks out into the white like he’s forgotten Po and Clarissa are there.

“Danny.” Po forces air through him. The joy and fear threaten to crush him, he bends forward hunching his shoulders.

Clarissa presses herself against Po, burying her face in his shoulder. Her fear pushes out Danny’s joy.

Po’s body, with only one emotion to follow, inhales deeply, filling his lungs to scream. A flicker of anger ignites in his chest. He’s the one that’s supposed to know better, the anger reminds him. He’s the one that isn’t obsessed with the book.

Po holds his breath, making sure when he opens his mouth he won’t scream. “Danny.”

Danny’s head twitches, but he doesn’t look away from the expanse.

Po squeezes his friend’s forearm. “Danny, come back to us.”

Slowly, reluctantly, Danny looks from the expanse down to Po. “You can feel that, right?”

Po concentrates past Clarissa’s fear. He feels Danny’s awe, and pushes past that. He feels the expanse, the steadiness of it, the rigidity, the ‘why’ of the world. This is what makes Danny happy and Clarissa afraid.

Po grabs at Danny’s awe, taking a chunk of it, he shoves it at Clarissa. He’s not sure what he wants to do is working until Clarissa lifts up her head.

“We can change the world?” She looks at Danny, then past him out at the expanse. “How can we do that?”

“Because we’re magic.” Danny follows her gaze, looking out at the deep white.

“Because we’re together.” When Po talks, he puts his concern for his friends behind his words, forcing both Danny and Clarissa to stop and think for a moment. Clarissa turns to look at him, eventually so does Danny. “It’s because we’re connected.” He holds up his hands, holding onto Clarissa and Danny. “Three is a prime number in symbolism. Even to the ancients it’s considered lucky.”

“In religion, you have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?” Clarissa picks up Po’s train of thought.

Danny’s smile falters. “I guess you two don’t want to test our luck?”

In unison, the three friends let go of each other’s hands. Definition, color, detail, existence crashes down on top of them.

Po stumbles back against the wall. Clarissa and Danny crumple, landing on the floor in heaps. Clarissa’s panic is back. It smacks Po in the face. She thinks she’s dying. Po takes a step forward, pushing off the wall. His legs wobble, then give out completely. He falls to his knees next to her.

Po reaches out and pushes her onto her back. Her eyes are wide, her breaths come in short, sharp bursts. “Clarissa, you have to take deep breaths.” Po feels his own chest jerking, trying to match hers. He pushes her panic away from him. “Clarissa!”

“It’s so bright.” Her eyes dart back and forth, rolling in their sockets. “Why is it so loud?”

Po bends over her, putting his hands on either side of her face, lifting her head so she can only see him. “Clarissa, look at me. Focus on me.” Her eyes slow, then stop, looking into his eyes.

“Po?” The ends of her mouth curl up in a weak smile. “You’re glowing.”

Po smiles back. “I need to check on Danny. Are you okay?” He feels disappointment come from her.

“I’ll be fine.” She sits up. “I’m going to turn off the music though.” Po helps her to her feet, then moves over to Danny.

Po bends down, grabbing Danny’s shoulder. Danny’s hand shoots up and latches onto his wrist. Flashes of images and emotion flutter through Po’s mind. The day he talked Danny out of the tree in the park. Danny sure someone was after him and the book. The day he talked Danny out of the classroom. Danny ecstatic that he was on to something. So many nights staying up late studying symbols and the book they all blend together. Through it all is Danny’s belief the book is important, him knowing he’s right about it.

Po’s vision clears. Danny stares up at him from the floor, that dopey grin on his face. “That was awesome.”

Po shakes his head, pulling his hand away from his friend. “Are you alright?”

Danny nods slowly, pushes himself up off the floor into a sitting position. “My head hurts, my bones ache. Do I sound old when I say that?” He reaches his hands into the air, stretching. “But I’ll live.”

Po holds his hand out for him. “Tell me, that’s not what you wanted to show us.”

Danny grab’s his hand and pulls himself to his feet. “No, that was ten million times better.”

Po can feel Danny wants to do that again. He feels Danny reaching out, making contact with him. “Maybe that’s enough for one day?” Po tries to take his hand away, but Danny won’t let go. “Danny?”

“Wasn’t that great though?” His eyes have that faraway look in them again. “We pulled back the curtain of existence?” He looks behind Po. “Where’s Clarissa?”

Po narrows his eyes at him. “She’s turning off the music.”

“Oh. Is she.” Danny turns, still not letting go of Po’s hand.

Po pulls Danny into him so they’re chest to chest. Danny turns back to look at him. “We’re not doing that again.” Po puts as much force as he can behind the words.

“What?” Danny looks confused. “I’m just wondering if she’s okay.”

“My head hurts. Everything is really bright.” Clarissa steps up next to them. “What’s going on?”

“Are you okay?” Danny reaches out towards her. Po sees his hand shaking.

Po grabs Danny’s wrist, stopping him from touching Clarissa. “I’m sure she’ll be fine.” He pulls Danny’s arm between the two of them. Danny finally turns to look at him again. “As long as she doesn’t overdo it.”

Danny’s eyes dart to the side, he tries to pull his hand away from Po. Po feels his yearning for contact with Clarissa, for contact with her power. Po’s chest hurts with concern for his friend.

“You know, maybe that’s not a bad idea.” Clarissa moves over to the couch and sits on the arm, rubbing the sides of her head.

“Are you sure?” Danny tries to step towards her.

Po holds tightly onto his friend. He pushes his concern out of his chest. He pushes his concern towards Danny.

Danny shudders when the emotion hits him. He stops trying to pull away from Po. “If you’re not feeling well, then yeah. We should stop.” This time when he takes a step away from Po, Po lets him go. Danny walks to the coffee table, picks up the notebook, and hands it to Clarissa. “Just recite the first two lines.”

Clarissa looks down at the notebook. “Does it have to be out loud?”

Danny nods. “Yeah. But it can be low, like under your breath.”
Clarissa mumbles something. Po thinks he hears the word tomb in there. She lets out a long sigh when she’s done, and falls backwards onto the couch. “Ugh, this feels weird.”

Po walks over and peers down at her. “What does it+ feel like?”

She smiles up at him. “I don’t know. Heavier?” She rolls off the couch and gets to her feet. “Like I’m more here and less at the same time.” She stretches, reaching up towards the ceiling. “Does that make any sense?” She looks at Po questioningly.

Po nods slowly. “Yeah. It does.”

“I’m going to get something to drink.” With that, she turns and walks out of the living room.

Po turns to Danny. “Your turn.”

Danny narrows his eyes at him. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you don’t trust me.” He smiles. “Many there be who die in throes/And groans, and fearful anguish.” A shudder runs through his body, bending over, he gags a couple times. “Christ, that sucks.” He looks to Po. “That first step is a doozey.”

Po nods. “Railroad Bill was a conjure man/He could change hisself to a bird.”

The power leaves Po like a jolt, goose pimples cover his entire body. There’s a sharp whine, and the world goes silent. Danny moves towards him in slow motion, concern on his face. Po takes a step back, and is in the hallway.

“Holy shit! Is that the time?” Clarissa’s voice cuts through the house from the kitchen.

Po shakes himself.

Danny’s next to him. “You okay, bro?”

Po nods.

“Guys, it’s after three.” Clarissa stalks into the hall, picking up her jacket and bookbag. “I’ve got to get home.” She shrugs her jacket on. “Po, are you okay?”

Danny pats him on the shoulder. “I think he came down a bit hard.”

Clarissa looks from Danny to Po. “Are you okay to walk home? Your parents are probably waiting for you.”

Po blinks a couple times, nods. “I think I’m good.”

Clarissa comes over and puts her hand on his shoulder. Po feels the heat from it through his shirt, it’s overly hot. “Heavier, right?”
Po looks from her hand to her. “Yeah.” He looks from her hand to Danny. “Heavier.”

“Do you need to sit down?” Her voice is filled with concern for him, but she’s tapping her thigh, a nervous tick.

Po knows she wants nothing more than to be on her way home. He shakes his head. “No. We should go.” He looks around for his coat. Danny trots over to the front door and picks it up off the floor, holding it out to him. Po walks over and grabs his hand around the fabric. “Are you okay?” He tilts his head in the direction of the living room. “You looked sick when you…turned it off.”

“Yeah. I’ll be fine. It’s just…” Danny’s eyes gloss over, focusing on something only he can see. “It’s just letting go of it after not being able to hold it for so long. It stings.”

Po pulls his friend into him, forcing his eyes to focus on him. “If you need me to stay, I will.” He thinks he sees a tinge of fear in Danny’s eyes.

“I’ll stay too.” Clarissa chimes in from behind them. “I just need to call home, before my parents freak.” Danny’s eyes clear, he lets go of Po’s hand, bending down to pick up Po’s bookbag.

“You two should go.” He hands the bag to Po, a new smile on his face. “I’ll be fine. I am fine.”

Po grabs his bag and shrugs it over his shoulders. “Are you sure?”

Danny rolls his eyes, opening the door. “Go. Before you get into trouble. You’ll be no use to anyone if you’re grounded.”

“Right?” Clarissa lightly pushes Po out of the house.

“Call me if you need to.” Po shouts over his shoulder.

“Will do.” With that, Danny shuts the door.

The cool air hits Po in the face. Reflexively, he tenses, expecting a wave of fear to follow it. When the air settles in around him, not bringing fear with it, he relaxes, letting the cool air soak into him. He expects his mind to race with thoughts and emotions about what just happened, but he’s calm. His thoughts come to him orderly, and while he can remember the emotions present in them, he’s not obsessing about them. Danny’s eyes at the door keep coming to him. He can’t figure out if the fear he saw there was real or his imagination.

“Do you think Danny will be alright?” He turns to look at his house, they’re already at the end of the street.

Clarissa glances down the street, then starts across the road. “He looked fine to me.” Po watches her cross. It looks like she’s taking more steps than she normally does. “He looked better than he has in a while. Like he was complete or something.”

Po shakes himself, forcing himself not to pay attention to how she’s walking, and hurries to catch up with her. “Not that. I mean after, right before we left.” Po relives Danny gagging as the power left him. “Did he look scared to you?”

“Scared?”

Po reaches for her feelings without thinking about it. When he doesn’t feel her rush into him, he’s almost disappointed. He can’t believe he’s gotten used to the extra senses already. He looks over his shoulder towards Danny’s house, and feels the pull of his trigger words on his lips.

“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Danny scared.” Clarissa’s voice sounds far away. “But he didn’t seem scared. Disappointed maybe.” She stops at the corner, the top of Po’s street. “I’m sure he’ll be fine.” She looks at him for a minute. “Are you going to be okay?” She reaches out, putting her hand on his shoulder.

Once again, the heat from her touch seeps into Po. His shoulder jerks involuntarily. “I’m fine, I think. You?”

Clarissa takes her hand back. “I don’t know.” She looks up at the sky. Po watches her pupils dilate, and wonders what she sees up there. “Things are different now. Not everything. Certain things.” Her eyes come back down to Earth, look directly into Po’s eyes. “I think we have to figure out what those things are before we can say if we’re changed or not.”

For the space of three heartbeats, Po can feel Clarissa’s heart in his chest. He knows she’s just as excited about this as she is afraid, but she doesn’t want to stop. She wants to know how many things are different.

A car passes them, the familiar sound of rubber across asphalt invades the space around them.

“Shit!” Clarissa’s eyes clear. “I’ve got to get home.” She brings her hand up and squeezes Po’s shoulder. “You okay?”

Po nods. “I’ll be fine. Go.”

She turns and jogs across the street.

A thought occurs to Po. “Hey! What was your trigger? Was it a poem too?”

Clarissa waves without looking bac at him. “Oh, you know.” She picks up her pace so she’s running.

Po watches her, expecting more of an answer. She turns the corner, with him still waiting. He thinks about what she said about coming down from the power, about feeling heavier. Po doesn’t agree with her. He feels more connected to things. He’s never felt more present than he does now, hyper aware. It occurs to him that the experience should be different for everyone.

Danny gagging, again, comes to mind. He wonders if the gagging was from the power itself or turning it off.

Po turns down the walk to his house, and stops.

Vultures line the roof. All looking directly at him as he stands there.

The wind picks up for a moment, and the vultures are gone.

Po blinks several times. He opens his mouth, stretching his jaw until his ears pop.

He knows his parents are inside. He knows they’re worried about him, mad, but worried. He knew the school would probably call to let them know he left. At the time, telling them something about why he didn’t stay in school was a problem for later.

This is later.

Entering the house, he hangs up his coat and puts his shoes in the hall closet, dropping his bag by the stairs. “Mom? Dad?” He starts for the dining room before they answer.

“We’re in the dining room.” His father’s voice, clear and calm.

Stepping into the dining room, he sees his parents sitting at the table. Both of them had been reading the paper before, now they wait patiently. Po doesn’t have to be asked to sit down, he takes the chair across from his mother.

“Should we ask how your day was, or are you going to tell us?” His mother sounds equal parts mad and upset.

“I knew the school might call you.” Po sees no point in avoiding the conversation.

“And yet, you left school without permission anyway.” His father drums his fingers on the table. “Care to tell us what was so important?”

Po looks between his father and mother, readying himself. “It was Danny.”

“That’s what we thought.” His parents share a look with one another. “Did he…What did he…Is he alright?”

Po lets himself deflate. There with his parents, he feels anchored for the first time all day. With everything that’s happened with Danny over the years, Po thinks the only reason he never joined him in insanity is because he has his parents. Not that the Carvers aren’t as loving toward Danny as his parents are towards him, but his parents always seemed more focused than them. Po likes to think it’s a trait he’s picked up.

“He’s fine.” Po takes a deep breath to fill himself back up.

“Do you want to talk about it?” His mom puts her hand across the table for him, and his dad rests a hand on his shoulder.

A smile pops onto his face unexpectedly. “You know, it’s fine. The whole thing is fine. I’m okay.” He sees his parents waiting for something else. Po reaches out, grabbing his mother’s hand. “Really, I am. Danny’s okay. Crisis averted. No insanity this week.” He hopes his smile is as reassuring to them as it is to him.

“That’s good.” His dad pats his shoulder.

“You’re a good friend.” His mother squeezes his hand, then pulls him towards her. “No more missing school.” She looks him hard in the eyes.

A small chuckle escapes him. “I can’t promise anything. These are my rebellious years.”

“I knew we should have invested more in corporal punishment over the years, Patty.” His father slaps his shoulder. “Let that be a lesson to you.”

Po barely felt it. “Consider me officially cowed, sir.”

His father gives him a stern nod. “That’s right.” His features soften immediately. “Seriously, is everything okay?”

Po takes a minute to think about it. For half a second, he considers telling them what happened this afternoon. About Danny, and magic, and the world being so much more than it should be. Almost immediately he decides against it. He knows his parents are understanding, but he doesn’t know if they’re that understanding.

“Everything’s fine. Or, it will be.” Po shakes his head. “Danny’s not crazy at least.” He settles on half of the truth. It doesn’t make him feel better when his parents look at him approvingly.

His mom squeezes his hand, then lets go of it. “Now, how about some dinner?” She gets to her feet.

His father joins her. “I’ll chop the lettuce.”

“Um?” Po holds up his hand to stop them. “Is it okay if I just have a sandwich in my room?” He looks between them, seeing the confused and concerned looks. “I’ve got to get a jump on the work I missed today.”

“How will we get along without you?” His father moans.

“Oo, a night without a chaperone.” His mother giggles. “Maybe we can sit next to each other on the couch.”

His father puts up his hands. “Hey, let’s not go crazy.”

Po, shaking his head, gets up and heads into the kitchen. Despite the jokes, he notices his parents’ sidelong looks of concern towards him while they make dinner. Once his sandwich is done, he hurries upstairs to his room.

Closing the door, he puts his sandwich on his desk, and collapses onto the bed. Eyes closed, he can hear his parents moving around downstairs. The urge to tell them what happened comes over him again. He lays there until it passes.

Now that it’s been some time, he can almost believe it’s a dream. What he saw, what he felt, doesn’t seem as strong. Reaching into his pocket, he takes out the paper with his trigger words on it. He reads the words over and over again. Danny was kind enough to put brackets around the sentences indicating which ones Po has to say to access each “level” of power.

Po works his jaw from side to side. “Railroad Bill was a conjure man.” His lips tingle, his whole body tingles. The world slows and brightens. He feels the house creak and breathe around him. He feels his parents downstairs, concerned yet proud of him, trusting.

Po sits up, putting the paper next to him on the bed. Taking deep breaths, he lets go of the power. His body shudders, and his room goes back to normal. Sighing, he pushes off the bed and takes out his phone. A few texts later, and assurances that he’s in ‘heaps of trouble,’ he has all the work he missed that day.

Over the next couple, to three, hours Po goes over that day’s lessons and as much of the work as he can get done. Along with some long-term projects. Taking a breather, he finds himself gazing at the paper containing his trigger words. Pulling his eyes away from his bed, his curiosity gets the better of him.

Jumping online, he types in the words. Hitting enter, several pages about the author Ishmael Reed appear on the screen. Po looks over the first few pages, skimming over the life and works of Mr. Reed, before looking for the entire poem. Eventually he finds a PDF of the poem.

As he reads, the words resonate deep inside him. First, they bring up the memory of reading the poem for the first time. It was when he was in eighth grade, some extra reading their English teacher gave the class. Po remembers how the poem seemed funny at first, about a man who played pranks by changing into different people and animals. As he reads the poem now, he remembers realizing then the deeper meaning of the poem, the sadness of not fitting, of having to live as someone else, or outside of it all.

He saves the PDF in his English folder so he has it.

Then he tries to remember as much of Danny’s trigger words as he can, searching for them too. Looking over the pages that come up reveals another poem, Halloween, a Romanut by Arthur Cleveland Coxe. He thinks the poem was in the same packet as Railroad Bill, but, obviously, it didn’t have the same impact on him. The poem is several pages long, and Danny’s trigger words are in the middle. There’s lots of imagery about death, and monsters, focused on Halloween. The general theme of ‘the outsider’ is still there, but where Po felt sad for Bill, he gets the feeling the outsider in Danny’s poem comes off as feeling he’s above everyone else, that he’s not afraid of the things other people are.

Po can’t help but feel he knows why Danny connected with this poem. He wonders what Danny is doing right now. He wonders what he told his parents about missing school, or if it’s even a big deal for them anymore. The thought occurs to him that Danny might be using the power right now, but he pushes that away.

To take his mind off Danny, he clears his search, preparing to type up Clarissa’s trigger words. He stares at the screen for a few seconds before he remembers she never told him what her trigger words are.

He snatches his phone off the desk, thumbing to Danny’s name automatically. He stops, looking at the blank screen. What would he do if Danny doesn’t answer? What would it mean if Danny didn’t answer?

Are you there?

Po watches the screen, nervously tapping his fingers on his desk. He forces himself not to pick up the phone and ask again. Putting his phone to the side, he turns back to the computer. Bouncing his fingers off the keys without typing anything, he keeps glancing at his phone.

Finally, it buzzes; his hand shooting out to look at the text.

Whatcha need?

Po types without thinking, hitting send before he can stop himself.

You are there.

He doesn’t have to wait long for Danny’s response.

Where else would I be?

Guilt washes over Po, but it’s lessened by the relief that Danny answered the text.

I thought-

You could-

Po deletes the texts without finishing them. Staring at the blank screen, he tries to think of a good response.

What were Clarissa’s trigger words?

Why don’t you ask her?

Rolling his eyes, Po lets out a long sigh.

I did.

She didn’t tell you?

Po can’t tell if Danny is giving him a hard time, or if he’s really asking.

Hence me asking you, good sir.

I am quite knowledgeable.

Po watches the blank screen for longer than he should without getting any more of a response.

You’re not going to tell me!?!

I can’t remember.

Bringing his phone almost up to his nose, Po’s finger’s fly furiously over the letters.

You fucker!!!! >/

😮 Language!

Po puts his phone face down on his desk, turning back to the computer, and going back to his work. When the phone buzzes, he doesn’t pick it up. Instead, he looks at some articles on meditation and focusing one’s mind.

The phone buzzes again, but he still ignores it.

He’s not mad at Danny, this is what they do, but it doesn’t hurt to let him dangle from time to time.

When the phone buzzes a third time, he picks it up.

Oh! Are you mad?

Seriously, are you mad? :/

After that is a block of text, Po guesses it’s Clarissa’s trigger words. Po thumbs a quick thank you to Danny, before going back to the text and reading it.

There are some qualities-some incorporate things,
That have a double life, which thus is made
A type of that twin entity which springs
From matter and light evinced in solid and shade.
There be a two-fold Silence-sea and shore
Body and soul. One dwells in lonely places,
Newly with grass o’ergrown, some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,

Like the other words, Po re-reads these several times. He tries to connect the words to Clarissa. He imagines her saying these words; her voice shakes in these images. Standing his phone next to his monitor he types in the words and searches for their source. Not surprising, a poem pops up on his screen. A smile spreads across his face as he reads Silence by Edgar Allan Poe.

He goes to bed early, falling asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow.

The alarm on his phone pulls him from sleep. Sitting up in bed, Po feels just as tired as when he laid down. Closing his eyes, thinking, he’s surprised he didn’t dream. He honestly thought he’d have the most messed up dreams he’s ever had, but he can’t remember anything.

It shocks him, when he stands up, to find he’s naked. At his feet are the shirt and underwear he wore to bed. Picking them up, a shiver runs through him. The fabric is ripped in several places, like he tore them off in the middle of the night. Looking back at the bed, he sees the blanket smashed into a ball against the wall.

“I guess I got hot.” Throwing the clothes away, he makes sure to shove them as far down in the trash can as possible.

Trying not to think about his clothes, he sets his mind to his plan. The first thing he does is some stretching. It’s the first time he’s ever done anything like this, so all he does are some stretches they have them do in gym class. The next thing he does is sit in the middle of his room, taking deep breaths, meditating. Concentrating on his breathing, in and out, in and out, he tries to push all his thoughts away.

He tries to remember everything he read last night. At the time, he thought he’d feel dumb trying this, but now that he is here it feels like the right thing. A quiver vibrates his stomach. He reaches out and picks up his phone right as it buzzes with a text from Danny.

Coffee’s on me today, guys. Don’t be late.

Relief crashes over Po that Danny has decided to come to school today. He was worried now that Danny has magic he wouldn’t care about normal things.

Seeing the time sends a jolt through his mind, Po realizes he’s still naked, and that his parents are about to get up. Jumping to his feet, he jogs down the hall, into the bathroom. Cutting his morning routine in half, he’s ready in twenty minutes. Grabbing a banana from the kitchen, he says a quick goodbye to his parents as he runs out the door.

Standing on the corner, waiting for Clarissa, and eating the banana, he notices the neighborhood isn’t as busy as it usually is. Checking the time, Po nearly chokes. It’s forty minutes earlier than he normally would leave for school. He’s about to turn around and head home, when he sees Clarissa making her way down the sidewalk towards him.

There’s an awkward smile on her face when she gets to him. “I’m glad I’m not the only one who ran out the door without thinking this morning.”

Po nods. “Yeah.” He lets out a heavy sigh. “You got Danny’s text this morning, right?”

“Yeah.” Clarissa starts walking. Po falls into step next to her. “I thought he might blow off school again. You know…” She waves her hand in the air, twiddling her fingers back and forth.

“Yeah.” Po finishes his banana and shoves the peel in his jacket pocket. “How did you sleep last night?” Sliding his eyes to the side to look at her, Po sees her wince before she can catch herself.

“I slept fine. I mean…” She shakes her head. “It was fine. I think the vents in my room are blocked though. I woke up completely wrapped in my blankets, and frost on the inside of my windows.” She shakes herself, not saying anything else.

Eager to change the subject, Po casts about for something to say. “It’s nice to know that eighth grade left an impact on all of us.” He smiles and bumps into her shoulder.

Clarissa looks at him confused. “What are you talking about?”

Po’s smile widens. “Your trigger words.”

Her head whips towards him, panic on her face. “You know them? Did you use…” Her hand waves through the air again. “You know.”

Po stops, surprised at her reaction. “No. I asked Danny.”

“And he told you?” Hurt and anger dance across her features.

“Yeah.” Po puts his hand on her shoulder. “It’s fine. I think it’s a fun coincidence we were all touched by the extra reading packet.”

“The extra reading packet?” Clarissa takes a step back, Po’s hand falling from her shoulder.

“Yeah. The one the English teacher gave us.” Po closes his eyes, concentrating. “What was her name?”

“Ms. Schnieder.”

Po opens his eyes, glad Clarissa is there to remember for him. “Yeah. She gave us the extra reading around Halloween.” Po starts walking again. “Silence didn’t really strike me as overtly Halloween-y, but it’s Poe. Everything he writes is morbid.”

“Yeah.” Clarissa is back at his side. “So, your trigger words are a poem?”

“From Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man by Ishmael Reed. It’s about a magic man that changes his shape.” Po feels uncomfortable talking about this all of a sudden.

“I think I remember that one.” Clarissa’s voice starts a knot in Po’s stomach. “Hey, didn’t you used to write stories about the trains-”

Po turns on her. “I don’t want to talk-”

“Ye think that without/The wild winds shout/But no, it is they—it is they!”

Clarissa and Po turn to see Danny standing on the corner, hands raised to up, each holding a travel mug, a large smile on his face.

“Well, he seems chipper.” Clarissa says under her breath.

“These are for you.” Danny comes up to them, handing them each a cup. “For Madame, we have a regular coffee with two creams and two sugars. For Sir, we have a French roast with four creams and one sugar.”

Po and Clarissa take the cups tentatively. Po’s seen Danny like this before, manic. It never lasts, the inevitable crash sending Danny into a spiral of depression, lashing out at everyone.

“Well, drink up. I made them just for you.” Danny waits expectantly for them to drink.

Po sighs, bringing the cup up to his lips. The coffee is the perfect temperature, just this side of hot, right before it becomes warm.

“And you don’t have to worry about me. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Truly happy.”

Coffee goes down the wrong pipe, Po coughs, sputtering coffee into the air. “H-how do you…do you know what I’m…Are you…” Po waves his hand into the air like Clarissa did.

“Powered up?” Danny gives him a wink. “Ever since I left the house.”

“Danny, we’re supposed to do this together.” Clarissa whines.

Po shoots a quick, annoyed glance in her direction, before turning his attention back to Danny. “I didn’t know we were doing this at all. I thought we were going to school.” He swishes his tongue around the inside of his mouth to get the taste of coffee out of it, it tastes like betrayal.

“Oh, I have no intention of missing school.” Danny’s grin almost looks too big for his face. He turns and starts walking.

Clarissa takes a couple steps after him, then turns back to Po. “I think I like this version of Danny.”

Po walks past her, shoving his cup at her. He lets go without waiting to see if she has it, his attention focused on Danny. “You can’t seriously want to go to school…powered up.” He grabs Danny’s shoulder to stop him, and spins him around. “Right, Danny?”

Danny laughs. “Why not? Haven’t you always wondered what everyone there is hiding? What they’re thinking?”

Po can’t think of anything more horrifying. “Not really.”

“Seriously?” Clarissa joins them. “Not even the teachers? I don’t know how you can drink that.” She shoves the cup back at him. Po reluctantly takes the cup from her.

“See?” Danny nods at Clarissa. “That’s two votes to one.”

Po looks from Danny to Clarissa and back again. “I thought you were voting with me.”

“That was yesterday. New day, new vote.” Danny pats him on the shoulder. It might be Po’s imagination, but he can feel Danny vibrating next to him. “It’ll be fun. A peek behind the curtain.”

Po looks to Clarissa for help. He can’t think of a good argument to get Danny to not do this.

“Look at it this way, school is a controlled environment. Lots of people watching us. If something goes wrong we’ll know.” Clarissa gives him a little smile.

Po closes his eyes. It’s faulty logic. He knows it, and he hopes Clarissa knows it. It does make clear that she wants to do this. He opens his eyes and looks at his friends. “Alright. Let’s do this.” A smile spreads across Clarissa face. Danny squeezes his shoulder.

They make their way down the street. At the corner, looking at the school, the nervousness grips Po. His throat is dry. He takes a long drink of coffee, it’s lukewarm. A hand wraps around his hand at his side, and he turns to see Clarissa standing next to him.

She looks as bad as he feels. “It’s going to be okay, right?” There’s an undertone of fear in her voice.

“Of course, it’ll be okay. What could go wrong?” Danny puts his arm around her shoulders. “Nothing ever happens here.”

Clarissa looks at Po, the question still clear on her face.

Po takes a deep breath. “Only one way to find out.” Clarissa nods. Po hears her start reciting her trigger words under her breath, before he closes his eyes, concentrating on himself. “Railroad Bill was a conjure man/He could change hisself into a bird.”

Po’s being opens to the power, to the world.

He’s standing in a forest. The trees are tall and proud. In the brush, he can feel squirrels scuttling for food. There’s a family of opossums sleeping in the hollow of a tree. The dirt beneath his feet teems with bugs.

The school comes into view. Part of Po mourns for the loss of the wild, but even from here he can feel the history of each cinder block of the building.

Danny steps in front of him. “It’s different out here, isn’t it?” He turns in a circle, face up to the sky. “It’s bigger.” He stops, bringing his hands up to his face. “And smaller.”

Po steps into the grass next to the sidewalk. Kneeling, he pulls out the grass, then claws at the dirt until there’s a hole. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out the banana peel, and puts it into the hole, patting the earth back over it.

Danny watches him, head cocked to the side, as Po gets to his feet. “What was that for?”

Po shrugs. “For the earth.”

“A sacrifice.” Danny nods.

Po recoils slightly. “A thank you.”

Danny’s face scrunches, considering his words. Then he shrugs, turning to face the school. “Shall we?” He starts across the street, not waiting for Po and Clarissa.

Po stares after him, the dark outline he saw yesterday around Danny is darker today. Po shakes his head, considers it might be the natural light that makes it look that way.

Clarissa steps next to him. “I get it.” She smiles at him. “I saw the forest too.”

Po nods, a stillness coming over him with her acknowledgement. “Where’s Danny?”

“What?” Clarissa looks across the street. Danny isn’t there.

Po is already halfway across the street. “Come on!”

Teacher’s cars are already trickling into the parking lot. Po doesn’t think Danny would go that way. Following his instinct, Po turns left, jogging around the school. Emotions from the arriving faculty seep through the air at him. Closing his eyes, he focuses on Danny. A wave of mirth jiggles him. Turning a corner, he opens his eyes, and sees Danny standing at the edge of the football field.

Po walks up to him, a couple steps away he hears Danny giggling. He takes up a spot next to him. “You took off without us.”

Between giggles Danny looks at him. “I thought you were right behind me.”

“You two gotta learn to give a girl a break.” Clarissa comes up on the other side of Danny. “What’s so funny?”

“All the blood.” Danny reaches out and grabs her hand. “See?”

A small scream escapes her, shock and horror on her face. “It’s everywhere.”

Po reaches down, grabbing Danny’s hand. Instantly the field and bleachers are blood drenched. Breath catches in his chest, Po reminds himself that he’s still himself. He lets his breath out slowly.

“It’s symbolic blood.” He leans forward, looking at Clarissa. “It’s a metaphorical field of battle.”

Danny looks at him, annoyed glee on his face. “Of course, it is. That’s why it’s so funny.” His eyes are wide and unblinking with humor, he’s breathing through his mouth, almost panting. “Over sixty years of forgotten and dead hopes and dreams.”

Po turns to the field, more to not look at Danny than out of curiosity. There’s a faint roar of decades worth of crowds. He shakes his head, trying not to hear it.

“Sixty?” Clarissa turns, looking into the distance. “Didn’t they move the field at some point?”

A heavy sigh escapes Danny’s mouth. “It’s metaphorical blood.” He trudges onto the field, his feet splashing through puddles only they can see.

“Jeez.” Clarissa turns around, taking a step to close the distance between her and Po. “I was just saying.”

Po watches Danny bend down, dipping his hand in a puddle and giggle as the blood falls from his hand. He looks at Clarissa, gagging slightly. “It’s metaphorical blood.” Po jerks his head in the direction of the field. “Emotions connected to the people who are on the field. Long story short: the blood moves with the field. Metaphors are like that.”

“Come take a look at this!” Danny’s voice travels over the field to them.

Po turns around reluctantly, he sees his friend crouched near the end zone. There’s a static joy in his features. He waves them over. Po glances around the field, looking for a way over that doesn’t involve stepping in the blood.

Clarissa nudges him with her shoulder. “The only way is through.” Her voice has an aged quality to it as she speaks. She shrugs, the gesture giving her back her youth, then walks briskly across the field. Despite her lack of fear, Po notices she steps lightly as she goes, trying not to splash.

Po sees Danny looking around her at him. It’s Po he wants to share this with, not just Clarissa. He takes a deep breath to steel himself, then steps on the field. Every step puts him in contact with a memory, the roar of the crowd going up and down in his head joined by other noises; here the whistle of an official, here the crack and crash of plastic and bones. Finally, he makes it to where Danny squats over another puddle of blood.

Clarissa looks down, equal parts disgust and curiosity on her face. “What’s this?”

“Let me show you.” Danny holds out his hand towards Po.

The glee comes off Danny in a tidal wave, Po feels the sides of his mouth twitch at the unstoppable force of it. The thought that he was wrong earlier when he believed this is a manic episode crosses his mind. It’s possible Danny this happy is how he’s supposed to be.

With that thought, Po takes Clarissa’s hand and grabs Danny’s.

The air against his exposed face is cool, even as sweat drips into his eyes and down his back. His muscles burn as he runs, arms, legs, and chest working in unison.

He knows the crowd is watching, he’s doing this as much for them as for himself, but between the helmet blocking his view and the rush of blood in his ears they might as well not even be there. He’s only got eyes for the end zone and the one guy from the other team, both directly in front of him.

The other guy isn’t running at him yet, he’s just up on the balls of his feet waiting to see what he’ll do. It’s a smart play, one he’s seen before. Hunching down a little more, he curls around the ball, and puts his shoulder out in front of him.

The gap closes between them: ten yards, five, two. Finally, the opposing guy lunges at him. He’s ready for this, he puts on a burst of speed, his last for the run, hitting the guy in the chest before he can bring himself down into a tackling position. The guy bounces off his pads, practically flying. A smile pops on his face, the end zone filling his vision.

The impact from behind catches him completely off guard. As he goes down, he has time to fill with disbelief, he thought he left the other team in the dust. He hits the ground, the new other guy falling on top of him. There’s a crunch he’s never heard before. Pain rushes through his body, exploding out his mouth.

Sound bursts back into being with the whistle ending the play.

The guy that tackled him gets off him. “You gotta earn that last yard!”

The crowd half cheers, half boos.

His leg is on fire; not the muscle ache fire of a long run, a deep pain fire. He tries to sit up, to see what’s wrong; his leg moves, pain stops his heart for a beat. He flattens onto the ground again with another scream, pretending the salt water running down his face is more sweat.

A referee comes into view above him. The man’s eyes keep darting from his face to his leg. Here’s the coach, kneeling over him, telling him not to move, telling him it’ll be alright.

The vision ends, Po, Clarissa, and Danny gasp for air, each one pulling their leg off the ground to keep weight off it.

Clarissa holds Po’s hand in a death grip, bending down and rubbing her leg, a thin sheen of sweat on her face. “Fuck.” She’s panting.

Danny stands up, the blood of the memory falling from his hands. “Now we know why Coach Reidel is so cranky all the time.”

Po tilts his head to the side, looking at Danny, confused. “He doesn’t seem cranky.”

“Pfft.” Danny lets out a string of laughs. “Of course he does.”

“Is it going to be like that all day?” Clarissa has finally caught her breath.

Danny’s smile pushes his features in weird ways, reminding Po of a ventriloquist dummy. “Yeah. This is going to be fun.” He turns and heads for the school building as the entry bell rings.

Po watches him go, images popping up around his friend: a snake eating its own tail, a red moon, a black sun, a pyramid. “Do you see that?” He turns towards Clarissa.

Staring down at the blood stain, she still hasn’t let go of his hand. Po feels her need for someone to hug her, feels her need for him to hug her. Taking her eyes off the blood, she meets his stare. For a moment, Po loses where he begins and Clarissa ends.

She loves him.

Po pulls his hand away like she burnt him.

Clarissa stares at him, hurt and confusion flowing off her.

“We should get inside.” Po points at the edge of the field, at several other students gathered there watching them. “We’re attracting a crowd.” He starts towards the school, after a few steps Clarissa comes up next to him.

They walk in silence, not really needing words, each feeling what the other is feeling until their emotions blur. It’s a long forty feet.

Clarissa breaks the silence when they reach the doors. “Should we talk?”

Po wrenches the door open, motioning for her to go first. “Talk about wh-”

Clarissa lets out a scream that turns into a giggle. She lists to the side.

Po rushes through the door to catch her.

The world intensifies around him.

His body goes numb, both he and Clarissa fall to the floor. From this vantage point, he takes in the hallway. He feels his eyes cross and uncross. Decades of emotions splatter every inch of the hallway. To Po it’s like stepping into an animated movie, everything is hyper defined, but looks fake.

Other kids come through the doors, having to step over and around them. Po feels their annoyance, fear, and frustration as they pick their way around them. Some of them were watching them outside.

Po untangles himself from Clarissa, pushing on her stomach and thighs.

“Ooh. Hey!” She pushes back at him. “That tickles.” She pokes him in his sides, sending a shock of muscle twitch through him.

“Don’t!” He jumps back, hitting his head on the door bar. The door swings open, and he tumbles out onto his ass.

Clarissa gets to her feet, giggling some more. “Here.” She reaches out, giving him her hand for help.

Po grabs it tentatively, not wanting any more insights into his friend.

She clenches his hand and yanks him to his feet. “I’m not going to bite.”

“Yeah. No. Thanks.” Back inside, Po looks past her down the hall. It’s filled with kids slowly or determinedly walking the halls. He can’t see Danny.

“I’m sure he’s fine.” Clarissa holds up his hand before letting it go. She turns and heads down the hall. They’re at the back of the school, and their lockers are towards the middle.

Po rushes to catch up with her. “I’m just worried.”

“I know.” Clarissa makes her way through the hall, trying not to touch anyone.

“That was pretty intense, this all is, and he had to go through it alone.” Po’s head swivels back and forth through the crowd, searching.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but Danny’s pretty intense too.” Clarissa isn’t fast enough, and a boy, a sophomore, brushes against her. She gasps. “Hey, keep your hands to yourself!”

The boy jumps away from her, turning a bright red. “I didn’t…it was an accident.”

“Yeah?” Clarissa takes a step in his direction, and even though the boy is taller than her, he shrinks away. “Just keep walking.”

The boy jogs down the hallway, Clarissa watching after him.

Po steps up behind her. “Are you okay? Talk about an intense reac-”

“Do you know what he was thinking about?!” Clarissa wheels around, a look of disgust on her face.

“No, I don-Oh!” Po can’t stop the chuckle. “He’s a sixteen-year-old boy. He can’t really help it.” Po turns, still looking for Danny, heading to his locker.

“Are you serious?” Clarissa falls into step beside him. They don’t really have to worry about dodging people, a circle of empty space forms around them as people get out of their way.

“Kind of.” Po shrugs. He can’t believe he can’t find Danny. “You know he’s the one who wanted to come to school today.” They turn down the hall with their lockers, but Po can’t see Danny anywhere.

“It’s possible he just wanted you to come to school so you wouldn’t get in trouble.” Clarissa stares at her locker, looking unsure about touching it.

“It’s possible.” Po has his doubts about that. Even though Danny is his friend he’s gotten more and more selfish over the years. The book and finding out what it means taking up more and more of his time and concentration. It occurs to him that having translated the book things are different now. “People don’t change overnight.”

“What?” Clarissa looks at him, still not having opened her locker. She turns away from her locker, wrapping her arms around herself.

“Can’t be bothered?” Po smiles, but it hollows when he feels her unease and fear.

“With the rush of emotion? With the memories that’ll come with them?” She looks at her locker in disgust. “No thanks.”

Po’s stomach churns, an acid taste settles into his mouth, none of it his. “I’ll get it for you. What’s your combination?” He reaches for her locker, hand stopping right before he touches it. The metal vibrates with stored emotion. Po’s mouth goes dry, he swallows a couple times. “Maybe we should just wing it today.”

A giggle launches from his lips. Whipping around, he sees the smile on Clarissa’s face.

“Coward.” She leans in, bumping his shoulder with hers.

“Like you’re so brave.” He starts down the hall, already looking for Danny again.

Clarissa walks next to him, her body angled towards his, pressed into him. She’s so close their feet bounce off one another. They almost trip several times.

Po doesn’t say anything about how close she is. Her fear spikes into him every time they pass someone. There’s a giddy undertone of emotion too, he doesn’t want to think about.

“There’s Danny.” Clarissa points down the hall. Danny leans against a locker, eyes half closed, mouth open, skin flushed, chest rising quickly. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I don’t know.” Po grabs her hand, pulling her down the hall after him. “Danny, are y-” A heatwave washes over Po, his insides tingle, his breath quickens.

“Oh!” Clarissa squeezes his hand, pressing up against Po’s side. “What is this?” She’s out of breath.

Danny tilts his head forward, a lazy smile on his face. “It’s Mr. Hoover’s room.”

Po turns to look at the black windowed, closed door of room twenty-two, seventeen. Mr. Hoover is famous for being the last teacher to arrive every day. He doesn’t have a class first period, so unless there’s an important teachers’ meeting he doesn’t show up until halfway through first class. Of course, there are rumors, spoken through tight grins and nervous laughter, about his room being the sex room. Po just thought people were joking.

His moan causes several kids to jump, and even more to shoot him sidelong glares. Po is painfully aware of how hard his dick is.

Clarissa rubs herself up and down Po’s side. “This…ooh…isn’t right.” Po’s knuckles ache, she’s gripping his hand so tightly. “We should g-g-g-get to class.” She doesn’t move, except to push her groin into Po’s hip.

“Hey!” Danny claps his hands in front of them, sending an orange ripple through the air. The color drains from the surrounding’s around them, the stray emotions cut off. “You two need to get your shit together.”

Clarissa slumps against Po, the loss of emotions too abrupt. “Oh, god, Po.” She rubs against him again. Coming to her senses, she pushes away from him. “Oh, god, Po!”

Danny snaps at her a couple times, sparks flying from his fingers. “Focus, Rissa!”

Head clear, Po glances around them. Kids turn away quickly, hiding smiles and phones.

“Dammit, Danny! You know I don’t like being called that!”

Po examines the colorless bubble around them. “What is this?

“Then focus, Rissa!”

“Bastard.”

Po notices the phones peek out around hands and over shoulders. “Come on.” He grabs Danny and Clarissa’s hands and marches towards class. He feels the two of them glaring at each other. He knows what Danny’s going to say before he opens his mouth.

“If you two can’t handle this, maybe you should stop.” There’s an anger running through him, laced with a bit of concern.

“I can handle myself.” There’s an undertone of uncertainty to Clarissa’s emotions. “That was just too much too fast.”

“And you think it’s going to get easier throughout the day?” Danny’s anger stings, Po drops his hand. “Don’t think I didn’t see you two fall down.”

“You saw that?” Clarissa’s emotion tumble into Po, making him hot, then chilling him. He lets go of her hand too.

Reaching their classroom, Po turns on them. “All of us would stop.”

“What?” Danny’s eyes widen. Even without contact Po feels the surprise and frustration in him. “I’m doing fine. Better than you two at any rate.” He steps back, fear replacing the frustration.

Po reaches out, wanting to comfort him. “Danny-”

“Don’t!”

“Po’s right.” Clarissa steps between them. “We agreed to do this together. If one of us stops, we all should.”

“That’s the warning bell, Mr. Carver, Po, Clarissa.”

Po ignores Mrs. Davis. “We’re in this together, remember? There’s voting involved.”

Danny takes another step away from them. “I don’t want to stop.” The panic he keeps from his voice seeps from his skin as a purple sweat.

Clarissa looks pleadingly at Po. “I…I don’t want to stop either.”

Po looks between his two friends. “Agreed. But we need to be prepared. What’s this?” He waves his hand, indicating the bubble.

“And that’s the bell, gentlemen, lady.” Mrs. Davis sing-song voice comes to them.

Po waves his hand over his shoulder, barely acknowledging their teacher.

“It’s a shield.” Danny looks away from Po.

“Po, Clarissa, Daniel, did you hear me?” Mrs. Davis’s voice keeps its lightness even as she prods at them.

“One second.” Po doesn’t turn around. “I know it’s a shield, how do you do it?”

“Class has started, Mr. Allen. Inside.” Her hand touches his shoulder.

Contact negates the buffer of the shield, the smell of fresh flowers ignites in Po’s nose, somewhere in the distance he hears a choir singing. Po jumps away from her touch, turning on her. “We just need a minute!”

To Po’s new sight, there’s a halo floating above Mrs. Davis’s head, clouds drift and swirl around her shoulders. As his outburst hits her, shock registers on her face, her halo, glowing brightly before, dims to a dull bronze, the clouds around her turn gray with a pending storm.

Po sobers instantly. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Davis. I didn’t-”

“That’s quite enough.” She takes a step back, grabbing the edge of the door with white knuckles. “Inside. Now.”

Po watches the clouds around her flash with lightning, a red gleam travels around her halo. Hanging his head, he ducks into the classroom, quickly followed by Danny and Clarissa. Sticking together, staying in Danny’s shield, they take seats in the back of the class.

Mrs. Davis closes the door, coming in the room. “Alright, we can start class now.” She takes up her spot behind a podium. “First thing’s first: Good morning class.”

“Good morning.” The class intones together.

Mrs. Davis smiles. “Okay. So today we’ll continue working on our projects…”

As she speaks, Po’s happy to see the gray disappear from the clouds and the halo begin to shine again. He jumps when Clarissa squeezes his arm reassuringly. When he looks at her, she mouths: ‘it’s okay.’ He nods, but he feels bad anyways. Mrs. Davis is his favorite teacher, always starting class with a ‘good morning,’ and helping everyone that asks her on their college essays. She made Po do some hard thinking about his future for his essay, and he’s glad for it.

“…So you can get into your groups.”

As one, Po, Clarissa, and Danny get up, and move their desks into the corner of the room, as far away from everyone as they can get.

“Tell me, you guys, have our work.” Danny asks. Po wonders if he really cares, or if it’s his emotions influencing Danny.

Clarissa looks at Po, a grin spreading across her face. “It’s in my locker.” The two start giggling at the same time.

Caught up in their emotions, Danny can’t help but smile. “I don’t even want to know.” He opens a notebook to a random page of notes. “We need to at least look like we’re working.”

Po and Clarissa follow suit. At the front of the class, Mrs. Davis reads aloud, some fantasy novel, adding her voice to the drone of group work. Po watches her read, a purple cloak appearing on her back, her halo changing to a crown. Seeing how much she gets into the story, Po smiles.

“So, this shield.” Clarissa’s voice pulls Po back to the group. “How do you do it?”

Danny shifts his eyes away from her. “I don’t know. I just got really mad, and there it was.”

Po feels an uncertain wave of emotion from his friend, like he’s trying to block his emotions. Po suddenly notices the perspiration on Danny’s face, how he’s clenching his jaw. The shield around them trembles, shrinking slightly. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Danny scooches his chair back a little.

Po can’t help but feel a little hurt. All he’s ever wanted is to help, but Danny never seems to want any. A lump forms in Po’s throat, he tries to force his emotions down before they reach Danny…

Danny’s eyes widen. “Po, I’m-”

“So, we need a concentrated core of emotion.” Clarissa’s determination claims both their attention. “Something we can identify as us.”

Danny nods stiffly. Clarissa flips to an empty sheet in her notebook, scribbling something, she shows them.

I am Clarissa Denning

Po nods, flipping to an empty sheet in his own notebook.

I am Po Allen

“Danny, drop the shield before you pass out.” Clarissa’s voice is clear and concise.

Danny sighs, the shield dissolving instantly.

Po has a split second of fear before other emotions rush into him. Frustration. Lethargy. Arousal. More fear. The emotions roar, pulling him in every direction at once. Instinctively, he tries to find Danny’s emotions in everything.

With his being, he reaches for his friend. Something burns his mind. Po jumps back in his seat. Several classmates look in his direction. They’re curious, annoyed, angry. The emotions slam into him, his shock over being burned opening his mind more. He’s curiously annoyed…angrily curious…annoyedly curious.

Po forces himself to look at his notebook. The words: I am Po Allen, stare back at him blurrily.

“I am Po Allen.” His voice is a heavy sigh. He pictures himself in his mind, and the emotions bombarding him lessen.

“I am Po Allen.” His voice is stronger. Thinking about what’s at the core of him, flashes of memory unravel in his mind. Most of the memories involve Danny.

“I am Po Allen. I’m a worrier.” His self-image blurs, wavers. The emotions press in on him. He knows at least two people in here are in love with Mrs. Davis; two other students are causing themselves pain.

“I am Po Allen.” He pushes back on the emotions, going deeper into himself. Delving past the worry, his self-image changes; it kneels next to someone, hand on their shoulder holding a bowl of soup out to them. Concern radiates from the image of him. “I am a care giver.”

Air bursts into his lungs like a drowning person breaking the surface of the water. The world is bright around him. It’s no longer a hyper-real animation, but it pulses with emotions under the skin. Without the constant noise of emotion, Po sees images, symbols, flashing around everyone. Easily he identifies the two students that are in love with Mrs. Davis. Just as easily he finds the two students causing themselves pain.

“Do you see that?” Po turns towards Danny. He studies his friend. The images around him are all brick walls now, brick walls on fire. “You have walls around you.” Po reaches out, stopping himself, remembering what it felt like the last time he reached out towards his friend.

Curious, he turns towards Clarissa. The symbols around her have domes of lattice work around them covered in rose vines.

The bell vibrates Po’s insides. Emotions surge through the room, collecting in the air around him. He stares at the tide, wondering what his shield looks like.

“Come on.” Danny shoves his notebook into his bag as he stands. “Time to move on.” There’s a weird look on his face, a cross between manic and sinister. He heads for the door.

Po and Clarissa hurriedly grab their notebooks and follow.

“Mr. Allen, Ms. Denning, Mr. Carver. A moment, please.” Mrs. Davis stops them before then can get out the door. “I want you to know, I noticed you didn’t work on anything today.” She looks at them.

“Time got away from us.” Clarissa’s flat voice comes from behind Po. Danny giggles from the doorway.

“Okay.” Mrs. Davis looks over them, concerned. “I just want to make sure everything is okay with-”

Po lunges forward wrapping his arms around her in a hug. Surprise, concern, anxiety, all flood him. “I’m sorry I yelled.” Stepping back from her, he stares into her eyes. “You’re one of the good ones.” He presses into her again. “I’ll do better.” He lets her go and leaves the room.

Clarissa falls into step with him. “Are you okay?”

“Even through the shield I could feel her concern. She is one of the good ones.”

“Okay.” Clarissa clutches her notebook to her chest.

The walk through the hall is much easier. First, Clarissa isn’t stepping all over him, and second, they’re not pushing against a flood of emotion. Po finds he must focus on a person before images and symbols begin to appear around them, now that he’s getting used to the shield.

“What does my shield look like?” He turns to look at Clarissa.

“What do you mean?”

“Your shield looks likes dome lattices covered in rose vines, and Danny’s looks like…Where’s Danny?” Po shoots glances up and down the hall.

“I’m sure he’s fine-”

“Come on.” Once again, Po grabs Clarissa’s hand and pulls her through the halls. Contact negating the effects of the shield, Po feels her annoyance. Images of a sleep-deprived, manic faced Danny pinwheel through Po’s mind.

Clarissa gasps next to him. “Po, I didn’t know. I’m-”

“Don’t worry about it.” He stops in front of Mr. Hoover’s room. This time the door is open and the classroom brightly lit. There’s no sign of Danny.

Mr. Hoover stands in front of his door, mug of coffee and clipboard in hand. “Po, Clarissa, shouldn’t you be in class?”

Clarissa gasps again, putting her hand over her nose and stepping behind Po. “He’s drunk.”

“What?” Po half turns to look at her.

“I can smell it on him.” Clarissa whispers, sticking out her tongue in a gagging motion.

“I said, shouldn’t you be in class?” Mr. Hoover takes a slow sip from his mug.

Po turns back to Mr. Hoover. “I guess we got turned around.” He takes a deep breath. A gag catches in his throat, as the smell of whiskey stings his nose.

“Don’t you think you should be on your way before you’re late?” Mr. Hoover takes another sip from his mug, waving a couple students into his room with his clipboard. The bell fills the hall, declaring an artificial silence on the building. Mr. Hoover smiles at them. “Too late.” He goes into his room and closes the door.

This time, Clarissa grabs Po’s hand and pulls him down the hall in the direction of their class.

“What about Danny?” Po still looks up and down the empty halls for their friend.

“What about him?” Po doesn’t need to feel the frustration coming off her.

Po tries to guess where Danny would go. They pass a classroom, and Po hears the teacher giving a lesson he remembers from freshman year. Not only that, but he can hear the students breathing, someone has a chest cold. Then they’re past the room, and Po hears the creaking of metal and stone of the building settling.

“Can you hear that?” He tries to get Clarissa to stop, but she has a full head of steam, he can only get her to slow down.

“Of course, I can. Without emotions attacking me, I can’t not hear it.” She stops them in front of Mr. Murphy’s door, their next class. “Do yourself a favor, and don’t inhale too deeply.” With that, she flings the door open. Po follows her.

“Well, if isn’t the illustrious Mr. Allen, and Ms. Denning. I’m so glad you decided to join us.” Mr. Murphy sneers at them. “We’re just about to start going over last night’s homework.” He curtly motions for them to take their seats.

Po stands transfixed by the images he sees around the man. Above Mr. Murphy’s head in an arch, hangs the moon in each of its phases, each one shining down on him. Mr. Murphy shaves his head, but Po stares transfixed by the shoulder length water that flows there. Po steps forward, hand slowly reaching out towards the ocean of hair.

Clarissa grabs his wrist, pulling it down to her side.

“Mr. Allen, did you hear me?” Mr. Murphy raises his voice.

Po shakes himself, the moons and watery hair fading from the teacher. “I’m sorry?”

Quiet laughter rises from the class, which Mr. Murphy stops with a glare. “I said, take your seats.”

Turning towards the classroom, Po sees Danny’s glaring face in the back of the class. Po rushes down the aisle to sit in front of his friend. “Where did you go?”

Danny’s glare deepens. “What do you mean where did I go? I’ve been here.”

“You disappeared from Mrs. Davis’s room.” Po shoots him an accusatory look.

“I left to come here.” Danny glances at the board as Steve Devon puts one of the problems on the board. “Wrong.” He turns his attention back to Po. “I couldn’t take you hugging our teacher. Okay? Where were you?”

“We were looking for you.” Po slumps in his seat, sulking.

“I’ve been here.”

“Well, we didn’t know that.”

“Guys, stop.” Clarissa hiss at them.

“Po, Danny!” Mr. Murphy’s voice booms from the front of the class. “Do you have time to join us for class?”

Po looks at his desk. “Sorry.”

“I don’t have time for the wrong answers.” Danny spits back at him.

Again, a ripple of laughter comes from the class.

Mr. Murphy studies what Steve put on the board. He turns to look at Danny, completely ignoring the red-faced Steve. “Would you like to show Steve where he went wrong, Danny?”

Danny shifts his gaze to the windows. “Not really.”

“I didn’t think so.” Mr. Murphy walks over to the board, explaining to Steve, and the class, where the misstep is.

Po waits for a second or two before turning around. “We just didn’t know where you were, is all.”

“I’m right here.” Danny sits forward to glare directly into Po’s eyes. “I’d be more worried about yourself. What were you doing up there?” Danny makes a dazed face, reaching out with his hand.

Po feels his face heat up, and he turns back around in his seat. “I couldn’t help it. The images around Mr. Murphy were really intense.”

“Show me.” Danny’s hand lands on Po’s shoulder.

Po shrugs, tossing Danny’s hand off. “So, you can yell at me some more?”

Danny’s hand rests on his shoulder again. “I want to see what you see.”

Po sits up slightly, careful not to knock Danny’s hand from his shoulder. Slowly, he reaches across his chest and takes his friend’s hand in his. There’s a rush of conflicting emotions from Danny: fear, confidence, wonder, disgust.

“Don’t focus on me. Focus on Mr. Murphy.” Danny’s voice is harsh, but Po does what he says. The moons and watery hair reappearing on their teacher.

Danny lets out a small chuckle. “Well, that’s different.”

“Can I see?” Clarissa reaches across the aisle to lay her hand on theirs. “What does that mean?”

Mr. Murphy turns back to the class from the board. “Now if you’ll go to the next section of your book. We’ll start today’s lesson.” He glares over the class at the three of them.

Danny opens his book. “I’ll tell you later.” Danny sits back, eyes on his book, like he usually does. Danny barely ever listens to the lessons in class, preferring to figure things out for himself.

Po, once his book is open, focuses on Mr. Murphy. He respects the man for his ability to make math seem easy, and gives him the respect of listening to what he says. Today however, the moons and water hair do nothing but distract him. Even trying to focus on what Mr. Murphy writes on the board is a struggle. Eventually, Po gives up and starts reading the lesson from the book.

It doesn’t take long before he’s absorbed in the problems and solutions. As he reads, the numbers and letters move around the page, arranging themselves to show him how they all fit together. The patterns flow from one to the other, and Po has no problem understanding them. Looking at the page of problems next to the lesson, Po clearly sees the answers for all the problems. In a daze, he begins writing out the work. He’s filled two pages by the time he’s done.

Po turns around, holding up his notebook to show Danny. “Hey, did this happen for you…What’s that?”

Danny’s notebook is filled with tiny, strange, yet familiar, drawings, below each line of drawings is text, like a translation. “Nothing.” Danny closes his notebook. “I’m just doodling, ‘cause I’m bored.” He points to Po’s notebook. “I finished like ten minutes ago. You’re a slow poke.”

“Those looked like symbols.” Po can’t get the page out of his mind.

“Did they?” Danny lets out a chuckle.

“It looked like you were translating them.”

“Did it?” Another chuckle. Po gets the feeling Danny’s laughing at him.

“Alright, that’s all we got for today.” Mr. Murphy’s voice startles Po. “I want you to work on the odd problems on the next page, and we’ll go over them tomorrow.”

The bell rings as soon as Mr. Murphy ends his sentence. Kids jump from their seats, heading for the door. Danny gets up, heading to Mr. Murphy’s desk, holding out a paper to him.

“Can I help you, Danny?” Mr. Murphy arranges some papers on his desk.

“It’s the homework.” Danny holds the paper out defiantly.

Mr. Murphy slowly looks from the paper to Danny. “That’s for tomorrow.”

Danny lets the paper drop to his desk. “Just in case I can’t make it.” He turns and heads for the door.

Po stares at his friend, he can’t believe Danny’s being so brazen. He hurries after him, not ready to let their conversation go.

“You’ll be able to make it to tutoring after school today, won’t you?” Mr. Murphy calls after them.

Danny waves as he walks out the door. “See you there.”

Before leaving, Po turns and offers an apologetic smile to Mr. Murphy. “Can’t wait.” He hurries out of the room after Danny, falling into step next to him. “Can we talk about what you were drawing?”

“I told you, I was doodling.” A girl bumps into Danny, she pauses for a second.

Po catches her eyes dilate, right before a shiver runs through her and she blushes, rushing away down the hall. “What was that?”

“What was what?” Danny continues down the hall as if nothing happened.

Po narrows his eyes at his friend, usually he’d complain about people watching where he was going. “Did you see that?” Po asks Clarissa.

“See what?”

“That girl?” Po nods in her direction

Clarissa shakes her head. “Not my type.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Po looks at the back of Danny’ head. “Did Danny do something to her?”

“Like what?” Clarissa passes him, clearly not wanting to be late to another class.

Po quickens his step to keep up with her. “I don’t know.”

“I didn’t see anything.” She glances down at her notebook, again clutched to her chest. “Weren’t you just talking to him about him drawing symbols?”

“Pffff. Your right.” Po quickens his step again, wanting to catch up with Danny.

Clarissa’s hand grabs his arm and stops him. “That’s not what I meant.” She stares into his eyes, making sure she has his attention. “Po, Danny’s given you a gift. You have heightened senses, heightened awareness, a spiritual connection your finally aware of. Don’t you think you should stop trying to live Danny’s life and live your own?” She lets go of him, leaving him in the middle of the hall.

Her words replay in his head, only stopping when the bell shatters his concentration. Watching the hallway empty, he tries to remember a time when he wasn’t worried about Danny. His thoughts float back to the day Danny found that journal. It always comes back to that journal.

The sound of crying faintly touches his ears. The sobs bring Po out of his thoughts and back into the school hallway. The hallway is empty except for him. He takes a few steps one way down the hall, then back up it, trying to see if the crying gets louder. To his annoyance, it doesn’t. Closing his eyes, he tries to listen harder. Shuffling feet, heavy breathing, droning voices, yelling, fill his head. Opening his eyes, he shakes his head to clear it.

With what’s become instinct to him, he reaches out to feel for emotion. Goose bumps pop up on his skin as a shudder runs through his body. Pain spikes his jaw. Rubbing his face, Po realizes the pain comes from him asking his body to do two different things at once, shield him and reach out.

For a brief moment, he considers dropping his shield. He quickly decides against that, not believing the inundation of every emotion in the school would help. Instead he thinks about his shield. He imagines it. He sees it as a glow around him, bright enough to keep the emotions back. In his mind’s eye, he shrinks the light, dimming it just enough to let in sadness.

A soft moan escapes his lips. His heart beats hollowly in his chest. Tears dribble down his face.

Wiping away the moisture, Po take several deep breaths to calm himself. Then, standing up straight, he looks up and down the hallway again. It’s changed, even from before, when it was a hyper-real animation, now it’s darker, the shadows deeper, red smears of pain cover the walls.

“I guess the world really is how you perceive it.” The thought doesn’t comfort him.

Following the path of pain draws him towards a classroom. Several kids inside have red smeared across them. Focusing on them, reveals their many reasons for feeling as they do. One boy is sad because of a girl. One girl is sad because of a boy. A couple students are in varying stages of depression. None of them are crying though.

Po moves methodically down the hall, following each path of red until he finds its conclusion. Several times paths merge, or cut each other off, pains colliding with one another. He’s down the stairs, halfway through the bottom floor, when the bell rings, sending students spewing into the hallways. Po has no choice but to brighten his shield again.

When the hall empties again, Po listens carefully for the sound of crying. He listens for a while, before he admits it’s gone. Feeling useless and tired, he makes his way back to class.

Mr. Hoover barely acknowledges him when he comes into class. Po knows he’s already been marked late on the man’s clipboard. He just makes sure Mr. Hoover sees him, so he can mark him tardy, instead of absent, before joining Danny and Clarissa at their lab table.

“Where were you?” Clarissa hisses at him.

Po pulls out the same notebook he’s been using all day. He plonks onto a stool next to Danny, who seems to be in his own world, measuring the growth of their seedling, and checking the nitrogen levels in the soil. “Shouldn’t you be worried about yourself?” Po feels bad as soon as the words are out of his mouth. He slides closer to Danny, looking over his shoulder at his notes. “How’s the plant doing?”

Danny scribbles something in his notebook, his face scrunched in concentration. “It’s dying.”

“What?” Po and Clarissa intone together.

“There’s dead spots on some of the leaves and stem.” Danny tosses his notebook onto the table.

“Let me see it.” Clarissa moves over to the plant.

Po grabs Danny’s notebook. Checking over the moisture and nitrogen levels he’s recorded, he flips to the lab page in the booklet on the desk. Everything lines up with the measurements in the book. “Everything lines up. It should be doing fine.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.” Danny crosses his arms, sitting back from the table.

“I’m not blaming you.” Po feels defensive.

“I’m not saying you are.” Danny flips his hair back from his face, it’s gotten more disheveled as the day’s gone on.

“I’m just saying.” Po resists the urge to reach out and straighten his hair.

“Guys?” Clarissa waits for them to look at her. “The plant’s fine.” She points to the sprout, maybe half an inch totally in height, its three leaves skewed to all sides looking for light. It looks healthy.

Danny narrows his eyes. “What did you do?”

“Danny.” Po ques up a chiding speech in his head.

“No.” Danny doesn’t take his eyes off Clarissa, his voice sends a shiver through Po. “The plant was dying a second ago.”

Clarissa sets her jaw. “Then what did you do, ‘cause it was fine a couple days ago.”

Danny straightens on the stool, adding a couple inches in height. “I just started the measurements, ‘cause you were watching the door.”

“Guys?” Po looks between his friends, he sees the air ripple around them.

Clarissa blushes. “Well then, I guess the plant just doesn’t like you.” A ripple goes out from her, hitting the kid behind her. He shivers, hunches over, and starts crying.

“Guys!” Po hunches over himself, yelling the whisper between them. “It’s no use playing the blame game, the plant’s fine, right?”

Danny looks to him to the plant, then stares into the middle distance.

Po smiles at Clarissa, who’s still glaring at Danny. “Now let’s take some deep bre-”

“No, she’s right.” Danny slumps onto himself. “We’re affecting things around us.”

“We are?” Clarissa looks around, surprise popping onto her face.

Po grabs the sleeve of her shirt and pulls her closer to Danny. “But we’re shielded.”

“From outside influences.” Danny holds out his hand like he’s touching a wall. A couple kids in the back of the room giggle. “But there’s nothing shielding things from us.”

Po looks around the room, making sure there are no ripples heading for anyone, making sure nothing else is changing. “I thought we weren’t channeling that much power.”

“We’re not.” Danny’s gaze is focused on their sprout, as if he’s willing it to do something. Po thinks he sees a leaf twitch. “A double ‘A’ battery doesn’t have that much power either, but it will still shock you if you make contact.” Danny, a look of frustration on his face, peers around the room. “I thought this might happen.”

“You thought this might happen, and you didn’t tell us?” Po grabs Danny’s shoulder and spins him around so he’s looking at him. “Is this what happened to the girl in the hall?”

Danny’s eyes clear enough to become confused. “What girl?”

“Is it only on contact?” Clarissa turns, reaching out for the boy she made cry a minute ago. When her hand touches his back, he sits up straighter, becomes more alert, more interested in what his lab partner is saying.

Danny watches her with interest.

“Clarissa!” Po hisses. “Stop!”

Several of their classmates turn to look at their table.

Clarissa pulls her hand away from the boy; immediately his posture slackens. “Sorry. I was just curious.”

“The way I see it, we’ve got two options. We can go through the day not touching anything, or we can power down.” Po raises his hand slightly into the air. “I vote for powering down.”

“How are we going to learn control if we don’t practice?” Clarissa bites her bottom lip. Po knows she does that when she’s trying to decide to do the thing she wants versus the thing she knows is right. He tries to help her along with the decision. “In a controlled environment with no one else around.”

She nods slowly.

“But we don’t know about the side effects that’ll hit us when we power down.” Danny absently rolls a pencil across the table top.

Po and Clarissa look at each other, resignation coming over their faces. “What side effects?” They intone together.

“You didn’t say anything about side effects.” Clarissa clenches her hand, putting her fist on the table.

Danny looks back and forth between them. “I didn’t think I needed to. I don’t know about you, but after yesterday I was totally drained.” He reaches out to grab the pencil.

Po snatches the pencil and throws it on the floor.

“Hey! Watch it!”

Po ignores the other student’s complaints. “Danny, focus.”

Danny looks after the pencil, then back at Po. “I’m just saying, we were only powered up for a couple hours, three, and we were wiped. Extrapolating on that, we’ve been channeling power for four hours now? We could power down and pass out from exhaustion.” Danny smiles at them. “Or we could start shaking, get chills, maybe see things, muscle soreness.”

“So, we can never stop?” Clarissa pushes into Danny, making him tilt a little on his seat.

“You’re talking about withdraw symptoms.” Po can’t keep the edge from his voice.

Danny darts looks between the two of them, laughing under his breath. “Stop being so melodramatic, you two.” He turns to Clarissa. “First, our bodies will eventually become accustom to channeling this power, like conditioning.”

“You think.” Po cracks his knuckles nervously. “This is all guess work.”

Danny turns to him and shrugs. “So’s most of life.”

That doesn’t make Po feel better. “So, I guess we’re on this train until the end of the day.”

“Crazy, but that’s how it goes.” Danny chuckles again.

The bell rings, causing Po to jump.

Mr. Hoover looks up as students file out past his desk. “Well, I guess that’s it for today.”

“C’mon.” Clarissa grabs her bag from the floor. “Let’s go to lunch, maybe some food will help.”

Po follows his friends. In the halls, Po and Clarissa do their best to avoid contact once again. Danny plows ahead of them, his glare doing most of the work for them.

Po can’t stop thinking about everything they’ve touched today. The emotions and memories slide through his brain on fast forward. All this time, he’s been focused on how everything is affecting them, but what effect have they been having on everything else?

“Everything’s connected.” Po feels like his heart beats with everyone’s around him.

“Of course it is.” Danny turns around, a grim look on his face. “No matter how hard you try to separate yourself.”

Po frowns. “That’s not-”

“Clarissa!” Christine bursts from a group of freshmen, running in their direction.

Clarissa jumps back from the girl when she doesn’t slow down. “Don’t! Don’t touch me!”

Christine stops abruptly, her arms drop, eyes watering. “I…o-okay.” Putting her head down, her shoulders hunch as she folds in on herself.

“Hey, don’t…” Clarissa reaches out to comfort her, but stops before she touches the girl. “Chrissy, don’t do that. It’s…I’m…” She looks over at the two boys who stand there watching her. Danny shakes his head, and Po shrugs at her. “I’m just not feeling hug-y today. I’m…It’s that time of the month.” Clarissa sighs and rolls her eyes.

Christine straightens up a little. “I…I get it. My mom’s the same way.” Standing there, she looks like a wounded animal.

“You can still eat with us, okay?” Clarissa puts on a smile.

“Okay.” The two girls head for the lunch line side by side. Christine keeps looking to the side to make sure she isn’t close to touching Clarissa.

Now that they have a moment alone, Po stands face to face with Danny. Danny just stares at him, waiting for him to say something. Po focuses on his friend until all the noise and scents of the cafeteria disappear. The set of Danny’s jaw, the wrinkles around his eyes, makes him look older to Po.

“Clarissa thinks you’ve given us a gift.”

“You’re welcome.” Danny’s eyes continue to dart around the room.

Despite himself, Po smiles. “I didn’t thank you.”

Danny’s expression goes slack, his eyes come to rest on Po. “Maybe you should.”

Po steps forward, the distance between the two friends disappearing. “Maybe I will.”

Danny stares at him as if Po’s the only thing in the world. A shiver runs through Po, but he refuses to let it show.

“I need you to look at my math homework.” Riley’s voice cuts through the moment.

Danny’s eyes harden as he looks around Po at the freshman. “What you need is a watch. This isn’t afterschool tutoring, this is lunch.”

Riley slides his notebook out from under his tray, holding it out to them. “Yeah, well, you missed tutoring yesterday, so I figured you owe me.”

“We owe you?” Danny pushes past Po, his chest bending the notebook as he steps in front of Riley. “We don’t owe you anything.”

Riley steps around Danny, either ignoring or oblivious to his anger, and hands his notebook out to Po. “I wasn’t expecting you do it. I was expec…Hey! What did you do to my homework?” Riley looks down at the open page, where the penciled math problems have turned into jagged, squiggle lines.

“Let me see.” Po snatches the notebook from Riley’s hands. As soon as he touches it the jagged lines reform into math problems and solutions. He makes a show of looking the paper up and down. When the numbers are all back in place, he hands the notebook back to Riley. “Everything looks fine to me.” The freshman takes the notebook, looking over what’s written there. “Do you have any questions?”

“What did he do to my notebook?” Riley looks toward Danny.

Po sighs. “I meant about the problems.”

“Maybe you need glasses.” Danny turns, heading for the lunch line.

Riley turns to Po. “What did he do-”

Po takes the notebook from Riley, closes it, and hands it back. “I’ll see you after school, Riley.”

“But what did-”

“After school, Riley.” Before the freshman can say anything else, Po walks down a row of tables.

He doesn’t go in the direction of the lunch line, the scent of the processed and lukewarm food turned his stomach the moment he stepped into the cafeteria hallway. Instead, he heads in the direction of a fellow student, a girl from his English class. “Melissa Parker, mind if I sit down?” Po sits down across from her without waiting for a response. There’s plenty of open space around her on the benches. She’s currently not eating lunch, instead reading through a textbook and taking notes.

“Po Allen, what an unexpected surprise.” She looks up at him long enough to flash a thin smile at him, before going back to her book. “I’m busy.”

Po stares at her. Specifically, he stares at the image of a salivating dog running back and forth between her shoulders. It alternates from snapping wildly at her ears and whining into them. Every so often an image of food passes around her head like a satellite.

“I said, I’m busy.” She stops writing, but doesn’t look at him.

As she speaks, Po sees images of food fall out of her mouth. Her skin looks sallow, but he can’t tell if it really is or if he’s just seeing it as such.

She squirms. “Stop staring at me.”

“Just waiting for the line to die down, before you get some lunch?” He tries to keep his voice light.

The salivating dog dashes towards the lunch line. A chain shoots out from Melissa’s stomach, wrapping around the dog’s neck and stopping it with a sharp jerk.

“As you can see, I’m busy.” She starts writing again. “That’s your cue to leave.”

The dog is pacing back and forth between her shoulders again.

“There are healthier ways to lose weight than starving yourself.”

What little fur the dog has stands up, it growls in his direction. Melissa finally looks at him, her skin taking on an orange tint. “What? You think because I don’t want to eat the processed crap they serve us I have an eating disorder?” She slams her book closed, eliciting several stares from other tables. “We’ve barely talked in four years, and you insul-”

“Fine, you don’t want to eat the food here, that’s fine.” Po leans in, putting his hand on hers. Images of food flash through his mind, along with smirking and sneering face, childish insults ring in his ears. His stomach churns and growls in hunger and disgust. “That doesn’t explain why you haven’t eaten anything in three days.”

“Let go of me!” She pulls her hand away, knocking her book to the floor. Several of the kids that had been watching turn away. Before any of the monitors can come over, Melissa jumps off the bench, picks up her book, and walks away.

Clarissa sits down next to him, Christine in tow, with a tray of fries. “What was that about?”

Po watches Melissa zig zag her way out of the lunch room. “You still think Danny gave us a gift?”

“Danny gave you guys a gift?” Christine’s voice is muffled behind the bites of burger in her mouth.

“Of course.” Clarissa leans into Po, a heat rushes through her into him. “It all depends on how you use it.”

Po turns, Clarissa’s face close to his. She smiles at him. “What if I want to…Where is Danny?”

The smile drops from Clarissa’s face, she pulls back from him, grabbing some fries from the tray, she shoves them into her mouth. “Last time I saw him he was with you.”

“He didn’t go to the lunch line?”

Clarissa stares at him for a moment, one side of her mouth raising in a wry smile. “The last time. I saw him. He was. With you.” She bops him on the nose with her finger. “Unlike you, I think Danny can take care of himself.”

“All evidence to the contrary.” Po gets up, taking a handful of fries from Clarissa tray as he does, and heads over to the lunch line. A quick glance tells him Danny’s not there. He spins to look at the room full of kids, but can’t pick Danny out of the crowd.

Without hesitation, Po pictures his shield again. This time when he dims it, he keeps a vision of Danny firmly in his mind. There’s a tug at his insides. It pulls him to one set of lunch room doors. Mr. Carlson, a freshman teacher is there watching them.

“I have to use the restroom.”

Mr. Carlson absently waves him towards the door.

Out in the hall, Po crams a few fries into his mouth, they’re bland and oily, but they quiet his stomach some. He focuses on the tug, which pulls him away from the restrooms. There are a few teachers and students wandering the halls, but Po gives them a wide berth and they don’t give him much notice.

Finally, Po turns a corner and sees Danny. He stands in front of a locker, head down, palm flat against the metal. Po stops, finding himself smiling at his friend. He remembers how he and Clarissa were so scared to touch their lockers this morning, and here Danny is absorbing everything this locker has to tell him.

“What are you doing?” Po walks up next to him.

“Secrets.” Danny doesn’t stop what he’s doing.

“You’re not going to tell me?” Po chuckles a little.

Danny raises his head, looking at him, confused. “I just did.”

“That’s not…” Po shakes his head. “Okay.” He leans in front of Danny, looking at the front of the locker. “And what secrets does locker twelve-thirty-eight have to tell you?”

“Kerry Douglas’s family grows weed in their basement.”

Po shakes his head again, smiling even more. “Not exactly illegal anymore, and not exactly a secret. Everyone knows Kerry is a druggie.”

“Kerry’s mother has been fighting cancer for years. They grow the pot to help her. It’s cheaper than the prescription stuff.” Danny rattles of the information impassively.

“Shit. I didn’t know that.” Po thinks of Kerry, but can’t think of anything much he does know about him. He’s always kept his distance, since he’s a druggie. “It must be rough for him.”

“He also sells some of it to make some extra money.” Danny tacks this on, almost like he’s trying to hurt Po.

The two boys stare at each other. It seems to Po like Danny’s waiting for him to say something.

“You know I get that people aren’t always what they seem, right?” Po stares at Danny staring at him. It might be Po’s imagination, but he thinks he sees a tinge of disbelief in those eyes. “Please tell me you know I’m not stupid.”

Danny smiles. “I don’t think you’re stupid. I think you have too big a heart.”

“Did you just call me naïve?”

“In the nicest way possible.” Danny lets his hand drop from the locker, leaning his back against it.

Po leans on the locker next to his friend. “And maybe you’re just a little bit too cynical.”

“Nope. I’m just the right amount of cynical.” Danny leans his head back against the locker and closes his eyes.

“And your cynical nature has led you to find out Kerry Douglas’s secrets. Was it worth it?” Po bounces his head off the locker lightly, a familiar song going through his head.

“Not just Kerry’s secrets.” Danny bobs his head in time to the song in Po’s head.

“How many other lockers did you touch?”

Danny opens his eyes, leans forward, peering down the row of lockers. “About thirty-seven others.” He turns to Po and smiles.

Po flinches away from the smile. “Why?” He pushes off the locker, staring down the row at all the metal doors. “Why would you do that?”

Danny shrugs. “I don’t know.” He stares down the length of the lockers. “I just like knowing things.” He stares quizzically at Po. “Don’t you.”

“I guess. I don’t know.” Po rejoins him leaning on the lockers again. “I don’t think I’d want to be connected to someone like that. Knowing someone’s secrets is a big deal.”

“There you go with all that caring.”

The two boys chuckle, then stand in silence. Po thinks about secrets, specifically the secret that magic, or whatever it is they’re doing, is real. He’s still coming to grips with that, and Danny’s out here scrounging up more.

“You know,” Po breaks the silence. “I could bust out with the cliché: there are some things we weren’t meant to know.”

“And I could fight back with: Knowledge is power.”

“What kind of power does it give you that Kerry’s mom has cancer?” Now that Po’s said it out loud, several things pop into his mind that he could do to leverage the information. He wonders if it’s him thinking of those things or Danny.

“That’s not what I meant.” Danny grabs Po’s hand and slams it against a locker. Immediately, images and emotions flood Po’s mind. He feels a scream rising in his chest. Danny pulls his hand off the locker. “I’ve been practicing sorting through all that. That’s the knowledge I’m talking about.”

Po clenches and unclenches his hand, it feels like it’s been burned. “Oh. Well, I guess that’s good then.”

The bell blares through the halls.

Danny looks from Po to the ceiling and back again. “It looks like it’s that time again. Do you want to go to class? Or do you want to practice some?”

Po watches as students file from the lunch room and other classes. He wonders what each is thinking; what each might be hiding. He thinks about whether Danny is right about him being too naïve; wonders if there’s anything he can do to change that.

“I’m with you either way.” Po smiles at his friend.

“One for all, and all for one, hey?” Danny smiles back.

“Something like that.”

Danny studies Po for a moment. “I guess we should get to class then.”

They don’t talk as they walk to class. Danny lost in his thoughts. Po lost in wandering if his friend is really okay, or if he’s on the edge.

Po reaches out towards his friend with his power.

Danny comes to himself, giving Po one of his patented stares.

Po shrugs and smiles. He pictures his shield, brightening it.

Danny nods approvingly.

“Hey, you two.” Clarissa pushes off the wall. “Where did you get off to?”

“Secrets.” Danny says as he walks past her into the classroom.

“Fine. Don’t tell me.” Clarissa looks half hurt.

Po stops next to her. “That’s not what he meant.”

“Yeah?” Clarissa pulls her eyes from Danny to look at Po. “What did he mean?”

The bell rings, and Po pulls Clarissa into the room with him. “He was touching lockers in the hallway, absorbing the images from them.”

A look of disgust sprouts onto Clarissa’s face as she sits down. “Why were you doing that?”

“I told you,” Danny looks at her confused. “Secrets.”

“Really?” Clarissa leans towards him, an eager expression on her face. “What did you learn?”

“Bonjour, classe, ouvrir vos livre.” Ms. Chenney taps the board with her pen to get their attention.

Out of habit the three of them take out their books. Po tries to concentrate in this class too, but images keep popping into his vision around people. Once again, he finds himself focusing on the book in front of him. Once again, the words rearrange themselves until he understands them.

Reading the French in his book becomes easy. It takes him several pages to realize the words haven’t changed, he just knows French now. Glancing to the side, he sees Clarissa absently turning pages and fidgeting. Po doesn’t doubt that she’s experiencing the same thing. He doesn’t have to turn around to know Danny is back to translating symbols in his notebook. He goes back to reading his text book, the exercises seem too easy all of a sudden, like he’s spoken French his entire life.

When the bell rings, Po waits until they’re out in the hall before asking, “Pouvez-vous parler Francais aussi?”

Danny pushes past him and Clarissa, heading to the library. “Wir konnen jede Sprache sprechen, was, die wir wollen.”

Entering the library, the three of them head to their respective spots around the table. Danny immediately takes out his notebook and sets about scribbling in it. Clarissa takes out her French book, continuing to flip through the pages. When she looks up and sees Po watching her, she mouths the words ‘a gift’ to him before going back to the book.

Po takes out his French book and lays it on the table in front of him. He doesn’t open it, he just stares at its cover. All the things that have happened today flutter through his head. For a moment, he thinks that Clarissa might be right, this whole thing might be a gift.

Riley’s book bag lands on the table next to him. “I need help with my homework.”

Po sighs, putting his French book away, and looking up at the freshman. “Have you even started it?”

“Of course.” Riley sits down next to him.

“Of course, you have.” Po pulls out his math book. “Let me see.” Out of the corner of his eye, Po sees Christine come in and sit next to Clarissa. He notices the freshman girl scooches the chair away from Clarissa when she sits down, still trying not to touch her.

“Here.” Riley hands Po his book and paper.

“You’ve only done two problems.” Po waves to Mr. Murphy when he comes out of the stacks to join them. The math teacher gives a half wave back, then shoots a glare in the direction of Danny.

Riley’s voice whines in Po’s ear. “I want to make sure I’m doing it right before I keep going.”

A few other kids filter in from the stacks to mill about the table. Some of them are regulars, some of them aren’t, probably stopping by to ask a specific question about something. A couple of them head over to Danny, because he’s not with anyone. In typical fashion, Danny looks over their work, scribbling some notes before shoving it back at them.

“Okay. I’ll have a look.” Po immediately sees what Riley’s done wrong. “You’re missing a step. Go back over the first two again.” Po gets up.

“Where are you going?” Riley sounds panicked.

“There are other kids here with questions.” Po nods in several students’ directions.

“What if I have more questions?”

Po finds himself smiling down at the younger boy. “Riley, you’re pretty smart. You barely need help with this.” He bends down, pointing at the problems on the page. “You’re doing everything right, you’re just missing a step between here and here.” With that, Po stands up, walking around the table to see what some of the other students need.

Po does his best not to focus on the images around the other kids as he helps them. Focusing on the math problems helps. He finds himself smiling more and more as he goes around the table. He’s always liked feeling useful, and after the debacle in the lunch room with Melissa, he’s just happy to have concrete answers for something.

The whole thing reminds him of this morning, when he and Clarissa found their cores to construct their shields around. He’s never thought of himself as a caregiver before. The only person he’s ever really taken care of is Danny. The horrible thought rockets through his mind, that without Danny he’d be able to take care of other people.

“Maybe I should lead my own life.”

“What?” The sophomore he’s helping looks up at him.

“Nothing. You’re still not balancing the equation. Make sure you account for every element.”

As he watches the student go over the problem again, Mr. Murphy takes a look around the table, then gets up and heads into the stacks. It’s not an uncommon occurrence to leave the tutoring to Po, Clarissa, and Danny. The whole point of the tutoring is peers helping peers. As Mr. Murphy disappears among the books, Po sees Danny get up and head in after him. Without a second thought, Po moves around the table ready to follow.

“Po?” Riley’s voice cuts through the quiet of the library. “I need your help.”

There’s a split second of indecision on Po’s part where he’s unsure if he should ignore Riley or help him. Clarissa’s words come back to haunt him, and he turns away from the shelves, heading back over to Riley. “What do you got for me?”

Riley shoves his notebook at him. “Take a look at these.”

Po takes the notebook, looking over the problems. “These were your homework from yesterday. I looked over these in the lunch room.” He holds the notebook out to Riley, but the freshman doesn’t take it.

“Take a look at them again. Look harder.” The boy smiles up at him.

Confused, Po looks at the problems again. There’s nothing he can find wrong with them. “I can’t see anything wrong with them.” He holds the notebook out again.

This time Riley takes the notebook from him, flipping through the pages.

Po looks into the stacks, waiting for Danny to come back.

“Yeah, there is something wrong with them.” Riley shoves the notebook into Po’s chest a couple times before Po takes it from him, looking down at another page of problems. “Do they look like those?”

Po glances at the page quickly, his eyes going back to the shelves. The hair on the back of his neck rises. He gets the feeling something is wrong. “They don’t look the same. It’s a different lesson. One we’ve already gone over.” He holds out the notebook, walking away as he does to get a view down another aisle of books.

Riley doesn’t take the notebook from him. “Uh-huh, but how are they written?”

Po’s only half listening to Riley. “They’re written fine.” He puts the notebook down on the table.

“Yesterday’s homework, the problems you handed back to me, isn’t in my handwriting.” Riley continues, undeterred by Po’s lack of attention. “But do you know whose handwriting it does look like, Po?”

The scream racks the library, startling everyone.

Po glances at Clarissa, before each sprint into the aisle.

Danny lies on the floor, books scattered around him.

Po skids onto his knees next to him. “Danny! Are you okay?” Danny’s shoulders jig up and down. Gently, Po turns his friend over. The grin on Danny’s face startles him.

Clarissa smacks his leg. “What the fuck, Danny?!”

“Murphy’s a crossdresser!” Danny’s shoulders jig again as he starts laughing.

“What’s he talking about?” Riley stands halfway down the aisle.

Po helps Danny sit up.

“He puts on dresses and drives two hours away to pick up men!” Danny has a hold of Po’s arm, squeezing it too hard.

“What’s going on here?” Mr. Murphy comes around the end of the shelves. “Christ, is he okay?”

“You wear dresses?” Riley takes a few steps back.

“It’s the moons that gave it away!” Danny lets go of Po’s arm, making circling motions around his head.

“What’s he talking about?” Fear laces Mr. Murphy’s voice.

Po grabs Danny’s wrists, pulling his hands down to his sides. “Danny, why are you yelling?”

Odd lights flit through Danny’s eyes. “They’re all so loud! I didn’t know it’d be so loud!”

Po leans in, making sure Danny only sees him. “What’s so loud?”

Danny barks a laugh. “All the thoughts!”

Po rocks back on his heels, not sure he heard Danny correctly.

“I’m calling his parents.” Mr. Murphy yanks his phone from his pocket.

“No need!” Clarissa rushes up the aisle, Po didn’t realize she left, holding all their coats and book bags. “We’ll make sure he gets home safe.” She smiles manically at their teacher. “Won’t we, Po?”

Po stares up at Mr. Murphy. His face is red and there’s a wild look in the man’s eyes. It’s the images about him Po can’t stop seeing. His sea hair rolls and tumbles, crashing against his shoulders like there’s a storm. The moons kaleidoscope around his head, changing phases rapidly.

“PO!” Clarissa’s voice cuts through his thoughts.

“Yes!” He gets up, pulling Danny with him. “Danny’s been sick, Mr. Murphy. We’ll get him home, and make sure he’s safe until Mr. and Mrs. Carver get home.” He slides past the man, dragging Danny with him.

Danny reaches out, making a wave-y motion around Mr. Murphy’s head. Murphy just stares at him. Clarissa smiles as she passes him.

Out in the hall, Clarissa throws Danny’s coat at him. “What the hell was that?” Even whispering her voice carries.

Danny slowly looks down at his coat, reaching to pick it up.

Clarissa hands Po his coat, her look imploring him to explain.

Po takes his coat from her and shrugs it on. “Danny’s reading minds now.”

“What?!”

Danny languidly puts his coat on, turns, and walks down the hall. Po and Clarissa follow him.

“I didn’t know we could do that?” Clarissa looks from Po to Danny.

“Apparently, we can. We just need to channel more power.” Po quickens his steps to catch up with Danny, who’s already made it outside. Stopping on the sidewalk, Po grabs his arm and turns him around. “What did you do, Danny? Did you use your hypnotic phrase again?”

“My head hurts!” Danny’s eyes are wide, bulging. “I thought it would be better outside, but it’s not!”

Concern pricks Po’s insides. He puts his hands on Danny’s shoulders, pulling him in so their foreheads are touching. “Danny. I want you to focus on my voice. Just listen to me.”

Danny pushes him away. “You think I’m reckless. You think I’m foolish for using what I found in the journal.” He takes a couple steps back.

“Danny?” Po’s insides twitch in fear, he reaches for his friend, lets his hand drop. “You screamed and collapsed in the library. You unintentionally outted a teacher.”

The words hang between them. The lights in Danny’s eyes slow, then disappear. “How can I argue when I prove you right?”

Po laughs despite himself. Danny gives him a half smile.

Clarissa walks between them. “I think that’s enough for one day, don’t you?” She looks back and forth between them.

Danny and Po nod, not needing her to say what she means. As one they chant their hypnotic phrases.

“Railroad Bill was a conjure man/He could change hisself to a bird.”

“There are some qualities—some incorporate things/That have a double life, which is thus made.”

“Many there be who die in throes/And groans, and fearful anguish:/And there be those, who waste in woes;/And many there be who languish.”

Po gasps as the power leaves him. Taking in a great mouthful of air, then he forgets how to breathe out. Grasping his chest, so full with air, he pushes on it. He looks to the others for help. Clarissa has her hands over her face, rocking back and forth. Danny’s nose bleeds, while he stares into the middle distance.

Air finally seeps from Po’s lungs.

Danny’s eyes regain focus. “Shit.” He wipes at his face, only managing to smear the blood across his cheek.

Clarissa stops rocking, taking her hands from her face. “That’s like a thousand times worse ice cream headache.” She opens her mouth wide, stretching her jaw. “Is everyone okay?”

Po bends his head from shoulder to shoulder, feeling each vertebrae crack as he does. A shiver runs through him, and his muscle suddenly feel too heavy. “I could use a nap.” He looks to Danny, who finally has most of the blood off his face. “Danny?”

Danny shakes his head. “I’m fi…Have your eyes always been purple?” He takes a step closer to Clarissa.

“What? No?” She looks away, turning her face, then turn back, eyes wide. “Are my eyes really purple?”

Po doesn’t see it.

Danny shakes his head again. “Sorry. I thought…Sorry.”

“Oh.” Clarissa stops holding her eyes open. “That would have been cool.”

Po blinks several times, his eyes stinging. They stand in silence, each one looking at the other.

“Well, we didn’t collapse immediately.” Clarissa smiles. “That’s a plus.”

Danny looks at his hands, clenching and unclenching them. “My body doesn’t feel like my body anymore.”

Po watches him move his arms around like a ragdoll’s, then pick up his legs and stamp his feet on the sidewalk.

“I feel numb.” Danny looks at them. “You guys feel that too?”

Po has never been more aware of his body than right now. Being connected to everything else in such an active way suddenly being gone, his own body comes into sharp focus. All his needs. All his wants.

“It’s going to be different for all of us, right?” Clarissa jumps in before Po can think of something to say. “I think a hot shower and a sandwich sound like heaven right now.”

Po watches Danny wiggling his fingers. “Maybe you’re right.” He looks at the school, once again feeling so small and larger than life. “But we can’t do that here.”

They group up and start walking. No one talks anymore.

Chills continue to run through Po’s body, his skin rippling with goose flesh. He keeps shaking his arms out, then rubbing them through his coat. Wondering if he looks as weird as he feels, he tries to focus on anything else. Danny and Clarissa catch his eye. Danny almost looks normal, walking along, seemingly in his own thoughts, but every few seconds he whips his head to the side, as if he’s trying to catch something he saw from the corner of his eye or he’s heard something disturbing. Clarissa reaches under her coat sleeves and scratches at her arms incessantly; when she realizes this she slaps her hands down on her thighs, but after a few minutes she tapping her legs, then she’s reaching under her coat sleeves again.

“We look like a PSA.” Po shoves his hand in his pockets, trying to ignore the chill that grips him.

“What do you mean?” Clarissa turns to him, scratching at herself again. Realizing what she’s doing, she pulls her hands out of her sleeves and shoves them into her own pockets. “Fuck off.” She blushes and looks across the street.

Po smiles, the expression dropping from his face when Danny walks past him down his street. “Not going to say good bye?”

Danny’s head twitches, before he turns to look back at them. “Good bye.”

“Danny, wait!” Po trots over to him. “Should we stay together?”

Danny narrows his eyes at him. “Why?”

Po studies his friends face. It’s gone slack, expressionless. His eyes are distant, lacking spark. Po swallows several times, his mouth dry. He’s seen Danny like this before, after his episodes.

“I just thought you might need someone.” Po sees Danny’s jaw clench. “I mean, we all might. To keep an eye on us. In case something else happens.”

Danny’s eyes narrow again in thought.

“I’m sorry.” Clarissa talks over Po’s shoulder. “I meant what I said before. I want a hot shower and a sandwich, and I don’t want to be around anybody else today.” She steps around Po to look at both of them. “No offense, but it’s going to be hard enough being around my family.”

Danny nods. “I agree with Clarissa. I don’t really feel up for company.” He gives them a weak half smile. “Besides, if something happens our parents will be around. I’ll see you two tomorrow.” With that, he turns and walks away.

Po watches him go, everything in his body worried about him. The next chill causes him to squirm.

“Are you okay?” Clarissa reaches out to touch his shoulder.

Po steps away from her hand, turning, and starting up the street. “Are you?”

“You worry about him a lot.” Clarissa’s hand drifts to her coat sleeve, catching herself, she shoves it into her pocket again.

“You’ve already said.” Po quickens his pace slightly.

Clarissa stays next to him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean-”

“Save it.” Po stops.

Clarissa walks several steps before she stops, turning to look at him. “Seriously, Po, I-”

“You were filled with…with whatever we can tap into now.” Po kicks at a rock, sending it careening into the road. “You may have been a little bit right.”

Clarissa steps forward, filling his space, getting him to look at her. “I’m just concerned Danny doesn’t worry about you nearly as much as you worry about him.”

Shaking his head, Po looks into the road after the rock. “We’re best friends. We worry about each other. It’s what we do.”

“Maybe you worry too much?”

When he looks at her, she has her own half smile on her face. When he feels his mouth twitch, he doesn’t stop it from smiling. “I don’t know what that means.”

“I know you don’t. You’re one of the sweetest people I know.” She leans in and kisses him on the cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Turning, she rushes down the street away from him.

He watches her go. “Are all my friends going to walk away from me?” Another chill wracks his body. They’re coming less frequently, but that almost makes them worse.

Getting home, he sees his dad is already there. The smell of spaghetti and garlic bread assault him when he enters the house. His stomach churns, reminding him he barely had anything for lunch.

Po makes his way to the kitchen, but it’s the sink he goes to, grabbing a cup, and filling it with water. He downs the water in one, long swallow. His father watches him while he stirs the sauce.

“Rough day?” Mr. Allen sprinkles some herbs into the sauce.

Po re-fills the glass, drinking half of it when it’s full. “You could say that.” He gulps down the rest of the water, filling the glass again.

“Especially when you stay for the full day.” Moving to the counter, Mr. Allen starts chopping some lettuce.

“Right?” Po gulps down more water. “All the facts and information. It’s like the teachers want us to better ourselves or something.”

“Was Danny there today?”

Po sets the glass on the counter. At the mention of his friend, his mind flips through the events of the day. Danny features prominently in all the pictures. How happy he was when they met this morning…How he spied on the kids having sex…The shield he conjured from nowhere…His insistence on finding people’s secrets…Outing Mr. Murphy…How hollow he looked when he left.

“Po…Son?” Mr. Allen’s concerned face clears out of the background blur.

“Yeah, Dad?”

Mr. Allen stares at him for a moment. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m just…” He takes a deep breath, Danny still lingering at the forefront of his mind. “It’s been a weird couple of days.”

Walking over, Mr. Allen puts his hand on his shoulders. “You know, you can talk to me if you need to. Me or your mother.”

Po looks into his father’s eyes. Softly, in the distance, Po thinks he hears a baby crying. Reaching up, he sets his hand on his father’s. “I know, Dad. I promise I will if I need to.”

“Too old for a hug?”

“No.”

His father slides his arms around his shoulders, pulling Po into his chest. They stand there for a couple seconds.

“Okay, okay. Let go before your mother gets home.” Mr. Allen steps back from him. “She’ll think we’re bonding or something.”

“Can’t have that.”

Po makes his way upstairs. After throwing his book bag in his room, he goes to the bathroom and starts the shower. As the room fills with steam from the hot water, he takes off his clothes and stands in the warmth of the air. His muscles ease that much more, and he feels more tired than ever. Through the spattering of water, comes the low rumble of the garage door, and he knows his mother is home.

For a moment, he wonders if his hearing is overly sensitive, or if he’s just hyperaware of things now. He decides it’s not worth worrying over, and steps into the shower.

The water’s heat stings, telling him just how cold his body feels. He refuses to turn down the heat. After a moment, skin pink, he begins to wash. Coating his skin with soap, he imagines pushing the day away from him. Letting the water flush the bubbles from his body, he feels the day, most of it, dissolve.

Out of the shower, Po has to admit he feels better. He’ll have to remember to thank Clarissa for the advice about a hot shower. The image of him with a bowl of soup comes to mind. Wiping the steam from the mirror reveals the smile on his face.

“You got to remember to take care of yourself too.” Even as the reflection nods in agreement, he knows he’s not going to take his own advice.

Throwing on clothes again, he heads down stairs. He sets the table, greeting his mother, but throughout dinner he doesn’t say much. The food tastes delicious. It’s like he’s eating this food for the first time, even though it’s the only thing his father knows how to make. He’s on his third plate of spaghetti before he slows down.

Po doesn’t say much as he eats. Instead, he listens to his parents talk about their days. It may be his imagination, but he hears the tiredness in their voices. As they eat, as they talk, the tiredness fades, and he hears an undercurrent of joy.

“What is it?” His mother’s voice brings him out of his thoughts.

“What?” Po shoves a forkful of spaghetti into his mouth.

“You have the biggest grin on your face. I just wanted to know what’s on your mind.”

His parents aren’t talking anymore. They stare at him. Instead of making him feel uncomfortable, it makes him warm. The smile on his face broadens. A laugh escapes his mouth. “I just love you is all.”

“That’s it, Patricia! Our son is on drugs!” His dad puts his hand on his arm. “Tell me what you took. Upers? Downers? Molly? Coke? Whizzers? Bangers? Amps? PCP?”

Po puts his hand on his father’s. For a moment, his father’s image is overlaid with overalls, instead of a fork, he holds a trowel. “I love you too.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” His mother’s hand grips his wrist.

Turning to look at her, her image blurs. She wears a black sequins dress, her lips have the brightest red lipstick he’s ever seen on them, her hair cascades down her shoulders, she looks twenty years younger; on the back of her chair is a vulture, it spreads its wings wide when he notices it.

Po jumps up from his chair, pulling his arms away from his parents. “I’m fine!” The smile is gone from his face, he feels his jaw clenching and tries to stop. “I’m…I’ve got some homework to do.”

Taking his plate into the kitchen, he puts it in the sink. His mouth is dry again, so he fills a cup with water and takes it upstairs with him. In his room, he stands in the silence for a few moments. He wonders if what he just saw is real, or his mind playing tricks on him. As he thinks, the silence loses its calming effect.

He drinks half the glass of water in one gulp and moves to his desk. Sitting, he takes out his math book. Math has a way of calming him down, focusing his thoughts. He flips to the homework and the lesson, reading it over again to make sure it still makes sense. It does. He finds his mind wandering to Danny. He wonders what he’s doing right now. Closing his eyes, he takes several deep breaths.

His phone buzzes, nearly knocking him off his chair when he jumps. It’s a message from Danny.

How you doing?

Po stares at his phone. Suspicion swims through him.

How did y-

He deletes it.

Are you p-

He deletes this too. Po stares out his bedroom window. The urge to ask if Danny’s powered up doesn’t go away. He tries to think of a way to do it that won’t make Danny mad. Finally, he gives up.

I’m okay. And you?

Po stares at his phone for a few minutes, before putting it down, and going back to reading his math book. Absently, he flips to a new page in his notebook and starts in on some problems. Ordering the numbers, finding solutions, takes his mind off of Danny for a few minutes.

Really hungry. Really sore. Just another day.

Po can’t help smiling, thinking of Danny devouring food at the Carver dinner table, the looks on his parents’ faces.

Yeah, me too. What did you have?

Setting his phone aside again, he looks down at his notebook. What he sees takes him back for a second. In his haste to clear his mind, he’s done every lesson for the next month. He resists the urge to keep going. Instead, he puts his math book away, and takes out his French book. He’s halfway through the day’s lesson, reading French fluidly, when his phone buzzes.

Homemade pizza and wings. You?

At the thought of pizza, Po’s stomach gurgles. Memories of making pizza with Danny and his parents bubble up in his mind. He can’t remember how many cheese fights they’ve had.

Did you eat a whole pizza by yourself? Dad made spaghetti and garlic bread.

The French doesn’t keep his mind as occupied as the math did. Po checks his homework, then does one, two, three more exercises, hoping to keep his thoughts from drifting. His hand darts out when his phone goes off, grabbing it mid-buzz.

In like five minutes. Most of the wings too. You’re lucky. Your dad makes the best garlic bread.

Po rolls his eyes. Danny always preferred his dad’s garlic bread over anything else.

Bro, it’s the only thing he knows how to make.

This time his phone buzzes back immediately.

Bro. I know. He’s focused on one thing and taken it to the level of perfection.

Po’s laugh breaks the silence of the room. He wishes Danny hadn’t wanted to be alone tonight, he misses his friend.

You would think that.

When the wide-eyed emoji appears on his phone, another laugh pops from his mouth.

It’s true!

Po agrees that his dad makes a great garlic bread. He doesn’t know if he could only eat it, as Danny claims he could, but it’s pretty good. He doesn’t want to give Danny the satisfaction though.

Yeah, yeah. Hey…other than the hunger and the soreness, anything else lingering about?

Po’s smile slowly fades as he waits for his phone to buzz again, and waits, and waits…Putting his phone down, he goes back to his French lessons. Half-heartedly, he conjugates and translates, every so often glancing at his phone.

He knocks his notebook off his desk, the next time it goes off.

Just some stuff. Math is too easy, but it’s always been easy. I keep seeing stuff…images…nothing major.

Po squints at his screen.

I’m seeing images too. How can that be nothing major?

Po picks up his notebook, putting it back on the desk, then moves across the room, flopping onto his bed, staring up at the ceiling, phone on his chest.

Not what I meant. It’s just flashes, not full blown imagery. Is what I meant.

Po looks at the words, wondering if they’re true. If “nothing major” really does refer to the severity of the after affects, or if Danny thinks what they’re doing is nothing major. He’s known Danny for years, and that book has been with them almost as long. Po knows how Danny feels about the book and its secrets; it could be how things are now is how Danny thinks they should be.

Oh. Okay. Have you checked on Clarissa yet?

Again, the day’s events flit through his mind. How Danny was with all the imagery and memories. It seems to Po, looking back, that Danny had a much easier time accepting all of it.

Not yet.

I’ll do it. Want to thank her for the advice of a hot shower.

K. Night.

Even though they’re not talking, Po feels Danny’s end of the line go silent. He stares at the screen for a few minutes. “You’re going to worry yourself to death.” Thumbing away from the screen, he flips through his contacts, stopping on Clarissa’s name. He stops before he presses it. Her face, from the morning, frightened and unsure, floats in front of him.

Getting up, he goes back to his desk, turning on his computer. Over the next few minutes he looks up articles and statistics. When he’s found what he’s looking for, he puts the links into an e-mail and sends them to Clarissa. Then he picks up his phone and calls her. After the third ring, he’s afraid she might have turned off her phone.

“Mr. Allen, to what do I owe this nightly call?” Her voice comes over the line in a half Southern accent.

Po smiles at the attempt. “Hey. Danny called to check on me. So, I’m calling to check on you. Hello?”

“Yeah. I’m okay.”

“And I wanted to thank you for the hot shower advice. I felt so much better after I took one.”

“I’m glad I could help.”

He hears some papers shuffling. “Are you online?”

“Not really. I’m just finishing up a years’ worth of French homework. Why?”

At the mention of homework, Po shuts his French book, and shoves it in his bag. “I sent you something.”

“Oh, a present. I didn’t get you anything.”

“It’s okay. Just check your e-mail.” Po waits, bouncing a little in his chair.

“What’s this?”

“Are you looking at them?”

“What am I looking at, Po?”

“I can wait while you read them.” Po ignores the annoyance in her voice.

“Po. I’m tired. It’s been a long day.”

Po stops fidgeting in his seat, conceding the point silently. “I remember how you looked this morning at the field. With all the blood.” The look on her face fills his vision.

“What about it?” Her voice shakes the image from him.

“The articles are about some of the kids that have graduated with the Coach Reidel’s help.” Po gives her a second to skim an article.

“One of these guys is a surgeon.”

Po can’t keep the smile from his face at her surprise. “That’s what I wanted you to know. That even though Coach Reidel hurt himself, he’s done a lot of good.”

“So, you want me to know, things happen for a reason?” Clarissa sounds annoyed again.

“That’s not…I’m mean…” Po isn’t sure he wanted her to know anything. “I just didn’t want you to focus on the bad things that happen because Danny pointed it out. I wanted to point out the good too.”

She doesn’t say anything. Po listens to her breathing, wondering if she’s reading an article, worried she’ll yell at him. He didn’t want to annoy her, he knows that much.

“Po, I…” Her breath catches. “That’s very thoughtful of you.”

They’re silent again.

Po turns off his computer, the glare getting to him. Getting to his feet, he stretches up as much as he can and keep the phone to his ear. “I just wanted-”

“I’m glad y-”

They let laugh together, a short, nervous burst.

“I’m glad you were thinking of me.” Clarissa’s voice comes through the phone soft.

Po stands, looking out his window. “It’s what I do.” Seeing his reflection in the glass, he smiles at himself. “It’s who I am.”

“I should get to bed.”

Po walks over to the window, reaching out, and putting his hand on the cool glass. “Good night then.”

“Yeah, good night.” The phone doesn’t go silent. Po waits for Clarissa to say something. “Make sure to get some sleep too. Don’t worry yourself sick.”

The phone goes silent. Po makes sure the ringer is off before putting it on his dresser. He does this without taking his hand off the window. Looking out across the back lawn, he thinks of Danny. He wonders if Danny is sleeping right now, or if he’s doing homework, or if he’s rummaging around in the journal. Po closes his eyes as he imagines the answer: Danny huddled over his desk, a single light on in his room as he frantically flips through pages of symbols.

“Now what would have to worry myself sick over?”

Turning from the window, Po gets ready for bed.

Po comes down stairs, following the music. In the living room his mother dances with a man, her sequins dress twirling, flashing sparkles across the walls. Several other men stand around or lounge on the couch, watching his mother. As the song ends, his mother embraces her dance partner, then pushes him away, grabbing another man as a new song starts.

“Mom?” Po stands at the bottom of the stairs, confused.

His mother glances over her shoulder at him, but she doesn’t stop dancing. “Oh, good morning, dear!” The man she’s dancing with dips her, and she laughs. “You better hurry and get breakfast, you’ll be late for school.” She thrusts her hips into her partner, and he wraps an arm around her waist, picks her up, and spins. His mother lets out another peel of laughter. At the sound, the vulture on the fireplace spreads its wings and shrieks, sending small feathers drifting to the floor as it flaps.

There’s a pressure in Po’s head. He gets the urge to be anywhere but in this room. “Where’s Dad?”

Po’s mother waves her hand in the air. “You know him. He’s working.”

Po watches his mother embrace this partner too when the music stops. Before a new song can start, he rushes for the front door, bursting from it into the yard. Bright light blinds him.

“Dad? Dad, are you here?!” The pressure in his head is worse, pain shooting into his left eye.

“I’m right over here, son.”

Po turns towards the sound of his father’s voice, eyes finally adjusting to the light. Trowel in hand, his father smears cement on a brink and places it in the wall of their house. Po turns, walking back so he can take in the size of the building. To call it a house would be an insult, it’s as big as a castle.

As he’s gawking, his father picks up another brick and places in a wall.

“Isn’t it big enough?”

His father turns and smiles at him. “One day this will all be yours.” He leans back to look up at the castle, taking a deep breath of satisfaction. “You never know what the future will bring.” He points to the sky opposite the sun.

Po sees a sky black with rolling clouds.

There’s a red flash and crack of thunder.

Po jumps. “Did you see that? Was that red lightning?”

A bolt scars the sky red as it streaks down and slams into the top of the castle. There’s a sound of wood snapping and crashing down.

“Dad, look out!” He reaches out, but his hand doesn’t touch anything. Tearing his eyes from the storm clouds, he sees his father has moved down the wall, still working to add bricks, he’s out of Po’s reach. “Dad!”

“Best be off, son. You don’t want to be late for school.”

Everything tints red with another flash of lightning. The thunder sounds like growling.

Po’s head spikes with pain

Another flash.

Po turns and runs.

Beyond his house is dense forest. Trees reach for him, scratching at his body when they can’t get a grip. Roots try to trip him, looping up to catch his feet, or rippling through the ground to stumble him.

Po keeps his feet through force of will.

The storm flashes and roars behind him.

Somehow, Po knows the storm is there for him. He feels its hunger, knows he’s its prey.

Finally, a root catches his foot. He falls forward.

A tree branch, sharp and jagged, aims for his chest.

Grabbing at the branch for balance, Po feels the tree lean forward. Throwing his weight into the fall, he slides past the branch, slamming his shoulder into the tree trunk.

The tree falls backwards, branches flailing, hitting another tree, and knocking it back. The next tree loses its balance, going over, and knocking over another tree. The next tree falls, and the next, and the next.

Po follows the path made be the falling trees. Once again there’s bright light piercing his eyes. He runs towards it.

Tripping, he falls into a clearing face first, dirt kicking up into his mouth.

“There’s gotta be more here.”

“Danny?” Po pushes himself up, looking around for his friend.

Off to the side of the clearing, Danny bends over, turning over a rock, and looking under it. “Gotta be more.”

“Danny!” Po jumps to his feet, rushing over to his friend. “We have to get out of here.” He grabs Danny by the shoulders, turning him around. “There’s a stor-” Po stares at the bloody piece of paper covering half the top of Danny’s head.

Po.” Danny smiles at him. “You gotta help me.”

“Danny, you’re hurt.” Po tries to move him so he can get a better look.

Danny resists, pushing his hands away. “Help me find the answers.” He bends down, turning over another rock. He drops the rock when he doesn’t find anything. “I know there’s more here.”

“Danny, you have to stop.” Po reaches for his friend again, but Danny scurries away from him.

“Gotta be more.” Danny bends down for another rock.

A flash bathes the clearing in red. Everything looks like it’s bleeding. Po’s insides run cold, he’s paralyzed. The red vision burns itself into his brain. A growl of thunder shakes the clearing, bringing Po back to his senses.

Danny stares at him, a dopey smile on his face. “I knew there was more.” He holds up a sheet of paper.

Po runs forward and grabs his wrist. “That’s great. We have to go now.”

Danny pulls his arm out of Po’s grip. “I have to study this.” Blood trickles down his face from the bloody paper on his head. “And I know there are more here. Gotta be more.”

Another flash, another peel of thunder, this time sounding like laughter.

“Danny, stop!” Po grabs the paper out of his hand before Danny knows what he’s doing.

“Give that back!” Danny lunges forward.

Po takes a step back. “There’s a storm coming. We’re in danger! Don’t you see I’m just trying to keep you safe?!”

Danny glares at Po for a moment, then his eyes clear. “Po, I’m sorry. You really are a good friend.” He steps forward again, this time with arms wide, scooping Po into a hug.

Po relaxes into his friend’s embrace. He sighs in relief that Danny’s listening to him.

Danny snatches the paper from Po’s hand, taking several quick steps away from him. “But first I just need to figure out what this says.”

Po stands in shock, watching his friend examining the paper. More thunder sounds, but this time Po feels it as a call to action. Anger boils up inside him. He stomps down the distance between him and Danny. “Are you kidding me?!” He grabs Danny’s shoulder, trying to turn him around, but Danny shrugs him off. “You’re in danger! I just want to help!” He grabs Danny’s shoulder harder this time, but still Danny resists him. “And all you can think about is the damn journal!”

“Just give me a minute.” Danny doesn’t take his eyes off the paper.

“NO!”

Lightning hits the ground between them.

Po’s world goes red. He feels himself burning, feels himself falling. Pain erupts through his entire body.

Po’s vision clears from a dull red to black. Scrubbing dirt off his face, he sits up, searching the clearing. “Danny!”

His friend scrambles through the dirt, throwing chunks of ground left and right. “Gotta be here.”

The storm looms menacingly in the sky. The clouds stopping their rolling above the clearing. They begin to swirl, forming a funnel.

“Danny, look out!” Po tries to get up, but he’s pinned under rocks and branches.

The dark, funnel cloud descends into the clearing, sucking up Danny.

“Danny!” Po sits up in bed reaching for his friend. He tries to get up, but the blankets are wrapped around his legs. He tears them away from him, jumping off the bed into the middle of his room.

Standing there, breathing deep, he spins in a circle, slowly taking in his surroundings, realizing where he is. His breathing is almost back to normal when fear streaks through him. He throws back the curtain, searching the sky for storm clouds. When he doesn’t see any, his heart slows again.

He grabs his phone off his dresser, checking to see if Danny’s called during the night. He hasn’t, which doesn’t make Po feel any better. He thumbs to Danny’s picture in his contacts, stopping with his thumb hovering over it.

“What if he’s asleep?” He thumbs back to the main screen, checking the time. “Oh, shit.” It’s ten minutes before his alarm is supposed to go off. He watches the time change, trying to decide what to do.

With five minutes until his alarm rings, he shuts it off, puts his phone down, and starts his daily stretches. He feels better, physically, after the night’s sleep, but a couple muscles are tighter than they should be.

Stretches over, he grabs his phone to check for calls. Realizing what he’s doing, he throws the phone on his bed, pulls some sweats on, and heads down stairs. He takes the time to make a smoothie, hoping the blender doesn’t wake his parents. Then he leaves a note and heads out the door.

Outside, he stops, fear creeping through him. Again, he searches the sky for storm clouds. There are still none to be seen in the early morning light. Taking a deep breath, he jogs in place for a minute, before heading down the walk and into the road.

Po tries to concentrate on anything but last night’s dream. He focuses on the cool morning air as it pushes against his face, breathing it in to fill his lungs. The cool air feels good to his already hot chest. He tries to watch the sky as it lightens, but he keeps seeing rolling black clouds, so he turns his eyes to the houses around him. Most of the them are still dark, but some of them have people stirring in them, starting their days or ending them, Po finds he’s more than a bit curious. He hears Danny’s voice in his head: ‘You could find out which it is if you want.’ A smile pops on his face at the thought of Danny encouraging him to eavesdrop on people. Po refocuses his attention on the road, counting his steps and keeping rhythm with his heartbeat.

At just over a mile, Po turns up the walk to another house. The inside is dark, it makes him stop, running in place. It’s only for a few seconds, then his resolve comes back and he bounds up the porch steps, ringing the doorbell. He jogs back down the steps, bouncing from foot to foot on the walk.

“Who the hell are you?” The voice behind the screen door is scratchy and groggy from sleep.

Po smiles, hoping to put the person at ease. “Mrs. Parker, I know Melissa from school. She mentioned something about starting to jog together, so here I am.”

Mrs. Parker glares at him from behind the screen. “And you have to jog this early in the morning?”

“It helps wake the body up. You got to start the day right, right?” Po keeps smiling, even though it hurts his face.

“Mm-hm. Melissa!” Po jumps, almost losing his balance, when she screams. “Get your butt down here!” With that, Mrs. Parker turns from the door, trudging into the gloom of the house.

After a minute or two, Po hears thudding on the stairs.

“Mom, what is-” Melissa sees the door open, and Po standing outside. She bursts through the door onto the porch. “What the fuck are you doing here?! Are you stalking me?”

Po puts on his smile again. “I told you there are healthier ways to lose weight. One of them is jogging. This is for you.” He holds up the bottle of smoothie. “I thought we’d start with three or four laps around the block.”

“I’m not taking that from you!” She eyes the bottle. “What is it?”

“It’s a smoothie, spinach, carrots, strawberries, and peaches. I didn’t know what you liked, so I just threw in some stuff.” Po tilts the bottle towards her.

Melissa stomps down the stairs, pushing the bottle out of her way, and gets in his face. “Who the fuck are you!?” Po flinches at the anger in her voice, in her eyes. “Did I ask for your help?” She shoves him in the chest much harder than he thought she could, and he stumbles back a few steps. “I’m not your pet project. The poor chubby girl with no friends!” She shoves him again, he tries to keep his feet, but finds himself stumbling back again. “I don’t want any friends! I like being alone!”

“Then why are you crying?” Po reaches up to wipe a tear away.

Melissa slaps his hand. “You fucking freak! Leave me alone!” She turns, running back into the house, slamming the door.

Po stares at the house. It may be his imagination, but he thinks he can feel how sad Melissa is even out here. The whole scene plays through his head again. He tries to think of how he could have done that differently. He takes a step towards the house, but then thinks better of it.

Turning around, he starts jogging in place again, before heading back into the road.

Halfway back to his house, his legs are burning. He stops jogging, slowing down to a brisk walk, and takes small sips of the smoothie. It’s kind of gag-y, but it has a sweet after taste, and he doesn’t want to waste it.

His mother comes out of the house as he comes up the walk. For a moment, the sequins on her dress catch the morning light and blind him, before the vision fades and she’s in her normal work clothes, all be it with a broad smile on her face. When she sees him, she waves, coming down the walk to him.

“You’re up early this morning.” She reaches up to ruffle his hair, but stops herself when she sees his hair is matted with sweat.

“Did I wake you?” He holds up the half full bottle. “I’m not sure it was worth it.”

His mother chuckles. “You did, but that’s not why I’m leaving so early. I got a text from work. There’s some sort of crisis.” She rolls her eyes. “I’m off to play the hero.” Patting his cheek, she cuts across the yard to her car.

Once again, the sequins dress appears on her.

Po’s dream flashes through his mind. His insides rumble, anger bubbling up in him as he puts two and two together.

“Mom?” His voice quivers.

She turns around, concern on her face. “Are you okay, dear?”

Po swallows, there’s too much spit in his mouth. His heart thuds against his chest, the air feels heavy, he can’t pull in enough for a deep breath. Eyes stinging, tears roll down his face.

“Oh, honey!” Mrs. Allen rushes over to him. “What’s wrong?” She reaches up to wipe his face.

Anger flares in him, and he ducks out of the way.

His mother pulls her hand back, fear racing over her face before it hardens. “Po. What is going on?”

They stare at each other. His mother’s gaze is demanding. Po grips the bottle in his hand so hard his knuckles hurt. The words, it’s just a stupid dream, repeat in his head over and over.

His mother looks at her watch. “I don’t have time for this. If you won’t talk to me, then at least talk to your father.” She turns, walking across the yard with purpose, yanking her car door open.

“Does Dad know you sleep with other men?” The words are out before he can stop them.

His mother stands frozen next to the car.

Po’s whole body shakes. It could be from over exertion, but he’s not sure.

His mother slowly turns to look at him, anger clear on her face. “Po Elliot Allen, I am your mother. How dare you…” The sequins dress, red lipstick, and blue eye liner blur overtop of her. “…talk to me like that!”

Guilt jabs at him, but it only pricks at his anger. “Cut the act! I know, okay?” More tears run down his face. “I didn’t want it to be true, but…I know.”

The anger on his mother’s face cracks, falling away. Fear and grief contort her features. She’s almost unrecognizable to Po as his mother.

“Who told yo-How did you find out?” Her eyes dart to the house, scanning it.

“It doesn’t matter. Does Dad know you sleep with other men?” Po’s body is cold, the sweat chilling on his skin.

“Po,” she steps towards him quickly. Po backpedals down the walkway. She stops abruptly, looking down. “I love your father very much.”

A harsh sound, somewhere between a laugh and a cough, escapes Po’s mouth. His mother looks up at him, shock on her face. “You love him so much, you sleep around on him.”

Anger flashes on his mother’s face again, she stands straighter. “You father knew who I was when he married me, young man!”

“Does he know!?”

“No!”

They glare at one another across the yard, it’s only a few feet, but it feels like miles to Po. A door slams across the street. Po watches his mother pull herself together.

She waves. “Hello, Mr. Marks!”

After a minute, Po hears a car door slam, and Mr. Marks pull away.

His mother glares at him. “I don’t know if he knows, alright? I think he suspects, but if he does, he hasn’t said anything to me.”

Another laugh-cough erupts from him.

“Why don’t you get in the car?” His mother steps towards him again. Po steps back again, he’s almost on the sidewalk. “We can go someplace and talk about this.”

Po looks up and down the street instead of at his mother. Seeing all the perfectly cut lawns, the shiny cars, he wonders what they could be hiding. Suddenly, Danny absorbing all the images from the lockers makes more sense to him.

“I wasn’t expecting secrets in my house though, buddy.” He closes his eyes, willing himself to stop crying. “Or maybe I just didn’t want them.”

“What was that?” His mother’s voice pierces him.

Po opens his eyes, taking in his mother. The sequins and makeup don’t appear again, but neither does she look the same to him. “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to go anywhere.” He trudges up the walk past her. “I’ve school, and you’ve got a date before work.” He rushes inside without looking back at her.

Inside, he runs upstairs, slamming the door to his room, and throws the bottle of smoothie at the floor. When he hears the bottle crack, a moan escapes his throat. Back against the door, he slides to the floor, the tears he willed away outside back with a vengeance. His hands shake, each breath is a stuttering gasp.

His dream keeps replaying in his head. This time though, when he sees his mother with the men, his brain turns it into a sex scene.

Po smacks his forehead with the palm of his hand. “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.”

The impacts do little more than give him a headache. Images of his father replace his mother having sex. The conversation from last night comes back to him. His father giving him advice, the hug. His dad is a good dad.

“How can Mom do that to you?” A horrible thought occurs to him. “Are you my real dad?”

The knock on the door makes him yell and jump to his feet.

“Po? Are you okay?” His father’s voice comes through the door.

Po quickly rubs at his face with his hands. “Yeah.” His voice shakes. He takes some deep breaths to steady himself. “I’m fine.”

“I heard a thump.”

The concern in his father’s voice tugs at Po’s heart. “I…I tripped when I came in.”

There’s a silence. Po almost thinks his dad has left.

“Are you crying, son?”

The question makes Po’s eyes ache. He sucks in the deepest breath he can, holding it for a count of ten. “Just trying to catch my breath. Jogging’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

“Alright. Well, if you need to talk, I’ll be downstairs for a while. You need me to make you some breakfast?”

Po presses against his chest to get his heart to stop aching. He takes another deep breath, another count of ten. “No. I’m fine.” He catches a moan in his throat, swallowing it down. “I had a smoothie.”

There’s another silence. Po knows his father is debating pushing the issue. He really hopes he doesn’t.

“Okay. Like I said, I’ll be downstairs.”

Po listens to the pad of his father walking away.

Deflating, he sits on the edge of his bed, staring at the floor. His mother’s secret is now his. He tries to figure out what to do: tell his dad, or not. He knows it’d be the right thing to do, but would it be the right-right thing to do. He tries to make a pro and con list, but he’s painfully aware he doesn’t know enough about his parents to do that.

“How the hell could he not know?” Po sits, staring, and ponders the question. His parents have been married twenty years, together for longer, there have to be signs. All the times his mother works late come to his mind. Of course, his dad goes to at least two conferences a year. How many late nights has his mom pulled while he was away?

Po shakes his head, forcing himself off the bed. He pulls his damp clothes off, and heads down the hall to the bathroom. He turns the shower on extra hot, like he did last night, and stands taking deep breaths as the room fills with steam.

Reaching out, he wipes the condensation from the mirror to look at himself. Immediately, he begins comparing his looks to his father’s. “Oh, Christ.” He puts his hand on the mirror to cover up his face. Taking his hand away, he looks himself in the eyes. “Is this going to be a thing now?” His reflection looks back at him impassively. “Maybe school is off the agenda for today.”

His face crumbles into disbelief and resignation. “You’re not going to leave Clarissa to deal with Danny alone.” Po rests his head against the mirror, the cool glass a nice contrast from the heat of the room. “Danny. I don’t know if things are better because you found your answers, or worse.” Pulling back, his reflection looks so much older than it should.

Trying to push everything out of his mind, he gets in the shower. The hot water stings him, but he doesn’t change the temperature. Instead he lets the stinging hold his attention. For the next five minutes, all Po thinks about is his cleaning ritual.

Stepping out of the shower, with the water off, he can hear the music his dad’s listening to, and the world comes crashing back into him. Sighing heavily, Po grabs a towel, and heads to his room. He takes his time getting dressed. He double checks his book bag to make sure he’s got all his stuff. He grabs the cracked water bottle from the floor, glad it landed so none of the smoothie leaked onto the boards. He takes a look around the room, sees the bath towel, picks it up, and takes it back to the bathroom. He stands in the hall, looking into his room, making sure he hasn’t forgotten anything. He checks his pocket for his phone; it’s there.

“He’s your father. You’ll have to be in the same room as him eventually.”

Taking a deep breath, he holds it for a count of ten, and heads for the stairs.

His father stands at the kitchen island, reading something off his tablet, and absently picking at a muffin. Po’s steps slow when he sees him, but he decides to just get through dumping the smoothie and get out as quickly as possible. Quickening his steps, he scoots past his father, dumps the smoothie into the sink, gives the container a swish of water, turns…

Mr. Allen leans against the island, arms crossed, looking at him.

Po gives his father a nervous smile.

“Not even a good morning for your old man?” He smiles, lifting his whole face.

Po lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “Good morning.”

His father nods. “Good morning.” Hand shooting out, he grabs the water bottle from Po’s hand. “And what’s happened here?” He examines the crack in the side of the plastic. “Breaking things, are you?”

Pressure builds behind Po’s eyes. It’s unbelievable how warm and safe he feels with his father. He hates his mother in this moment. “Dad, I’ve got to tell you-”

His father blurs, his morning clothes disappearing, replaced by overalls. The water bottle is gone too, replaced by a trowel. Behind him, instead of the house, Po sees a brick wall stretching out to the horizon.

His dream flits back at him. Something his mother said this morning wraps itself around the image of his father. More puzzle pieces slide into place for Po. He knows his father doesn’t want to know about his mother.

“What’s that?” His father looks at him expectantly.

Po’s vision clears, he’s back in the kitchen with his father, who’s back in his t-shirt and sweat pants.

“Dad, I’ve got to tell you…water bottles were not meant to take the weight of a person.” Po forces a smile on his face.

Confusion flashes on his dad’s face. “How would you know…Oh, the tripping.” He tilts the bottle towards the second floor.

Po nods. “Yep, trip, thump, stumble, and crack.”

His father looks at the bottle and nods. “Almost sounds like that techno music you kids are into these days.”

“Dubstep.” Po’s stomach hurts, but talking with his father makes some of the tension evaporate.

“Right.” He hands the bottle back to Po. “Well, make sure to recycle the thing. Maybe it can be melted down and turned into something useful.” He turns back to the island, and his muffin.

Po makes his way to the door. “You mean, like something for carrying water, so you don’t dehydrate, like say, when you’re exercising?”

“Hey, you may be onto something there, son.” He shoves some muffin into his mouth and chews thoughtfully. “But what are you going to call it?”

“How about a water bottle?”

His dad stares at him for a moment. “Naw, not flashing enough to get people’s attention.”

Po shrugs. “Oh darn, another million-dollar idea down the drain.” His father chuckles, and it brings a smile to Po’s face. “Dad, I love you.”

“I love you too, Po. Now, get going before our periods sync up.” He makes a shooing motion with his hand.

Still smiling, Po leaves. He makes sure to toss the cracked bottle in the recycling bin, before heading up the road. His mood darkens as he walks. Thinking about his parents, his mother’s carnal habits, and his father’s willing ignorance. He wonders why his father would stay with his mother if he suspects she’s sleeping with other men. Po tries to figure out why his mother would get married if she wanted to sleep around.

“Well, she obviously gets security.” Po can’t believe his mother would be that selfish. “Of course, yesterday she wasn’t an adulteress.”

“And good morning to you too.” Clarissa’s voice brings him out of his thoughts.

He looks around, already at the end of the street, he was about to run into Clarissa. “You’re here early.” Po tries to pack away the bad mood building in him, but there doesn’t seem to be enough space inside him.

“Well, you’re in a mood.” Clarissa crosses her arms, staring at him.

“It’s been a rough day.” Po shoves his hands in his pockets and concentrates on breathing.

“And it’s only seven, fifteen. Do you want to talk about it?” Clarissa reaches out and touches his arm.

Po knows it’s meant to comfort him, but it makes him think of those men touching his mother. A shiver runs through him, and he shakes his arm until she moves her hand away. “There’s nothing to talk about.” He turns, heading for school.

Clarissa falls into step next to him. “If there’s nothing to talk about, then why were you talking to yourself? I’m a much better listener.” She leans over and bumps his shoulder with hers.

Po looks away from her, taking a deep breath. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I wasn’t talking to myself. Only crazy people talk to themselves.”

Clarissa’s sigh, piles more guilt onto him. “Okay. I’m just saying, if you need to talk, I’m-”

Po stops, hand shooting out, turning Clarissa to face him. “Did you have weird dreams last night?”

“What?” Clarissa blushes, looking down, then to the side, then back at him. “What do you mean, “weird?”

Po clenches his jaw in frustration. “You know what I mean. Did you have any symbolic dreams?”

Clarissa’s face gets redder. “Oh. No, nothing symbolic.”

Po looks her up and down, she’s scratching at her arm again. “Are you okay? Are you sick?”

“What?” She pulls her hand away from her arm and shoves it in her pocket. “I’m fin-”

“Well, if isn’t the Watson and Adler to my Holmes. Good morning, bitches!” Danny grins ear-to-ear at them.

Po and Clarissa look from him to each other.

“I thought I was Holmes.” The intone together.

Danny lets out a giggle. “That can’t be right. If one of you is Holmes, then that would make me,” he twirls a moustache he doesn’t have. “Moriarty.” He laughs sinisterly. “Care to join me on a trip to Reichenbach Falls?”

“That’s like a German honeymoon spot, right?” Clarissa nudges Po with her elbow.

“Austrian.” Po nudges her back.

Danny straightens up, face contorting in frustration. “It’s where Moriarty and Holmes had their final confrontation. Holmes dies there.”

“We know, Danny. You made us read all the stories when you did.” Clarissa sighs heavily.

“Right.” Danny’s face goes slack. “I remember that.” His eyes drift to look at something behind their heads. He shakes himself. “What are you guys talking about?”

Po looks away from Danny, remembering the bloody head wound and betrayal from his dream. “Nothing. We’re just walking.”

Clarissa pushes him, and he stumbles off the sidewalk. “Sure, get all broody and intense with me, but give Danny a pass. We were talking about our dreams.”

“Oooh.” Danny’s face lights up. “Did you ever have the one where you’re standing on top of pyramid being worshipped by ten thousand naked people?”

A nervous laugh explodes from Clarissa’s mouth. “No!” She shuffles from foot to foot nervously

Danny looks confused for a second. “How many naked people were worshipping you then?”

Another nervous laugh. “None.”

“More of an animal lover, are you?” Danny leans back, studying Clarissa appraisingly.

“No! No people. No animals.” Clarissa blushes a brighter red. “And no pyramid.”

Danny scrunches his face in concentration. “Okay. How about you, Po?”

Po looks up from his phone, his mother’s calling him. He hits the ignore button. “Sorry. No naked people, no animals, no pyramids for me either.”

Danny turns, walking in the direction of school. “Your dreams suck.”

Po shoves his phone in pocket, falling into line with Danny and Clarissa. He has to agree with Danny. “Do your parents have secrets?”

“God, no.” Clarissa is quick to answer.

Danny looks his friend in the eye. “Everyone has secrets.”

The way Danny answers sends a chill through Po. “Right.”

Clarissa leans around Danny to look Po. “Come on, how bad could your parents’ secrets be? They’re like the third best people I know.” She smiles at him.

Po knows she means the smile to be reassuring, but it comes off as mocking. “You’d be surpr-”

“I was thinking, we’d dial it up to level two today.” Danny jiggles his shoulders back and forth in a small dance. “What do you say?”

Po and Clarissa stop walking, waiting for Danny to notice they’re not next to him and turn around. It takes a couple beats longer than it should. When he turns to look at them he has a confused look on his face.

“Are we not going to school today?” He nods in the direction of the school with his head.

“You didn’t think we were going to talk about this?” The dream image of Danny, bloody head wound and crazy eyes, enters Po’s vision. He shakes his head to clear it.

“Were we powering up today?” Clarissa looks from Danny to Po and back again. “We’re not taking a break?”

“Why would you take a break?” Danny stalks back to them, not taking his eyes from Clarissa.

Clarissa looks panicked, but holds her ground. “Everything was so much yesterday.”

“And how are you expecting to get used to everything if we don’t practice, if we don’t build up a tolerance?” Danny leans towards her, it’s almost menacing.

“Calm down, Danny.” Clarissa pushes on his chest, he resists at first, but then moves back. “I was just asking a question. I didn’t know we were powering up again.”

Danny’s eyes narrow at her. “You’re scared.”

“I’m not scared.”

“Of course, you are. Why else wouldn’t you want to go again today.” Danny breathes heavily.

Clarissa steps forward, getting in his face. “I’m not scared.” She looks away, quickly bringing her eyes back to meet his. “I’m cautious. I was tired as hell yesterday, after we shut ourselves off to the power. If you want to open ourselves up again, that’s fine with me, but why jump to level two already? Why not just do one again?”

Danny’s eye twitches, he cracks his neck. “We have to level up eventually. You don’t buy a sports car to go to the store for groceries. You have a sports car to go farther faster.”

Clarissa takes a step back, letting out a small laugh. “I’m sure Icarus felt the same way right before his wings melted.” She crosses her arms, considering her point made.

“Oh no!” Danny wags a finger at her. “You don’t get to go all Classics education on me and think you’ve won.”

“I disagree.” Clarissa smiles at him. “Why don’t we see what Po thinks. Po?” Clarissa looks at him.

“Yeah, bro, are you going to join the conversation?” Danny tears his attention from Clarissa.

Po stares at his phone. His knuckles are white around the screen. He reads the text from his mother again.

We need to talk. Please answer your phone. I love you.

Anger builds inside him every time he reads the words ‘I love you.’ He doesn’t know if he can believe her. His brain throws numbers at him, trying to calculate how many times she’s said that to his father. She could have said it a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand times, but still she goes out and sees other men. Po’s hand aches he’s holding the phone so hard. His eyes sting, a tear escaping, falling onto his screen.

“Po, are you okay?” Clarissa’s voice sounds far away.

His phone vibrates in his hand, the screen switching to the incoming call. MOM, emblazons his screen.

“Bro, what is it?” Danny moves next to him, putting his hand on Po’s shoulder.

Po takes a deep breath, turning his phone off, and shoving it into his book bag. “It’s nothing.”

“Po, if something’s wrong…” Clarissa moves towards him.

“Yeah, man, you can talk to u-”

“I agree with Danny.” Po wipes at his face, taking the moisture away.

“You do?” Danny and Clarissa step back in unison.

“Yeah, fuck it. Let’s do this.” The anger in Po gnaws at him. His stomach twists, and he presses on it to ease the pressure.

“You don’t want to talk about this?” Fear passes over Clarissa’s face.

Po ignores it. All he can think about is his mother in a hotel room somewhere, texting him while a strange man gets dressed next to her.

“No. Definitely the whole jet analogy.” He waves his hand at Danny.

“Sports car.” Danny corrects him.

“Right. The whole sports car analogy.” The pressure in Po’s stomach moves to his head. His eyes sting some more. “Are we going to do this or not?”

“Po, if you’re doing this because something’s bothering you, then we ca-”

“Railroad Bill was a conjure man/He could change hisself to a bird.” Something unlocks in Po’s brain, a thud only he can hear. He imagines a door opening to let a bright light into him. Power washes over him, nothing changes around him, everything changes around him. For a moment, he sees the world as threads of light, interwoven and meshed together, before everything becomes solid again, a slight glow lying on top of it.

“I guess the discussion is over.” Clarissa crosses her arms and slouches in place.

Danny has a shit eating grin on his face. “Many there be who die in throes/And groans, and fearful anguish…” A shudder runs through him. When he looks at them, there’s an orange twinkle in his eye.

Clarissa looks between the two of them, shoulders slightly hunched forward. A look of uncertainty causes her face to sag. “Maybe one of us should not today. I could watch you and make sure nothing weird happens.”

The orange twinkle flashes in Danny’s eyes again. “We made a deal. All or nothing. You’ve been out voted.”

She looks at Po, her face hardening into resolve. “This is a lot less fun when I’m the one being out voted.”

Po shrugs and smiles at her. “Suck it up, fuzzy.”

Clarissa takes a long breath, completely breathing out. “There are some qualities-some incorporate things/That have a double life, which thus is made…” She bends over, Po worries she might throw up, but nothing happens. For moment, she doesn’t move, then her shoulder slides up, sending several pops down her back. When she stands up, there’s blood trickling down her chin.

“You bit your lip.” Po points to her face.

“I did.” Clarissa looks at him, not bothering to wipe off her face.

Po reaches out to wipe away the blood. “Here, let me-”

Clarissa ducks away from his hand. “Physician, heal thyself.”

Po freezes, staring at her. A lump rises to his throat. He closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to look at her or Danny. “I’m fine.”

“Liar.” Clarissa’s voice doesn’t hold any malice.

Po feels guilt about not telling them about his parents settles in his chest. Concern comes from both Danny and Clarissa, he can feel that too, and something else. Acceptance. Anger.

“Bro, if you don’t want to tell us about it, that’s fine.” Danny’s hand rests on his shoulder. Po cringes under the contact. “But don’t lie to us.” Danny squeezes his shoulder.

Po opens his eyes. Clarissa gives him a curt nod of agreement. He looks to Danny.

Danny squeezes his shoulder again. “We’re your friends. We’ll be here if you want to talk to us.”

Po turns to Clarissa; her nod of agreement is softer this time. Po swipes at his face out of habit, but there’re no tears there. “Are we going to do this or not?” He forces a smile on his face.

Clarissa sighs. “If we are, we should get to it before one of us chickens out.” She puts on her own forced smile. “Bok-Bok, bitches. Danny, what can we expect?”

Danny steps back, looking them over. “It’s going to be loud. There will be so many voices, so many images. Be prepared for it as best you can.”

“Should we put up shields before we do this, like yesterday?” Clarissa can’t keep her voice from trembling. Po feels anxiety firing off her like cannons. Rose vines begin engulfing her feet, quickly moving up her legs.

“I don’t know if we should.” Danny trails his fingernail across the top of his teeth while he thinks. “It might block the power from entering us too.”

“We’re going to have to go through the day unshielded?” Po hears the tremor in his own voice. Doubt creeps up on his decision to do this. “That doesn’t seem safe.”

Clarissa’s laugh is high pitched, laced with nervousness and derision. “I think we threw safety out the window when we started hypnotizing each other and accessing primordial forces.” She closes her mouth halfway through a giggle.

Danny shakes his head. “Not what I meant. What I meant was, we shouldn’t put up a shield before accessing more power. After we have the power we can put up shields.” He nods to himself, a faraway look in his eyes.

Po reaches out spiritually towards his friend. A trilling bell goes off in his head. Images of pages, images of symbols, memories of past journal related incidents, all flood his head. Danny’s calculations and translations for every page he’s unlocked scroll past Po’s eyes. He knows Danny is thinking about the pages right now, only half listening to the conversation.

Po pulls himself back. “Christ.” He takes a deep breath to settle himself.

Danny looks at him, his eyes narrow. “Don’t look if you don’t want to see.”

“I worry about you.” Po flashes a half smile at his friend. “I’m a worrier.”

Danny’s eyes soften and he smiles. “You’re a constant.”

A genuine smile widens across Po’s face.

“Are we going to do this?” Clarissa chimes in. “We’re going to be late for school.”

“Are we still going?” Danny turns to look at her.

“Yes.” Po steps forward, this time he puts his hand on Danny’s shoulder, waiting for him to look at him. “It’s a controlled environment. There are people there meant to look after us. People required to call our parents if something happens.” Po squeezes Danny’s shoulder. “We’re going.”

Danny shrugs. “Okay.” He takes a step back. “On three then. One.” He looks to Clarissa.

“Two.” She looks to Po.

Po takes a deep breath, looking each of his friends in the eye. “Three.”

“And there be those who waste in woes-”

“A type of that twin entity which springs-”

“He could change hisself to a brook/A hill, he could be what he wanted to be.”

Thunder erupts from the sky. Po looks up, and sees a jagged, yellow line there. At first, he thinks it’s lightning, but it doesn’t fade. He realizes the sky is cracked, behind it, he sees shadows moving. He looks away.

Danny?

He can’t hear himself speak. Thunder fills his ears, blocking everything else out. Po turns to find his friends, but the world is too bright, an expanse of white that hurts his eyes.

Clarissa?

It’s no use. He doesn’t have a voice. The ground moves under his feet. He stumbles. The world comes back in sharp focus. Lawns. Sidewalk. Houses. Cars. The Sun.

I can’t believe I’m going to be late to work again…

We’ve got a shipment of cement coming in at ten today. Gotta check the lumber to make sure…

Oh God, why is he crying again.

Feedmefeedmefeedmefeedmefeedme…

“Po!”

Po looks up into Danny’s face from where he squats. He tries to talk, but he can’t find words.

It would serve her right if I did leave…

Kids get home at three. Last thing on the agenda is a conference call at four, stop at the store on my way home…

Po curls his head back into his chest, trying to get away from the voices.

“Po!” Danny grabs the sides of his head, forcing his face up to look at him. Staring into his eyes, Danny moves forward until their foreheads touch.

Listen to me.

Po hears Danny’s voice in his head.

Shit. I’ve got to stop and get gas…

We can pay the electric bill this week, that’ll make the gas bill a week late. And the water bill isn’t due until…

Po squeezes his eyes shut.

Po, don’t listen to them. It’s just you and me here.

Po opens his eyes, and sees Danny smiling at him.

Think of your shield. Put your shield up. An image of a brick wall appears in Po’s mind.

Slowly the bricks melt into shafts of different colored light. The light wraps around him, it feels warm.

The thunder and voices disappear. He smiles at Danny.

“There you are.” Danny moves his hand to the back of Po’s neck and pushes their heads together harder. “A constant.”

“Danny, I-”

“No, no, no, no, no, no…” Clarissa’s voice is small and panicked.

Po turns to see her, hands covering her face, fingers pressing so hard she’s cut herself, head shaking back and forth. He jumps up, ignoring the ache in his legs, striding over to her. “Clarissa, stop!” He reaches for her wrist, but she’s moving too much.

“Not like that.” Danny comes over, cupping her elbow. Like this.

Hearing Danny’s voice in his head, Po nods putting his hand on her shoulder. Clarissa?

And another thing…

I can’t believe Greg would…

What are those kids…

This time Po is ready for the voices, they’re not as loud, or demanding. Clarissa, it’s me Po.

I’m here too. Danny’s voice is smooth, and kind of oily.

Po shakes himself, focusing on Clarissa. We’re both here. We’re not going to leave you.

Think of your shield, Clarissa. You need to put up your shield. Po feels Danny project a brick wall into Clarissa’s mind. Po thinks of his shield, a cocoon of light, and shows it to Clarissa.

“Danny?” Clarissa stops shaking her head back and forth.

I’m here.

“Po?” She spreads her fingers a bit so she can look through them.

Po smiles at her. I’m not going anywhere.

Slowly, Clarissa takes her hands away from her face. She reaches out, touching Danny’s cheek. “You’re here.” She turns to Po, reaching out and touching his cheek too. “You’re both here.” Rushing forward, she wraps her arms around Po. “I thought I’d lost you.” She pushes off Po’s chest, and turns back to Danny. “How long was I…” She glances back at Po, squeezing his arm. “How long were we out?”

Danny looks up at the sky. A soft wind blows past them; he sticks out his tongue, lapping at the air. “A couple minutes.” He looks at them and smiles. “No more than three.”

“Was that all?” Clarissa steps back next to Po snaking her arm around his. “It felt like forever.” She rests her head on Po’s shoulder.

“So, we can read minds now?” Po looks around the street, more traffic appearing as the morning goes on.

Yes. Danny nods and smiles. Among other things.

Po feels a headache coming on. “What other things?”

“I’m pretty sure we can see ghosts.” Clarissa points to a house across the street. “Unless I’m seeing things.”

Po looks at the house. He doesn’t see it at first, then a figure flickers into existence in one of the windows. The person looks like it’s been pulled from an old movie, all shades of gray. The person’s eyes look out the window longingly.

“Feelings, images, prophetic dreams, telepathy, and now ghosts.” Po lets out a sigh. “Great.”

You know what they say. Danny waves at the ghost.

Po sees the ghost jump a little before it flickers away. He shakes his head, amused that even a ghost can find Danny unsettling. “What do they say?”

Danny turns, looking upset, glancing back at the house. Mo’ power, mo’ problems.

Po shakes his head again, a thin smile popping up on his face. “I’m absolutely sure no one says that.”

“It’s not that bad.” Clarissa rubs her cheek against Po’s arm, then tugs him into walking. As they pass Danny she hooks his arm with her other one, tugging him along with them. “I’ve always wanted to be more spiritual.” She stands up straight, taking in a deep breath. “I think today is going to be a good day.” She looks at Danny. “What do you think?”

Danny’s face is a mesh of concentration. He looks behind them. Clarissa gently pushes him to the side so he doesn’t trip over a raised section of sidewalk, then pulls him in close again. Finally, he looks at them. I think, I don’t like ghosts.

The statement takes Po by surprise. “That’s a weird prejudice to have. How come?”

Danny rolls his shoulder like a chill goes through him. All that hanging on after death because of unfinished business. He makes a face like he tastes something sour. When I go, I want to have all my business done.

Po thinks about it, then nods to himself. “That’s a noble goal, I guess.”

“Can we stop talking about the end of our lives and concentrate on making it to the end of the day?” Clarissa pulls them to a stop a couple yards from the end of the street.

The school is in view, students arriving in force by car, bus, and feet. A few kinds shove them as they walk around them.

Po’s really regretting agreeing to go to level two. “At least the school building is relatively new, so there shouldn’t be any ghosts here.”

“Well, not many at least.” Clarissa lets go of their arms. Everyone make sure your shields are up. And Danny,” She turns and slaps him hard in the shoulder. “You have to stop using telepathy. You’re going to have to talk to people today.”

Po hadn’t even noticed Danny hasn’t been talking with his voice.

Come on, Rissa. I can barely stand talking to you and Po some days.

Po jerks towards his friend, a twinge of pain twanging inside him.

Danny shrugs at him. Sorry.

Clarissa lets out a sharp, quick laugh. “Be that as it may, try to remember to use your actual voice when you talk to other people.” With that, she turns, stepping of the sidewalk. “Let’s get’em, boys.”

Po and Danny move together, closing the gap where she just was. Danny turns to Po with a haughty look on his face. Remember to use your actual voice. He sticks his tongue out at Clarissa’s back.

I heard that. Reaching the other side, Clarissa turns and glares at Danny.

“Good!” Danny hops off the sidewalk, jogging across the street to join her.

Po smiles, seeing his two friends together. He’s about to join them, when a car speeds past him. Catching a glimpse of Melissa through the window, he watches the car. It stops in front of the school, Melissa’s barely out before the car pulls away.

Po reaches for her mind as she walks towards the doors.

Seven times five is thirty-five. Seven times six is forty-two. Seven times seven is forty-nine. Na is sodium; atomic number: eleven; atomic weight: twenty-two point nine, eight; classification: metal. Mg is magnesium; atomic number: twelve; atomic weight: twenty-four point three; classification…

Po pushes past the surface, looking for her memory of breakfast. Pain spikes his stomach, a gurgle bubbles up inside him. He smells bacon, craves bacon. He clenches his jaw, the periodic table appearing in his mind.

Then the hunger fades. When he looks for Melissa again, she’s gone.

“Po!” Danny’s voice cuts through the air.

Po turns back towards his friends. They look equally concerned and impatient. He jogs across the street, finally joining them. “Sorry.”

“You okay?” Clarissa shoots a couple glares at people as they pass to keep them moving.

What was that? Danny looks quizzically at the front of the school, the kids milling about there.

“It was…” Po rubs his stomach, suddenly wishing he’s had more for breakfast than half a smoothie. “It wasn’t anything. I just caught a stray thought.”

Danny looks at him, disbelief on his. Then he shrugs, face going slack, and heads for the front doors.

Clarissa takes his hand, lacing her fingers with his, pulling him after her as she walks for the doors too. “You know,” she takes another deep breath, smiling up at the sky. “Not only shouldn’t you lie to people who can read your mind. You shouldn’t lie to your best friends.”

Po’s lost in thoughts of his morning jogging failure. “What?” Po shakes his head, trying to dislodge Melissa, it doesn’t help. “I’m sorry. I spaced for a second.”

Clarissa lets out a long breath that turns into a sigh. “You’re lucky you’re cute.” She drops his hand as they enter the school.

They both stop as the doors close behind them. Po guesses Clarissa is waiting for something to happen like yesterday, like he is. Except for a slight pressure, like the air is pushing in on them from all sides, nothing happens.

Po envisions his shield, making it brighter, stronger, just in case.

Kids stare at them. No doubt after yesterday, there are some rumors going around about them. Po’s curiosity nibbles at the back of his mind. He half reaches for the closest mind, when Clarissa strides forward into the hall and the sea of teenage bodies.

Po yells at himself silently. He can’t believe he almost did that. They’re not in school for more than a minute, and he’s already invaded one classmates mind and he was about to do it again. “Power corrupts.” He lets out a defeated sigh.

“What was that?” Clarissa slows down so he catches up to her.

“Nothing. I was just talking out loud.” Po watches her as she walks. “There’s something different about you.”

“Maybe you should teach Danny how to do that.” A freshman rushes down the hall, bumping into people. As he turns to apologize to another person, he almost runs straight into Clarissa, but at the last moment she spins out of the way and around him, continuing to walk as if nothing happened. A handful of students look after her, confused about what just happened. “Other than channeling primordial power, was there something else you had in mind?”

Po laughs. Several kids around him laugh at the same time. “No.” He watches Clarissa walk through the halls like a queen, smiling. “I guess that’s enough.”

Danny comes into view, leaning against the lockers. It’s easy to pick him out in the crowded halls, because the crowd avoids him. Without looking at him students press together and move to the side. None of them notice they’re doing it, they just go about their discussions and texting. Danny just leans, eyes closed, humming.

“Popular as always, I see.” Clarissa tugs at her locker, shoving her jacket and book bag inside, and grabbing the morning’s notebooks.

We are, each of us, alone. Danny bobs his head back and forth, in time with his humming.

“Sooo profound.” Clarissa shuts her locker and leans against it, staring at their classmates. “It is nice to have some breathing room.”

You’re welcome. A slight smile appears on Danny’s face, but he doesn’t open his eyes.

“You’re not doing anything to them, are you?” None of the kids look at Po or Clarissa now that they’re next to Danny.

Not consciously, but…Danny brings his hand up, doing a quick, air-guitar riff. You know.

Po steps towards the crowd.

The student in front of him, Jeff Davies, a baseball player, stops talking, turns towards him, and smiles. “Hey, Allen, how’s it going?”

Po smiles back. “It’s good.”

Jeff nods, then goes back to his conversation.

Po takes a step back. He’s not sure how Jeff knew him. They don’t have any classes together, don’t travel in the same circles. “‘But, you know.’ ‘But, you know,’ what?”

“What?” Clarissa looks up from flipping through a notebook.

What? A guitar, glowing, sparks flying off the strings, enters Po’s mind.

“What are you doing?” Clarissa smiles, puts her hand on Danny’s shoulder, and starts bobbing her head. “Well now, someone has some talent in this school.”

Curiosity urges Po’s hand to reach for Danny’s other shoulder. He stops himself, forcing his hand to his side. “Danny, answer the question.”

Clarissa takes her hand off Danny’s shoulder. “What question is that?”

Po spreads his arms, indicating the crowd. “We’re still affecting people.”

Clarissa looks at the students, confusion dancing in her eyes. “We are?”

Danny lets out a sigh and stops bobbing his head. Of course, we are.

“We have shields.” Po feels Clarissa turn inside herself to double check, but he doesn’t take his eyes of Danny.

Yeah. Danny pushes off the lockers, rolling his shoulders. But, we mainly focused our shields on keeping things from getting in, getting to us, not getting out. Plus, we’ve got more power going through us. He takes a step forward. The crowd moves away from him. A giggle pops from his mouth.

Po stares hard at his friend. “We should stop.”

Clarissa huffs, throwing her free hand up in the air. “It’s a little late for that now.”

Danny turns towards him, determination, and a little fear, on his face. Po, we just need to practice. We’ll never learn control if we don’t practice. He puts his hands on Po’s shoulders. You with me, bro?

The dream image of Danny, head bloody, covered in symbol scrawled paper, comes into Po’s mind. He remembers the crazed look in his friend’s eyes. Po thinks how he wasn’t with him in the dream, how he wouldn’t help.

“In for a penny, in for a pound.” Clarissa puts a hand on Danny’s shoulder.

Danny nods at the contact, but doesn’t take his eyes off Po.

Po stares back. The old belief that the eyes are the windows to the soul comes to mind. Looking into his friend’s eyes, Po doesn’t see insanity, he sees desperation. Forcing a half smile on his face, Po nods. “Practice makes perfect, right?”

Yeah, it does. Danny squeezes his shoulders, smiling himself. Clarissa nods, smiling too.

The bell rings, loud enough to drown out most thoughts. Immediately, the crowd surges around them as students hurry to class.

“Looks like we’re going to be late again.” Clarissa frowns.

Who cares? Danny slouches forward.

“No, you guys, go ahead.” Po gently pushes them in the direction of class. “I’ll grab my stuff and be right behind you.”

“We can wait.” Clarissa presses herself against the lockers. Behind her, Danny weaves through people, making his way down the hall.

Po shakes his head. “I got this.” He gives her a look she doesn’t need telepathy to read, ‘watch him.’

Nodding reluctantly, she turns, heading down the hall after Danny.

Po watches them go through the thinning crowd until they turn for the stairs. Taking a deep breath, getting the feeling it’s going to be a long day, he turns to his locker. Reaching for the combination lock, the multiplication tables come to mind, followed by the periodic table of elements. Slouching forward, resting his head against the lockers, Melissa enters his mind. He re-sees her sitting hungry and alone at lunch, barely stepping out of the car before her mother speeds away, and her enraged face bearing down on him from her front porch.

“I might need some help.” Quickly getting what he needs from his locker and shoving what he doesn’t inside, he makes his way through the halls. He doesn’t go to class. Ignoring the bell, pushing everything out of his mind except wanting to help, he makes his way to the guidance offices.

The first thing Po notices about the guidance offices is the air. It’s not sterile like at a doctor’s office, but it doesn’t have the much-too-lived-in scent of the other parts of the school. It just feels stale to him.

The thought that this is a mistake half-forms in Po’s head. A woman comes out of an office. She’s got several papers in her hand, reading glasses perched on the end of her nose, and a sweater that’s desperately trying to be cheery. Po takes a step back, hoping she won’t see him. She looks up, directly at him.

She strides to the secretary’s desk with purpose. “Can I help you?” Where’s Carol? She must be out copying something. We keep telling administration we need another copier in…

Po almost turns and runs, his body tenses. His stomach gurgles, Po feels how empty it is. He steps up to the desk. “I was hoping to talk to someone.”

“Name?” The woman’s fingers clatter over the computer keyboard.

“Po Allen. I don’t have an appointment.” He shifts his books from one hand to the other, wondering if that’s a problem.

The woman’s mouth twitches, eventually becoming a small smile. “That’s fine. I’m just looking to see who you’re assigned to.” She grabs the phone, stabbing in an extension. “A student needs to see you.” She nods. “Okay.” She hangs up the phone. “Mr. Willoby will be with you in a moment.”

“Okay.” Po turns, looking at the four chairs huddled around the door. “Should I sit, or can I sta…” Turning back, the woman is already half-way down the hall again. He decides to stand.

A few minutes pass, Po starts thinking they might have forgotten about. An office door opens, and a man, Mr. Willoby, comes out.

…Just wanted a cup of coffee before I started my day. Is that too much…

Willoby sees him and waves. “Are you the student who needed to see me?”

Po starts towards the office. “That’d be me.”

“Come on in,” he motions to the office. “What can I-” Putting the cup to his mouth, he spits slightly, pulling the cup away from him. “Son-of-a-” Cock sucking motherfucker!

A smile breaks out on Po’s face. He’s able to catch the laugh in his throat so it sounds like a cough. “Are you okay?”

Mr. Willoby wipes at his chin, a frustrated sigh heaves from him. “Just a little too enthusiastic for my morning coffee.” He motions again for Po to enter the office.

Po slips in, trying not to get in his way, and takes a seat in front of the desk. Mr. Willoby yanks a tissue from the box on his desk, dabbing at his shirt and wiping off the cup. Po sits silently, waiting for him to get things under control. After cleaning things off as best he can, Willoby tosses the tissue and raises the cup to his lips. He stops before he tries to take another drink, and places the cup on his desk.

“Sorry about that.” Mr. Willoby takes a seat behind his desk. “I’m Mr. Willoby. I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. It’s nice to meet you.” He half stands, reaching over the desk, his hand out.

Po’s eyeing Willoby’s office. It isn’t cluttered, but it isn’t organized either. There are just a few more folders out than there needs to be. He gets the urge to file things. To give his hands something to do, he shakes Willoby’s hand. “Uh…sorry. I’m Po Allen.”

There’s a spark of emotions and images when Po touches him.

He sees two young girls. Love, pride, protectiveness. Melanie and Tiffany Willoby. Their bedroom. Tickling them to get them to wake up. Making breakfast. Packing lunches with a woman. Love, attraction, frustration. Karen Willoby. The feeling of being rushed. In the car, craving coffee.

Po works his jaw, as if needing to pop his ears.

He sees himself in Willoby’s mind. A file. Allen, Po. Student ID: 476AL28. In case of incident with Carver, Daniel—student ID:905CA61—contact for advice. Sweet Jesus, I hope this isn’t about Daniel Carver.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Allen.” Willoby takes his hand back and sits down. “Or would you prefer Po?”

Po clenches and unclenches his hand, putting it in his lap and rubbing the palm along his jeans. “Po is fine. You know me.”

“Po it is.” Willoby smiles at him. “And I like to think I know all the students under my care.” Of course, I know who you are. A picture of a fire extinguisher, and then a big, red button appears in Po’s mind. Fuck, don’t let this be about Daniel Carver.

Po shakes his head. “Okay. I just…I wanted to talk. Not about Danny.” Po feels confined to the chair. He squirms a bit, then sits up straight.

“Alright.” Willoby nods sympathetically. “I’m here to listen.” What kind of trouble has he gotten into? It’s always the quiet ones. They…

Po looks at his lap, pressing his hands against his head.

“This is a safe place, Po. You don’t have to worry about saying anything here.” I wonder if my coffee is cooled down.

Po takes a deep breath, looking up at the man behind the desk.

Willoby eyes his cup longingly, but when he sees Po move he turns his attention back to him.

“I’ve got this friend,” Po starts

Of course, he’s got a friend. They’ve always got a friend. Five bucks says he’s got a girl pregnant.

Po grits his teeth and continues. “Not really a friend, more of an acquaintance really…”

Oh yeah. Here comes the backtracking. Sonuvabitch, this is about Carver.

“This isn’t about Danny!” Po slams his fist on the desk.

A couple files slide off a pile onto the floor. Coffee sloshes from the cup. Willoby, outwardly relaxed before, juts up straight in his chair, fear in his eyes.

Po slouches back in his chair, raising his hands in a surrendering gesture. “I’m sorry. I…” He shakes his head, angry at himself for the outburst. “I’m sorry.”

Willoby watches him for a moment. Then he picks up his coffee cup and grabs another tissue. “It’s okay. It’s alright.” He dabs at his desk.

There’s a knock at the door, then the woman who helped Po sticks her head into the office. “Everything okay in here, Arthur?”

Po feels her eyes on him. Embarrassment floods him. Breathing slowly, he forces himself not to look at her mind. The periodic table of elements comes to mind again, and he starts reciting it in his head.

“Everything’s fine. Just a misunderstanding.” Willoby smiles at her, taking a sip of his coffee.

The woman stands there for a moment. In the silence, Po feels his attention slipping towards her. He gets an image of a closet filled with almost cheery sweaters.

“If you need anything, just call.” She slides out, closing the door.

Willoby picks his files up off the floor, looking them over briefly he places them behind him on another pile. He sits back and stares at Po. “I’m sorry if I made you feel like I wasn’t here for you.”

Po feels confusion coming off him. The conversation replays in Willoby’s mind as he tries to pinpoint what he did to set Po off.

“No, I’m sorry.” Po sits up, looking him in the eye to bring his attention back to now. “I shouldn’t have acted out like that.”

“Do you feel that people don’t see you?” It must be hard being known as the friend of the crazy guy.

“What?” Po shakes his head, in answer and to clear it. “This isn’t about Danny.” He tries to keep his voice calm.

“Alright.” Willoby nods his acceptance of this, and sits back. “What is this about?” Pregnant girlfriend. Divorcing parents. Bullying. College references.

At Willoby’s thought of ‘divorcing parents,’ Po thinks about his mother. The image of her in the sparkling dress, the men. He takes another deep breath, pushing the thoughts away. “I’m not in trouble either.”

Willoby nods his acceptance of this too. Are you sure?

Willoby’s thought triggers more anger in him. Po pushes this to the side too. He’s not here for himself. He’s here for Melissa.

“I’ve met someone this year, and…and sh-and they’re in trouble.” Po searches for a way to explain things without giving too much away.

“This would be easier if you told me something specific.” Like a name.

A wry smile appears on Po’s face. “Don’t you have to inform their parents if their hurting themselves.”

Willoby sits forward again, a wave of concern rippling out from him. “Is someone hurting themselves?”

Po kicks himself mentally. “I’m not…” He can’t think of a way to cover this up. “What if I’m concerned they’re going to start?”

Willoby’s concern settles to a low, constant pressure. “You’re right, Po. I’m required by law to tell this person’s parents if they’re hurting themselves. But if they haven’t yet, then I can help you help them not to.” It’s better than nothing.

Po smiles. “Okay.”

“Okay.” Willoby pulls some brochures from his desk. “We’ve got lots of brochures for you to read, and to give to this person to read. We’ve got, depression; suicide; drug abuse; eating disorders-” Willoby looks at him and stops. “What’s the matter, Po?”

Po is suddenly very aware of his face, and tries to smooth out his features. “I don’t know.” He picks up a brochure from the desk, looking at the cover. “I was hoping for something more…I just don’t think brochures are going to work.”

Willoby sits back in his seat. Of course, you don’t, because you’re seventeen and know everything. “Why do you think that is? Have you tried talking to this person?”

Po sees his file appear in Willoby’s head again.

In regard to Carver, Daniel, bringing in Allen, Po is a preventative measure. The two have been friends since middle school. In previous cases, Carver, Daniel will only respond to Allen, Po. The presence of Allen, Po is only to keep Carver, Daniel from harming himself or others. In regard to Allen, Po…

Po shuts his eyes, bringing his hand up to rub his temples. “Why does everyone think it’s always about Danny? I have a life outside of him.” Clarissa’s face swims to the front of his mind. ‘Don’t you think you should stop trying to live Danny’s life and live your own?’

“What was that?” Signs of schizophrenia include: confused thoughts and speech, trouble concentrating… “Po, are you okay? Can you hear me?”

Po takes his hand away to look at Mr. Willoby. “Yeah, I can hear you. I’m okay. I’m just…”

Another wave of concern comes from Willoby, this time directed completely at Po. No notes on who to call if he goes off the rails.

Po shakes his head. “I’m just frustrated. I’ve already tried to talk to her, but she yelled at me.” Melissa coming at him this morning fills his mind. “I’ve actually already tried to get her to do something about how she feels, but I think she hates me now.”

Willoby nods, sitting back in his chair again. You could have started with that, kid. So, you tried to “fix” someone with no training and no experience, and now that that’s failed you come to me. “Alright.” Willoby’s voice is calm. “Well, if you want to do something, we could try an intervention.” Karen’s not going to be happy about this.

Images of a half painted room, of Melanie and Tiffany dancing on a stage, of a romantic dinner, flood Po’s mind.

Willoby continues. “We can get her family together, let them know what’s going on, and then we all confront her in a loving and constructive manner.” For the first time, Willoby turns to his computer. “If you wouldn’t mind telling me who we’re talking about, I can start making some calls to her family.”

Po slouches in the chair. “I don’t think that would work.”

Of course, you don’t.

“I’m not sure she has the best home life. I don’t think her family would care.” Po thinks of Melissa’s mother speeding off this morning. “I think they might think this is her fault.”

I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do then. Willoby sits back in his chair, a sigh leaking from him. “Po, you’re tying my hands here. I don’t know what you want from me.”

“I just…” Po’s not sure if the frustration he feels is from Willoby or himself. “I just want to help.”

The smile on Willoby’s face is sad. “Po, it’s not that simple.” Believe me, kid, I wish it was. “It just doesn’t work like that.”

Faces blur through Po’s mind. Kids he doesn’t recognize.

“What do you mean?” Po does his best to focus on Willoby. “What doesn’t work like that?”

“Po, people in trouble,” Willoby picks up his coffee, gulping down half of it. God, I wish this were something stronger. “People in trouble have to want to be helped. They have to be willing to take the help you’re offering. Otherwise-”

Po sees a news article about a suicide, and another about a car crash, a third about a runaway found over dosed. “Otherwise, they’re going to do what they want anyway.” Po slumps in the chair, staring at nothing.

“Yeah.” Willoby sits back, picking up his cup and draining it. They sit there for a couple minutes not talking. “It’s one of the truths about growing up, not everybody can be saved.” Willoby studies the bottom of his cup. “It’s not a popular fact. Hell, it’s not a fun fact, but it is true.”

Again, they sit there in silence. Po sees more faces flash in Wiloby’s mind. He focuses on his shield, focusing his thought inward, and the faces fade.

“So, there’s nothing I can do?” Po concentrates on keeping his breathing even.

“You could give me a name.” Wiloby sets his cup down, absently spinning it couple times. “I can call her here. Talk to her.” He gives Po a half-smile. “I do have a degree in helping.”

Po jumps up from the chair, needing to move, needing to do something. “Melissa Ellis has been starving herself.” He turns, yanks the door open, and jogs down the hall out into the school.

The sounds of shuffling feet and papers, the scent of teenaged bodies, presses in on him. He swings his arm in front of him, trying to shove it away. The feeling like he’s betrayed someone settles over him. He rolls his shoulders to get it off, but the feeling burrows into him.

Melissa’s wane face swims in front of him. “Why couldn’t you just let me help you?” He flings his fist into a locker. The metal thump isn’t as satisfying as he hoped, the pain in his hand sobers him. Pulling his hand back, he flexes his fingers, pain blooms in his knuckles. He feels the power pulse inside him. The pain in his hand disappears. “Not everyone can be helped, but I get to heal.”

The bell shocks him out of himself. As the halls fill with students, Po makes his way through the crowd to his next class. Each person he passes stops what they’re doing, looks at him, and smiles. He does his best to smile back. Halfway to second period the smiles begin to creep him out.

He takes up position outside the door when he gets there. The passing students smile and wave at him. Po waits with the uncomfortable knowledge that he’s affecting them, making them wave.

The crowd parts, making a corridor of bodies for Danny to walk through. Po stands up straight, smiling and waving at his friend. Danny stalks towards him. Po can’t be sure, but Danny seems somehow darker, like his outline has been gone over too many times.

Danny stops in front of the room, glaring at Po. “I thought you were right behind us.”

“I was, I just-”

“Where were you?”

Po shivers as a cold breeze hits him. “I had to go do something.”

Danny closes the gap between them, making Po colder. “Keeping secrets now? You know I hate secrets.”

Angry dogs bark and snarl in the back of Po’s mind. “Danny…” The dogs growl next to his ear. “I didn’t know you cared so much.” Po can’t stop the sarcasm in his voice.

Danny takes a step back, his features softening. “I just don’t see the point of coming to school if you’re not going to be here.”

Po hears a lonely howl fade into his memories. He tilts his head, as if trying to empty it. “It happens.”

“Not to me.” Danny leans against the wall next to Po.

“Danny, I—What the hell is that?” Po watches Clarissa strut down the hallway, several boys clustered around her.

“Are you free tonight?” An awkward junior shoves another boy out of the way. “I can come over and help you with your homework.”

Clarissa laughs, the boys around her grin incessantly. “I don’t have any plans tonight, but I don’t need any help with my work.”

“Yeah, dweeb.” A large senior, Po thinks his name is Mike, shoves him out of the way. “Let me take you out Saturday.” His smile is cocksure. “I’ve got my own car.”

Clarissa narrows her eyes at him. “Don’t you have a girlfriend?”

The boy’s face softens into an adoring puppy dog look. “Not anymore.”

Clarissa lets out another peel of laughter.

“Seriously, what the hell is that?” Po can’t believe his eyes.

Danny glances in Clarissa’s direction. “That’s been happening since first period. Which you would know if you showed up.”

“Danny, look I-”

“Hello, boys.” Clarissa joins them in front of the door. “Po, is everything okay?”

Po looks at the faces of the boys around her. He’s finding it hard to concentrate with them there. “Yeah, I just had to…You’re doing this.”

Clarissa smiles at him. “Not on purpose.”

Something in Clarissa’s voice tells Po she wouldn’t stop it even if she knew how. “Is there a problem?” Po steps towards Mike, who’s glaring at him and Danny.

“I’m taking her out on Saturday.” He puffs out his chest. “I’ve got my own car.”

Po looks at Clarissa, a wry smile on his face. Clarissa smiles back and shrugs. Po looks back to Mike. “I don’t care, okay?”

“No, I am!” Mike takes a menacing step forward.

Danny pushes off the wall, stepping between them. “Back. Off.” Po thinks he sees Danny’s outline darken even more.

Mike’s face loses all color, he swallows several times. “I’ve…I’ve got to get to class.” He turns and runs down the hall. “I’ll see you Saturday!”

The warning bell rings, the halls drain of students.

“That’s my cue, boys.” The boys groan in protest. “Thank you, Nick.” Clarissa takes her books from another boy. He stands there smiling at her. “You can go now.”

Nick’s smile falters, before he turns with the rest of the entourage and walks away.

Clarissa turns to Po and Danny. “Shall we?” She walks into the classroom.

Danny follows without a word, taking his seat next to her in the back of the class.

Po sits down with his friends, he still can’t believe what just happened. “We’re not going to talk about that?” He twists in his seat to look at Clarissa.

Clarissa straightens her books on her desk so they form a precise, pyramid pile. “Jealous?” She smiles at him.

“What?” Po practically spits the word at her. “Clarissa, you were enthralling those boys.”

“Not just the boys.” Danny has his notebook open to a page of symbols, already scribbling in the margins. “The girls were all over her too.”

Po looks from Danny back to Clarissa. “Is he joking?”

Clarissa just looks at him with a tight smile on her face.

“You know, I can’t help but think we’re squandering this power.” Po turns around, sinking down in his desk.

Clarissa laughs. “We’re learning control.” She taps out a quick rhythm on her book cover. “We can’t do anything without control. And if we get what we want in the process, who are we hurting?”

Po twists back around. “What you want out of life is to be noticed?”

The words shock Clarissa, the smile drops from her face, and she squirms in her seat. “So?” She glares at Po. “All Danny wants is to be left alone.”

Danny gives a slight shrug, not even looking up from his notebook. “Doesn’t everybody?”

Po looks from Clarissa to Danny and back again. His eyes start to sting, and he shuts them tight.

“Po, I’m sorry.” Clarissa’s voice comes out the darkness.

Po lets out a rush of air. “Shut up.” He turns around in his seat, slouching down again.

Everyone in the class is looking back at them. The substitute teacher, Mrs. Sennic, looks over the top of her glasses at them. “Are we done?” When none of them say anything, she nods. “Alright then. I’d like to start off by taking attendance.” She glances down at the roster. “Po Allen?”

“I’m here.” Po raises his hand. He ignores the pursed lipped nod she gives him. There’s a weight in his chest, and he squirms, rolling his shoulders, trying to get rid of it. He jumps slightly when Danny’s hand touches his shoulder.

What do you want?

Po’s breath catches, the question taking him by surprise.

Do you not know?

Po jerks his shoulder to get Danny’s hand off. He sits and fumes through the rest of attendance. He can’t seem to get the weight to move, and it just makes him angrier. When Mrs. Sennic passes out the packet of worksheets, Po is relieved. He grabs his pencil and starts working immediately. Once again, the numbers fall into place in front of him, and he loses himself. Finishing the last problem on the last page, he feels somewhat better. He’s half expecting the bell to ring, when he looks up and sees only ten minutes have gone by.

He slouches in his chair, the world, and his thoughts, crashing back down on him. “Oh fuck.”

“Did you have a question, Mr. Allen?”

Po sits up when he realizes Mrs. Sennic is only a row over. “Um…no. I…” He looks down at his paper. “I was wondering what to do with the packet when we’re done with it.”

A couple students laugh, a couple turn and glare at him.

Mrs. Sennic looks at the clock and slowly turns to look back at him. “I’m collecting it at the end of class.” A few stray groans pop up throughout the class. “If you get done early, I suggest you check your work.”

Po holds the packet out to her. “Okay, but I’m done now-”

“Check your work, Mr. Allen.” She turns away from him, continuing her circuit up and down the rows of desks.

Po lets the packet fall to his desk and slouches back down. He flips through the pages, all the numbers coming up the same. He turns the whole packet over, looking at the blank back page.

What do I want?

He stares at the question. He stares at it so long the words look like they’re moving. “What do I want?” He looks up, eyes darting around, afraid Mrs. Sennic might have heard him again, but she’s on the other side of the class. He looks at the question. After a few more minutes, he stabs at the paper with his pen.

World Fucking Peace!!

Smiling, he’s about to scratch out the words, when he hears a familiar sobbing. It bounces off the walls of the class room, reverberates inside him. His stomach muscles tense, pain shooting through his intestines.

“Mrs. Sennic?” Holding his stomach, Po gets to his feet.

“Mr. Allen,” she doesn’t hide the annoyance in her voice. “What is it now?”

It’s hard to hear her over the rush of crying, a waterfall in his ears. “May I use the bathroom?” He’s already half stumbled down the row.

“Is it an emergency?”

Po nods. “Yes it is. Thank you.” He rushes out of the room and into the hall. Moving away from the door, he leans against the lockers to catch his breath.

Breathing deeply, he focuses on the crying, a constant torrent in his ears. He opens himself up, a pinprick in his shield, searching for the sadness. As he focuses on the feeling, the crying quiets, the pain in his stomach dulls. Confused, Po seals up his shield. The crying is far off, barely audible.

Wracking his brain, Po slowly walks down the hall. The crying doesn’t change as he moves. “I heard it so clearly a moment ago.” He thinks back to the classroom, trying to pinpoint what he was doing. Realization slowly washes over him. “I was angry.”

Shaking his head, feeling stupid, Po opens his shield up again. A hurricane of anger batters into him. Wincing, he pulls at the anger with him mind, searching for the tears. Po imagines his thoughts are hammers, and the anger assaulting him shatters like glass when he flings them at it.

Then the crying is in front of him.

A girl he recognizes, but can’t name, stands in front of him. Her features are contorted, frustrated tears run down her face. She opens her mouth, and pain jabs at Po’s intestines. He swipes at the image, and it shatters. The pieces of the girl expand until they’re a trail of smoke leading down the hall.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Po pushes off the lockers.

As he follows the smoke, the pain in his stomach increases, the anger intensifies. The school halls blur around him as he focuses on the feelings. He knows he passes people, but he doesn’t see them, barely hears them as they greet him.

The chlorine scent of the indoor pool reaches his nose, and pulls the world back into focus. The crying lies behind the door to the girls’ locker room for the pool. There are no classes in the pool this semester, so the doors should be locked. Po tries the handle anyway. The door doesn’t move. Letting his shield dim, he grabs the door handle again. Images bombard his brain. A group of sixth grade girls giggling. A mom and a crying toddler. The crying girl grabbing a key from the top of the door frame.

Po reaches above the door, feeling the key immediately, and unlocks the door.

“Ugh!” The sound of the girl throwing up fills the locker room.

Po doubles over with pain in his stomach. He concentrates on his shield, as it brightens the pain lessens. Making sure to lock the door, he walks slowly into the locker room. “Hello?”

“Wha’? Oh fu-Ugh!”

Po sees the girl’s legs under the patricians of the stalls in the back of the locker room. “Are you okay?” The toilet flushing catches him by surprise.

“Christ. What are you doing here?” The girl’s voice is clear and tired. “This is the girls’ locker room, perv.”

Her saying it, makes Po hyperaware of where he is. Looking around, double checking no one else is here, he’s surprised the locker room looks identical to the boys’ room. He brings his attention back to the stalls. “I heard you crying.” Po thinks about it, and he admits he didn’t plan on what to do once he found the girl. “I…I thought I could help.”

“I don’t need your help. Uugh!”

Po winces at the sound of her dry heaving. “You sound like you need help.”

Unless you have a cure for morning sickness, you’re useless. An image of a boy, again someone he recognizes but can’t name, appears in Po’s mind, looking down at him, soft grunts escaping his mouth.

Po flinches, taking a step back from the stalls.

The stall door flings inward. The girl strides over to the sinks without looking at Po. She peers at herself in the mirror. You look like shit, Martine. She splashes water on her face, washes out her mouth, then turns for the paper towels. “You still here?” Christ, I just want to be anywhere but here. “Unless you got a cure for-”

“I don’t have a cure for morning sickness,” Po steps forward, holding out his hand to her. “But I think I can help.”

She narrows her eyes at him, but Po can feel her wanting to take his hand. He feels her wanting to break down and cry for real not in anger. He feels her hating herself for wanting to cry. The image of the boy comes to Po again, and he feels her hating him too.

“I think I’ve had enough ‘help’ from-”

“No, you haven’t, Martine.” Po takes a step forward. “You don’t have to cry if you don’t want. You don’t have to talk. I just want to share a secret with you.”

Martine’s eyes flick from his hand, to his face, to over his shoulder to the door. He knows my name? How the hell does he know my name? All this freak does is hang out with that other freak and that girl. Memories of seeing him walking through the halls with Danny and Clarissa flood his mind. Rumors whispered into Martine’s ear about who they are, and what they do together.

Po shakes his head. He came here to try and help, and he wants to do that. “I may be a freak, but I’m the only one here.”

Martine’s face contorts in shock. She takes a step back. “How did y-”

“You should take my hand.” Po brings his hand up between them. “It’ll be worth it.”

Don’t do it, Martine. You trusted a boy once, and look where that got you. Martine glances around the locker room. “You know, I came here because no one else would be here.” She tosses the paper towel into the trashcan at the end of the sinks.

“Nice shot.” Po doesn’t take his eyes off her.

“Lucky.” A bark of a laugh erupts from her mouth. That’s not what I would call you. Po feels the anger and sadness well up inside her. Why the fuck is he here? “Why the fu-”

“I told you, I want to help.” Po gives her a half smile. Anger rises in him that she hasn’t accepted already. “Why doesn’t anyone want my help?”

I do. I want your help. I want anyone’s help. Martine lets out a heavy sigh. This is a bad idea. She steps forward and takes his hand. “Where are we going?”

Her hand is cold, but the contact feels good. Po focuses on feeling her hand in his, her tiredness seeps into him. The power pulses, and a flush of energy cascades through him. He smiles, looking into Martine’s eyes. “It’s a secret.”

The bell rings, shortly after they leave the locker room. The halls once more filling with students. Again, kids turn and say ‘hi’ to him as they pass. Po does his best to navigate around them, nodding back. He feels Martine’s confusion as she walks next to him.

“You know all these kids?” She stares at a group of girls that stop texting and look up in unison to say ‘hi.’

“No.” Po nods back.

“They all seem to know you.” Martine hops to the side to avoid being run into. Po feels her urge to leave, and reaches out, taking her hand again.

“It does seem that way.” The warning bell sounds, and the halls begin to empty.

“We’re not making it to third period, are we?” There’s a nervous laugh inside her she doesn’t let out, but Po feels.

“Do you care?” Images of staring at the pool locker room as the shadows shift across the floor flutter into Po’s mind.

“I’ve been doing a lot things I shouldn’t be lately.” An image of Martine’s mother appears in Po’s mind. “You need to focus on school. There’ll be plenty of time for boys once you’re out of this town and got a good job.” “Mainly getting myself into trouble.”

Po stops, turning to face her. “I won’t get you in trouble.” Turning the corner, they pass several rooms before he reaches for a door handle.

“I’ve been to Ms. Pensky’s room before. I’ve already taken art.” Annoyance and disbelief quake off Martine into Po.

Po opens the door, stepping back, and bowing. “After you.”

Martine peers into the dark classroom. “Where is she?”

Po puts his hand on her back and gently pushes her inside. “She has a free period third. She’s out getting coffee.” He walks past her into the room.

“How do you know that?” Martine doesn’t move away from the door.

“I pay attention.” Po turns back to her, standing in the middle of the room. “For instance, why does Ms. Pensky need two supply closets?” He points to the closet by the door, then to the door behind her desk at the back of the classroom.

Martine looks between the doors and him. “Because she’s an art teacher. She has art supplies.” Her face is a mesh of frustration and confusion.

“Okay.” Po walks around her desk to the door behind it. “But why does she never bring supplies out of this one?” He opens the door revealing the dark room beyond. Smiling, he tilts his head towards the room.

Martine walks slowly towards him. Po feels her trying to remember her semester in the classroom. She keeps supplies in there. Someone must have gone in there. He’s just messing with you. She stops, eyeing him.

Po leans against the wall next to the open door, putting his hands in his pockets.

Her eyes dart to the side. Don’t trust him! You don’t know him. How many times are you going to let boys get you into trouble. “It’s really dark in there.” She takes a step back.

Po sighs. “This isn’t some trick.” He pushes off the wall, stepping into the dark room. “The light switch is right here by the door.” He listens to Martine’s heartbeat, fast and steady. Her fear comes off her like a scent. Po thinks of rotting lemons.

More images appear and dissolve in his head. Dark rooms. Candles. A sweat covered brow. Kaleb. Nervous fingers fumbling. “You’re the hottest girl I’ve ever seen.” A shiver goes through Po at Martine’s memory of Kaleb’s touch. “You’re the type of girl men rap about.”

Martine’s mother resolves out of Kaleb’s lips. She moves hurriedly around a kitchen making dinner while Martine does her homework at the table. “Teenage boys are all the same. They just want one thing from you.” She stops and turns to look Martine in the eyes. “You best remember that. And not give it to ‘em.”

A soft moan escapes Martine’s lips. Her eyes glisten, tears run down her face. “I…” A croak interrupts her words. She shakes her head taking another step back. “I c-can’t…”

Po reaches out with himself. “Martine.” Anger, frustration, and sorrow batter at his mind, but he remains calm and pushes it back. He places the calm in Martine’s mind. “I’m not Kaleb.” His voice comes out of the dark room like an echo. “I don’t want anything from you.” He feels her accepting the calm, but her tears don’t stop.

Martine nods, walking across the room and stepping into the darkness with Po. He shuts the door behind her. When she hears the soft click of the door shutting, panic spikes through her.
What have I done? I’m so stupid. “Where’s the light?”

“It’s right here.” Po flips the switch; harsh florescent light fills the room.

Martine gasps. “Holy shit.” She steps into the room, narrower than it is wide, but big enough to have dozens of pieces of art on the walls, and an easel with a half-finished painting of sunflowers on it. “This is like Ms. Pensky’s studio?” She walks up to the easel, getting as close as she can to look at the painting. She leans around the easel, looking at the walls. “Are these all hers?” She steps around the easel, walking over to the wall. “I like this one.”

Po smiles. “She takes her paintings home, or she burns them.” He walks over to the wall, taking in the art. “These are all from her students.”

“A student did this?” She points to the sketch she said she likes.

Po moves over to look at it. “Yeah, a senior from a couple years ago.”

Martine moves down the wall. She looks up at a pastel painting. “And that one.”

Po comes over next to her. “A freshman who eventually dropped out.”

“And that one?” She points to a photograph.

Po let’s out a laugh. “They’re all from her students.” He looks over the wall. “There’s even a piece from one of the kids that died in the car wreck eight years ago.” He scans the wall again. “I can’t remember which one it is.”

Martine wonders down the wall, stopping here and there to look at the paintings, photographs, and sketches. Every once and a while she gets so close to a piece it looks like she’s smelling it.

Po glances at the art, he’s seen them before, but mainly he watches Martine. He feels her mood lighten. His mouth twitches into a small smile, he wishes he could do more.

“How do you know about this place?” Martine turns to him, suspicion in his eyes.

Po’s smile broadens. Jerking his head in the other direction, he walks down the wall and stands in front of a painting. The painting is a water color done in shades of gray. It shows a train curving along the rails past an empty, overgrown field, looking like it’s headed right for whoever stands in front of the painting.

“Not bad.” Martine leans into it. “The prospective is off.” She takes a couple steps back. “I think.”

“No. It is.” Po steps back next to Martine. “I tried to tell Ms. Pensky when she asked if she could keep it, when she showed me her collection, but she insisted.”

Martine turns towards him, surprise on her face. “You did this?” She steps forward to get another close look.

“Yeah. Sophomore year.” Po still remembers when he painted the train. He kept thinking about all the places it could take him if it were real.

Why did he show me this? Martine stands up straight. How does he know what I’m going to say before I say it? She turns around, eyes steely. “Why did you-”

“I wanted to make you happy. I wanted to take your mind off things.” Po takes a step forward. “I just want to help.”

Martine swallows.

Po feels the uncertain fear coming off her.

“How do you know what I’m-”

“You don’t really want to know, do you?”

Martine’s mouth closes with and audible clack. Her heart pounds hard in her chest. The scent of rotting lemons fills the room.

Po reaches out to put his hand on her shoulder. “Just look at the art and try to forget for a mom-”

“No!” Martine flinches away from his hand. “I…I need to leave.” She darts around Po, heading for the door.

“Martine, don’t!” Po turns, grabbing her arm and stopping her. “Don’t go.”

“No!” She tries to pull her arm away from him, but he doesn’t let go. “It’s just a stupid room full of paintings. It doesn’t change anything!” She pulls her arm again, but Po still doesn’t let go. “Let go of me!”

“I just want to help!” Bile rises in the back of his mouth with his frustration. He feels his own tears running down his face.

“You can’t help me.” Martine tugs at her arm. “You’re a freak. Not a freak like everyone says you are, but you are a freak.” She throws her free fist at him.

Po catches her other arm easily.

Tears pour down her face. “It doesn’t change anything.” She steps forward, thudding her forehead against his chest. “It doesn’t change anything.”

Po lets go of her arms, wrapping her in a hug. Her anger and frustration rush through him. This time he doesn’t try to calm her, he doesn’t shield himself. This time, he shares her emotions. He shoulders them with her.

They stand there for a long time crying.

“Do you have a favorite memory?”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Martine pushes off his chest, wiping at her face. “Of course, I have a favorite memory.”

“That’s not what I mea-” Po swipes at his own face. “Can you think of a favorite memory for me? Of a time in your life where you felt happy?”

“Why?”

Po smiles at her, shaking his head. “Close your eyes. And think of a happy day.”

Martine rolls her eyes, but does what he says. She takes a deep breath and lets it out slow.

“Do you have one?” Po reaches out, feeling her apprehension and confusion.

“Yeah?” Her face scrunches in concentration.

“Really?” Po only sees images of the room they’re in.

“No.” Martine opens her eyes, glaring at him. “This is dumb.”

Po lets out a quick laugh. “No, it’s not. This will be fun.”

“Is this you trying to help again?” Martine continues to glare, but she doesn’t try to leave.

“I did help. Now close your eyes.”

She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes.

“Okay.” Po takes his own deep breath. “Now, I want you to think of a fun, good day. A family picnic?” Martine’s face bunches like she’s sucking on a lemon. “Or a family vacation.” Po sees her eyes roll under her lids. “Maybe a birthday?” Martine’s face is slack for a minute, then her mouth twitches into a brief smile. “There! That day right there.” Po squeezes her hands, reaching out for her with himself. “Concentrate on that day.”

The scent of popcorn and cheese wafts around them.

“Try to remember every detail about that day.”

The lights dim, then other lights flash and dance around them.

“Most importantly, remember how you felt.”

Beeps, boops, and explosions echo through the air.

“Open your eyes.”

Slowly, Martine opens her eyes. “What the fuck?” She pulls her hand away from Po’s, taking a step away from him. “Are we in Chaz’s Arcade Palace?”

Po smiles, leaning against an arcade game. “You tell me. This is your happy place.”

“I can’t…” Martine stumbles over to an arcade machine, running her hands over it. “It feels so real.” A light, airy giggle bubbles out of her.

Po smiles. He can feel her confusion and fear, but it’s being pushed down by the happiness of the memory.

The lights flash. Children of all ages run around the arcade. Ten-year-old music blares through the speakers.

Martine laughs, looking around at the kids and the speakers in the ceiling. “The last time I was here was for my tenth birthday.” She jumps out of the way of two boys chasing each other with tiny squirt guns, purchased from the prize counter.

Po nods in the direction of a corner. “That explains the balloons and cake.”

“Where?” Martine spins in the direction Po indicated. She squeals in joy when she sees the party setup, and takes off at a dead sprint.

Po follows her. He laughs for no reason. The joy in the memory coats him. Martine’s own joy at being here swirls through the air, a thick perfume Po breathes in. Another laugh, a belly laugh, escapes him as he comes up next to Martine.

She stares at the cake. Happy Birthday Martine, stares back at her, blue frosting scrawl on a yellow background. Ten candles burn brightly along the edges. She looks around. “Where is everybody?”

Po feels her confusion again. “I…” He stops a laugh in his chest, clearing his throat. “I thinking they’re playing.”

Martine looks over his shoulder at the laughing, running, playing kids. “But I want cake.” She crosses her arms, putting her chin on her chest, the perfect image of a ten-year-old.

Po can’t stop his laughing this time. “Well, it’s your day. If you want cake, then have some cake.”

“Really?!” Martine lights up with a smile. She spins, grabbing the cake knife.

“Wait.” Po snatches the knife from her hand.

“What?” She turns on him, her face contorted in anger. “Cake.” She reaches for the knife, but Po moves it out of reach.

“Shouldn’t you make a wish first?”
A smile spreads over Martine’s face again. “Right.” She spins around, staring at the cake for a moment, then taking down all ten candles in one go. Po hands her the knife when she puts out her hand, not turning away from the cake. She cuts a generous slice, putting it on a plate. To Po’s surprise, she turns around and hands it to him. “Here.” Taking it, he watches her cut another piece for herself. She quickly shoves a bite in her mouth. “Oh my fucking God!” She moans, shoving another bite in her mouth. “I forgot how good this cake tasted.”

Po takes a bite. He almost chokes, having to stifle his own moan. He’s never tasted cake this good before. In the back of his mind, he wonders if the cake actually tasted this good, or if it only tastes this good because of Martine’s expectations. Another part of his mind just screams the word cake at him, and he takes another bite.

Martine opens her eyes after enjoying a bite of cake, and stares at Po. “How are you doing this?”

“I’m not doing this.” Po shoves more cake into his mouth. “You are.”

“Mm-hm.” She pokes him in the arm with her plastic fork. “Seriously.”

Po studies her face for a moment, then looks out at the arcade around them. He watches two boys throw basketballs, competing for the most tickets. They look an awful lot like Po and Danny when they were younger. He takes another bite of cake. “I’m not totally sure.” He looks back at her and gives her a weak smile.

“Your confidence is overwhelming.” She holds her plate up and breathes deeply through her nose, and smiles. “At least there’s cake.”

“Yeah.” Po stabs his fork into the cake, but he doesn’t take another bite. He’s lost his appetite. “Hey, what did you wish for?” There’s a long enough pause, that Po thinks Martine didn’t hear him.

“To take back that night.” Martine isn’t eating cake either when Po looks at her. Her head hangs down, she’s clearly somewhere else in her head.

The lights flicker around them. The children are gone, static comes through the speakers.

Po jumps up from the bench, taking Martine’s cake from her and putting it on the table. “Let’s play some games.” He scans the room quickly. “I challenge you to a skee ball competition.” He darts into the maze of arcade games.

“What?” He hears Martine get up and start after him. “Fuck you. I challenge you to a skee ball competition.” Po’s already rolling balls up the ramp by the time she gets there. “Cheater!” She takes up a spot next to him.

They fling ball after ball down the ramp. Po loses track of how many balls the machine spits out. It seems like they fling forever. Eventually he reaches down and there are no more balls in the tray. He waits for Martine to roll the last two in her tray.

“Ha. Eight-fifty. Beat tha-Son-of-a-bitch!” She slugs him in the arm. For the first time, Po looks at his score. The digital counter reads twelve hundred. “How did you do that?”

Po shrugs. “Just lucky I guess.”

“Rematch?” Martine hits a button and her tray fills with more balls.

“Let’s play a different game.” Po grabs her hand and pulls her back into the maze of arcade games.

They find a zombie shooting game with real plastic guns and spend some time defending humanity from the undead. When they get bored there, they play some air hockey, after six games, and two tie breakers, they move on. They get behind the wheels of a racing game, but crash so much they never finish a race. They try some Pac-Man and some Frogger, but die continuously and leave the games discouraged.

“I wish this place had a ball pit.” Martine misses snagginig a purple, fuzzy thing with the claw machine.

“You mean like that ball pit?” Po points into another corner of the room.

Martine turns to look, then glares at Po. “It doesn’t have a slide. What kind of ball pit doesn’t have a slide?”

Po smiles. “Sure it does.” He points again. “Right there.”

Martine turns to look at the ball pit again. Sure enough, there’s a slide that defies the ceiling of the arcade, leading right into the ball pit. She turns to glare at Po. “And you have no idea how you’re doing that?”

Po slouches, deflating a bit. “Do you want to have a metaphysical discussion about instinct and need, or do you want to slide into a pit of balls?”

She opens her mouth to say something, closes it, opens her mouth again, closes it again. A smile spreads on her face. “Race ya.” She takes off towards the ball pit.

Po jogs after her. She’s halfway up the ladder by the time he gets there. He waits, watching her disappear feet first into the slide. A few seconds later, there’s an explosion of balls as she lands.

Popping her head up, she grins at him. “You coming?”

Po nods, climbing the ladder. The slide is claustrophobic, it being a red tube. The air hitting his face as he emerges feeling extra cool after the closed air of the slide. Then he’s floating in plastic balls. When he finds purchase enough to get his head above the surface, a plastic ball hits him in the forehead.

“Ow! Hey!” He twists, looking for Martine. He hears a giggle, and turns toward it. Martine’s already climbing out of the ball pit. He watches her run to the ladder again. A wave of balls hit him in the face when she plops out of the slide. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

Martine’s smile drains from her eyes until it’s just a fixture of her face. After a moment, her mouth shrinks down to its normal size. Tears fill her eyes, trailing down her face. “It’s not real, is it?”

Po’s breath catches in his chest. “Martine, don’t.”

“It’s not, is it?” She’s in full on cry mode. Her face contorts into a mask of anguish. “None of this is real.”

The ball pit disappears, and Po stands next to her, hands on her shoulders. “Martine, please don’t.” He wraps her in a hug. She sobs against his chest, rocking his body as she gulps down air, and wetting his shirt with her tears. “I don’t know what to do to help.”

He remembers instinct and need.

He takes a step back from Martine, placing his hand on her stomach. He looks at her. They lock eyes, and she nods. Po pushes himself into her.

He engulfs every part of her, every cell. Their essences mingle. Po lets himself float on Martine and his power. Using his instinct like a tiller, he navigates the flood of emotion, of memory, of life. There’s a brightness inside Martine. Gazing upon it, Po feels fear and wonder. He tugs at his instinct with his need, and plunges into the bright.

He sees Martine. All the Martines. None of the Martines. Each Martine a reflection of the others and whole onto herself. Po knows without understanding that each of these Martines is the true Martine, until it isn’t.

This Martine is a cosmetologist. This Martine is a waitress/actress. This Martine is a singer. This Martine is sick. This Martine is old. This Martine is a mother. This Martine is not. The Martine is a nurse. This Martine is a dental hygienist. This Martine is funny. This Martine is dour.

Po’s need explains these are all possibilities for Martine. Things she could become from this point on in her life. As he gazes on the images of Martine, some of them darken and fade. Others appear, flaring bright in their newness.

Po’s instinct warns not to get too close, or he might become too attached. It guides him through the potential.

Deep inside the glow is another glow, smaller but brighter. Po finds his way to this new glow, understanding that it is part of Martine and completely separate from her. He reaches out with himself and mingles his essence with its.

Po’s mind explodes in existential light. It’s only five weeks old and there is so much potential.

Here it’s…

Jason. Part of Martine’s mind whispers. If it’s a boy, I’ll name him Jason.

Here Jason is an architect. Here Jason is a construction worker. Here Jason is an alcoholic. Here Jason is a magician. Here Jason is a drug dealer. Here Jason is a veterinarian.

Po searches for where Martine’s and Jason’s essences intersect. He focuses on Martine in every scenario. She smiles. She helps Jason with his homework. She encourages him. She lifts him up when he falls. She bails him out of jail when he calls. Jason grows strong and confident because of her. At the center of Jason, where instinct and need couple, his darkest knowledge is that his mother is not happy.

Po pulls himself back. He finds Martine’s mind in the sea of her. What do you want?

Images of her studying, of her dancing, of her swimming in the ocean, of her typing on an old-style typewriter, fill Po.

Martine. What do you want? He feels her try to pull away from him, but he’s all of her, just as she’s all of him. You can’t keep running from this. Martine’s thoughts thrash at him, grow teeth.

Po delves back into her, reaching for her instinct.

I can’t. I’m not ready. If I’d known I never would have done it. I’d give anything to take it back.

Po feels Martine crying, or he’s crying, or they both are. Forgetting the tears, he reaches for Martine’s need, her secret need. It is already sharp; all Po has to do is wield it.

Finding the tiny light that is Jason inside the greater light that is Martine, Po locates where her essence and Jason’s join. He swings Martine’s need at the connection. The hit vibrates along Martine’s essence, she screams somewhere, but it does not cut the bond.

Po knows he’s not strong enough.

Somewhere a train hoots.

Railroad Bill was a conjure man/He could change hisself to a bird/He could change hisself to a brook/A hill he could be what he wanted to be./One time old Bill changed hisself/ to a dog and led a pack on his trail.

Power burns Po. There’s another scream, far away, and this time he thinks it might be his.

Ignoring the new scream, Po swings again at the bond that connects Martine to Jason. The swing is fast and strong, it slices through the bond like a hot knife through butter. Martine shivers. Po makes another cut, and another, and another. Lights that were there a second ago are gone, no new ones replace them. Eventually, the light that is Jason floats alone and disconnected from Martine.

Po releases Martine’s need. With his focus solely on Jason, his instinct tells him not to leave him there. If he leaves the light that is Jason in Martine, he will re-bond with her. Po wraps himself around Jason, and in a leap pulls himself from her.

The world is bright.

Po aches through his whole body.

A wave of noise blots out all sound.

Po stumbles. Something catches him.

Air presses in on all sides, forcing its way into him, choking him.

Po laughs, thinking he’s standing on the ceiling, thinking gravity was a lie all along.

Lips cover his mouth, silencing him, helping him to control his breathing, bringing him back to himself.

Po realizes he’s standing on the floor. He no longer feels the urge to fall. The world dims, the harsh light only fluorescents overhead. Catching movement in the corner of his eye, he looks, seeing Danny and Clarissa standing there.

Danny looks at him questioningly.

Clarissa looks mad.

Clarissa’s mouth moves. She’s talking, but the buzz in Po’s ears hasn’t stopped, he can’t hear her.

Po tries to move, but arms hold him close, keep him where he is. Looking down, Martine’s tear stained face still holds her kissing pose.

Danny walks past them. Po rotates, taking Martine with him, to see what he’s doing. Surprise rocks Po’s body when he sees the wall. Many of the paintings and sketches have been burned away. Charred, black outlines where they used to be stain the wall. Other paintings are curled around the edges and have burn marks on them. Po watches Danny ignore them as he runs his fingers along Po and Martine’s shadows, burned into the wall like the shadows at Hiroshima.

A hand grabs his arm and pulls. Po turns around, again taking Martine with him. Clarissa’s rage smeared face glares at him. She’s yelling.

Po still can’t hear her.

She grabs Martine’s shoulder, pulling her off Po and pushing her to the side. Martine opens her eyes. Po notices a hand print burned through her shirt and onto her stomach before Clarissa steps in front of her. Clarissa leans into the girl, menacing her. Po steps forward, tugging on Clarissa, moving his mouth in the word ‘stop,’ though he doesn’t know if he’s talking or not. Clarissa bats his hand away, the lights flare, spark, a section of fluorescents darken.

“…aren’t you answering me?” Clarissa spits the words at Martine. “Who the hell are you? Martine?” Clarissa says the name like a curse. “What kind of stupid name is that?”

Po tugs on Clarissa’s shoulder again. “Stop.”

Clarissa spins on him, slapping his hand away. “And you!” She takes a step forward. “We’ve been looking for you all day! What’s the use of coming to school if you aren’t going to any of your classes?”

Po sucks too thick air into his lungs. “We’ve only been in here for a period, maybe two.”

“No, you haven’t!” Clarissa steps forward, shoving her chest into his, pushing him back a step. “You’ve been in here all day!” She raises her wrist to show him the time; school has been over for thirty minutes.

“I…I have to go.” Martine stumble-runs to the door. “My mom…she…” She yanks open the door and darts through it.

“Where does she think she’s going?” Clarissa stalks towards the door.

“Stop.” Danny’s voice is a croak, as if he hasn’t used it all day, but it stops Clarissa.

“Look who’s finally found his voice.” Clarissa turns to regard him, crossing her arms. “To what do we owe the honor?”

“Advice.” Danny stands in front of Po, putting his hands on the sides of his head, looking deeply into his eyes. “Keep your temper.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

Danny doesn’t look away from Po. “Can you hear me?” Po nods. “Say it.”

Po blinks, smiles weakly. “It.”

Clarissa moves to stand behind Danny. “Oh, har-har.” She still glares. “What the hell were you doing?”

Neither of the boys look away from each other.

“What were you doing, Po?” Danny’s hands grip him tighter, conveying his need.

Po thinks he’s imagining it, but he hears flames crackling every time Danny speaks. He ponders the question, weighing his friendship with Martine’s privacy. “I was helping.”

A harsh laugh blurts from Clarissa. “Yeah, you looked real helpful.”

Danny’s eyes narrow.

Po feels him push at his mind. He takes his friend’s wrists in his hands. “Danny, don’t.”

Danny pulls his hands back like they’ve been burned. Nudging Clarissa out of the way as he backs up until he’s against the wall.

“Excuse you!” Clarissa turns her anger on him. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”

Danny sighs, still not looking away from Po. “He’s level three.”

“What?!” Clarissa turns to Po. Out of the corner of his eye, Po can see a new brand of anger on her face. “You went level three for her?!” She points at the door Martine fled through.

Po doesn’t break eye contact with Danny. “She’s a friend.”

“We’re friends!” Clarissa’s voice is almost a screech. Po can tell there are implications, a need, in what she said, but he can’t figure them out.

Danny pushes off the wall, coming back in front of Po. “The girl’s not important.”

“Says you!” Clarissa moves to the wall, taking his spot.

“How do you feel?” Danny’s eyes flash a green the color of the ocean.

Po ponders the question. He feels like it’s the most important question he’s ever been asked. He feels time tick away while he thinks, but he doesn’t want to mess up the answer. “It feels like the entire world is a raging storm and I’m the only point of calm in it.” Po closes his eyes, breaking his connection to Danny. His mind clears. “No. I’m wrong. It’s the other way around.” When he opens his eyes, Danny is nodding.

Clarissa stands straight. “Why are we asking him? Why don’t we just find out for ourselves?” She comes over to stand next to them, her glare still at full power.

Danny takes a deep breath, taking a step back to look at them both. “That was the plan for today.” He twiddles his fingers, trails of yellow and red forming in the air. “I wanted to go to the house with the ghost, to see if we could communicate with it.” He blows on the color trails, and they break up. “And then go to level three to let the ghost inhabit me. You two were my backup.”

Clarissa moves close to Danny. “That sounds great. Let’s do that.”

Po feels power gathering around Clarissa as her poem forms in her mind. For a moment his vision blurs, and standing where Clarissa is is a warrior queen, spear in hand. Then his vision clears and his friend is herself again.

“Whoa.” Danny holds up his hands in a stopping motion. “I think the plan’s changed.”

“What?! Why?” The lights flicker again, and the easel falls over.

“We’re talking about a lot of power. When I said I wanted you two as my backup, I meant I didn’t want you to be at level three, in case something happened to me.”

Clarissa shakes her head and shrugs in frustration. “Po seems fine. Why are you scared of this?”

“I’m not being scared. I’m being cautious.” He steps around Clarissa to stand in front of Po again. “And look at him. He’s not doing so great.” He reaches out, grabbing Po by the shoulders. “Po, are you with us?”

Po’s vision blurs again. Instead of Danny in front of him, a Viking skald smiles and winks, a rather dour ballad coming to mind about a chief in love. Then Danny stares into his eyes again. “I’m seeing your past lives. I’m living your past lives.” Po shakes his head. “What year is it?”

Danny turns to look at Clarissa. “Every level is like a flood gate, letting more power flow into us.”

Clarissa crosses her arms, her eyes narrowing at Danny, but intermittently darting to Po. “I’m not stupid, Danny. I know how it works.”

Danny nods slowly. “Okay. Fine. The power is timeless…” He shakes his head. “It’s without time. It’s always been there, and will always be there. When we tap into it, we’re tapping into its timelessness. We need practice to withstand that.”

“I can hear the future.” Po turns Danny around and looks him in the eyes. “It sounds like a storm.”

“Well, that’s an ill omen.” Clarissa moves up next to Danny, leaning in to look at Po’s eyes. “Storms are universally bad as symbols go.”

“Not if you’re a farmer.” Danny nudges her with his shoulder to get her to move back.

Clarissa glares at Danny, but straightens out of his way. “Rain isn’t bad if you’re a farmer. A storm is always bad.”

“Po’s not himself. We can’t reliably trust anything he says.”

Po reaches out, cupping Danny’s cheek in his hand. “Maybe I’m more me than I’ve ever been.” Danny shimmers, and for a moment Po sees the man he’ll grow into. “You’re such a handsome man. So much like your father.”

Danny takes Po’s hand from his face, putting at Po’s side. “Po, you have to power down. We’re here for you. We’ll get you home.”

“Is that what you really want?” Po looks from Danny to Clarissa. Danny’s face is impassive, though Po sees the flaring emotions inside him as gouts of scent, his anger is burnt toast. Clarissa’s face swings between concern and anger, lilac and wet dog.

“Po! Focus!” Danny moves into his vision again. “You need to power down.”

“Okay.” Po recites the lines of his poem again.

The world goes black. Po thinks he might have killed everything. He thinks there might not be anything left but him. He wonders how long it will take to get lonely; how long it will take to go insane. He wonders if he’s insane already. He opens his eyes.

He expects the lights to be bright, to hurt his eyes. There is no pain from the light. The world he sees is dim and dull, the colors muted. He looks up at the faces of his friends.

“Am I on the floor?”

Danny nods.

Clarissa bends down. “You passed out.”

“That explains a lot.” Po’s body feels too heavy. “What year is it?”

Clarissa frowns and looks at Danny. Danny watches Po, like a scientist taking notes. Clarissa puts a hand to his forehead like she’s checking for a fever. “It was only for a minute or two.”

Po thinks about how long he was in the black. “Okay.” Ignoring how heavy he feels, he moves to sit up. Clarissa and Danny pull on his arms to help. “I should get home then. I think I might pass out again.”

“I…uh…I…” Concern explodes on Clarissa’s face, her previous anger forgotten, or at least abated. She snaps in front of Danny’s eyes. He jumps and turns to look at her. “Help me.” Danny nods, and they get their arms around Po and get him to his feet.

Po immediately stumbles, almost going over again. Clarissa’s hold tightens on him, keeping him up. Po smiles at her. “My legs aren’t working so good.”

Clarissa puts his arm around her shoulders, taking some of his weight. Danny moves into the same position on Po’s other side. Together they walk out of the school.

Outside, Po is instantly cold, chilled through to the bone. His body shivers violently, rocking the trio to the side. In the sky, the sun is a pale white. Po sticks out his tongue, licking the air to get some of the warmth into his body.

“What are you doing?” Danny stares at his outstretched tongue.

“Did I have a vision of the future?”

“You heard the future.” Clarissa stumbles under his weight.

“Did it taste like chicken?” Po’s head lolls to the side. “Everything strange tastes like chicken. It’s the default.”

“What? No.” She tugs on his arm to get him in a better position. “You said it sounded like a storm.”

“Ooo, storms are bad.” Po makes a goat sound.

Clarissa leans forward, resuming her glare, this time at Danny. “See.”

“Concentrate on getting him home.” Danny tightens his grip around his friend, determination on his face. “Can you stand by yourself?”

Po looks up at a front door of a house. “Hey, are we home already? That didn’t take long at all.”

Danny and Clarissa share a look. Tentatively, they ease Po’s weight off them. Po sways slightly, but remains standing.

“I know a really good joke that starts like this.” Po raises a fist to knock on the door.

Clarissa grabs his wrist. “No jokes.”

Po sways in her direction. “You’re no fun.”

Danny opens the door, pulling Po in behind him.

“Po!” His mother’s voice comes from the kitchen. “I’ve been texting you all da-” She stops when she sees Danny and Clarissa. “Oh, I wasn’t expecting to see you two.”

“Hi, Mrs. Allen.” Clarissa smiles, but it’s a half-hearted effort. “We’re just making sure Po got home alright.”

“Is something wrong?” Mrs. Allen steps up to her son, looking him up and down.

“I’m suffering from a case of past lives.” He sways forward, Danny puts a hand on his chest to steady him.

“What’s he talking about? Has he been drinking?” Mrs. Allen’s face quickly goes from motherly concern to motherly stern.

“He fell in class.” Clarissa quickly interjects. “Fainted, or something.”

“Hit his head on the floor.” Danny finds his smile easily. “We’re going to take him upstairs and put him to bed.” He shoves Po gently towards the stairs.

“Should he sleep with a head injury?” Mrs. Allen stands at the foot of the stairs, watching them. “What if he has a concussion?”

“We’re just doing what the nurse said.” Danny nods reassuringly.

Po stands in the middle of his room, twirling in a circle.

“Po, stop.” Clarissa grabs his arms, holding him in place. “I thought you said you were going to pass out again.”

“Naw! I feel fin-”

The world falls away.

Po sits on a train. The rain pitters and patters a staccato rhythm on the window next to him. He tries to ignore it, focusing on the crossword he’s doing. Eight down: A great king no one remembers. It begins with an ‘Oz.’ Ten letters long.

“I wonder when we’ll be pulling in.” Comes a male voice from the passenger across from him.

“I’m sure we’ll be on time.” Po moves on to the next clue. Thirteen across: excessive pride. He’s already got a ‘u,’ a ‘b,’ and an ‘s’.

“The rain sure is coming down.” The other passenger continues.

Po looks up from his crossword. Lightning flashes. He jumps from his seat, falling into the aisle.

Across from his seat is a skeleton in a decaying suit. It doesn’t move, or talk. It just leans in the seat, impassively staring out the train window with its empty sockets.

Breathing heavy, Po gets to his feet. It’s not until he’s standing that he notices the train isn’t moving. He peers out the window, trying not to look at the skeleton, the landscape isn’t whizzing past.

Lightning flashes again, illuminating skeletons in every seat.

Po runs down the aisle for the train door. Opening it, the wind howls, rain slaps him in the face. The storm has gotten stronger, closer.

Po hesitates, not wanting to venture out. He looks over his shoulder at the skeletons, his other option is to stay and wait to join them. “Last stop.” He jumps from the train, into the wet air and soggy land.

Outside the train, the wind rips at him, stealing any warmth he had. The rain stings his flesh, his clothes are already soaked through. Clutching his jacket around him, he turns towards the town. The ground shifts and slurps under his feet, wrapping around his soles, threatening to steal his shoes. It takes all his concentration to keep his footing and make progress.

Taking his focus off walking, he looks to the town, trying to gauge its distance. It still seems so far away. Lightning flashes, painting the landscape a bright gray. When the gray fades, Po realizes the town is dark. There are no lights. There is no movement.

Something in the back of his mind tells him he will find no shelter there.

Scanning the land, the earth squelching complaints to have to hold his weight along with all the water, Po’s eyes stop on the mountain. He thought he saw flickering lights…There they are. Around the brief light, he thinks he sees movement.

Pulling his feet from the mud, he sighs, seeing that the mountain is in the opposite direction. The wind and rain push on him as he walks. Keeping his head down is a must now, to protect his eyes from rain that feels like rocks. Stopping to catch his breath, finds him at the door to the train car he just left.

For a moment, a small but significant moment, Po thinks about returning to the train. Inside he’d be dry, and not have to fight the wind, and he could sit down. His body shivers continuously from the cold; and while the train wasn’t warm, it wasn’t cold. He takes a step towards the train. The storm is a lot to take.

Lightning flashes, illuminating the skeletons waiting for him inside. They haven’t moved.

Po steps back, remembering why he got off the train in the first place. Taking a deep breath, the cool air invigorating before it numbs, he turns back to the storm, trudging towards the mountain.

It might be his imagination, but the wind seems stronger, the rain colder, the grounder soggier, the closer he gets to the mountain. Each step is a fight with the elements. Close enough to the mountain it’s the only thing in his vision, he sinks up to his knee in the ground, toppling forward. Mud covering the front of him, Po grabs at the earth, pulling himself free. When his legs come out, he’s lost his shoes. The earth has already flowed into the holes where his legs were. He walks on.

At the base of the mountain, Po stands in awe at the size of it. He thought there might be a path, but it’s just a rock wall reaching for the sky. The wind picks up as he looks for a place to begin his climb, ripping his jacket from him. He thought the chill already had him, but it sinks its claws deeper into his body without the extra layer.

Forgetting the jacket, Po runs his hand over the slick stone face until he finds a crease in the stone. Tips of his fingers firmly planted, he heaves himself up the mountain. It’s slow going, taking all his concentration. For a few minutes, he forgets about the cold. He grabs a jutting rock, and his hand warms, stings. He knows without looking he’s bleeding. He hopes the blood won’t make climbing harder.

Halfway up the mountain, the wind picks up again, nearly ripping him off the mountain. Pressing himself as flat as he can against the rock, he waits for the wind to die down, but it doesn’t. After several minutes, Po begins climbing again. With the wind so strong, he keeps himself smashed against the rocks. He feels every inch of the climb. His shirt tears. His stomach and chest sting with dozens of cuts.

Reaching for the top of the mountain, his shirt lets out a shriek of fabric and flies off. Po grips the stone, his torso pelted with rain that’s changed to hail. Fear shakes him, and for a second he thinks he’s lost his grip. Hands still clenched firm to the rock, he heaves himself upward, getting the top of his body on the plateau. He takes several deep breaths, his legs still dangling off the edge. When he gets up, he feels the waist of his pants catch on the edge. There’s another rip, his pants wave off the side of the mountain like a flag.

Po doesn’t care about his pants. He’s as cold as he’s going to get, it doesn’t matter that he’s naked. He’s made it to the top of the mountain. The wind and the rain don’t touch here. Even that doesn’t matter to Po. What matters to Po is the two people here.

They stand at the other side of the flat top, looking down at the town. Power swirls about them, and Po realizes they are the cause of the storm. He walks forward, unafraid of the power around the two figures, or their obvious malicious intent with the storm. It doesn’t occur to him to be afraid.

“Danny!” He yells over the howling wind.

The figure closest to the edge tries to turn, but the figure standing behind him puts his hand on his shoulders and stops him.

“You must concentrate on your task, lest the power destroy you.”

Danny nods, keeping his back to Po. The storm intensifies.

Po moves forward. “Danny, stop! What did the town ever do to you?”

The power around Danny dims.

“What did the town ever do for you?” The figure behind Danny chides.

Danny’s power flares.

Bloody, naked, and tired, Po finds the strength to run. “What are you doing? Leave Danny alone!”

The figure turns at the sound of Po’s charge. It grows, lengthening and widening to blot out Danny. It screams at Po with a dry, raspy voice. It doesn’t have a face. Pages flip across the surface of where a face should be. “He’s mine.”

“Po?”

Po shoots up in bed, his dad’s voice calling him outside his door.

The door swings open; his dad stands in the hall, arms crossed. “Good morning.”

Po wipes a hand down his face. His mouth is cottony. Everything looks gray. “Morning.”

His dad stares at him, unmoving.

Po slides out of bed, his legs wobble, but support him. He looks around his room, hoping to see a water bottle somewhere.

“Do you want to tell me what happened yesterday?” His dad hasn’t moved from the doorway.

Not seeing a water bottle, Po swishes his tongue around his mouth trying to get some saliva going. Seeing he’s still wearing his clothes from yesterday, he pulls his shirt off. Body odor greets him, and he grabs his deodorant off his dresser. “I went to school. Learned some stuff.”

“Really?” His dad doesn’t seem to be in the mood to joke around.

“Yeah.” Po’s stomach gurgles, but when he thinks of food he gags.

“We got a call from the school last night after you came home. They said you weren’t in class.”

Po closes his eyes. The mountain and the storm surface in his mind. He shakes his head, pretty sure that was a dream. Slowly, the events of yesterday come back to him. “Oh.”

“That’s all you have to say for yourself?” His dad takes a couple steps into the room. “That’s all I get from you?”

Po slumps against his dresser. He doesn’t feel rested despite how much he slept. “I…” Air rasps through his throat. A cough wracks his whole body. “I went to school. I just didn’t go to my classes, I guess.”

“You guess?” Shock and confusion cross his father’s face. “What do you mean, ‘I guess’?” He sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Your mother says you came home drunk.”

Anger gives Po the strength to stand up straight. “I wasn’t drunk.”

“Were you high?” His dad doesn’t back down.

“I wasn’t high either.” The urge to blurt out where his mother was yesterday rises in Po. Then he remembers that his dad would know if he wanted. The anger simmers in the pit of his stomach.

“Son, talk to me.” His dad softens slightly. “What happened yesterday?”

Po thinks about everything that happened, not just yesterday but the entire week. He wonders how much his dad would let him talk. He wonders how much he would believe. What proof could he give him? What proof would he give him?

He turns away from his dad. “You wouldn’t understand.”

There’s a soft, half-frustrated chuckle behind Po. “You’d be surprised.” He hears his dad sit down on his bed. Po turns to look at him. “I was your age once. A hundred years ago.” His dad gets a faraway look on his face. He shakes himself. “I get that you’re a senior. I get that you need to blow off steam. Maybe cut some classes. Your mother and me just want you to be safe is all. Okay?”

In that moment, looking at his dad being so understanding, Po sees the gulf between what his dad thinks is going on and what’s actually happening. Po closes his eyes. He doesn’t think he’s supposed to feel this tired at his age.

“Dad-”

“Okay?” His dad looks at him expectantly.

Po nods. “Okay.”

“No drinking or drugs.”

“Well, where’s the fun in that?”

His dad springs off the bed. “Po Timothy Allen-”

Po holds up his hands in surrender. “I wasn’t drunk.”

“And no drugs.” His father stares into him.

Po sighs. “I wasn’t high either.” His father doesn’t stop his boring stare. “I promise.”

Mr. Allen takes a deep breath and lets it out slow, relief coming over him. “How about you don’t skip class for a while too?”

“I don’t knooow.” Po crosses his arms, leaning back against his dresser. “I’m really busy this week. I don’t know if I can squeeze class in.” He smiles the biggest, fakest smile he can.

His dad puts his hand on his shoulder and squeezes firmly. “Try.”

Po slumps against his dresser, reaching up and putting his hand on his dad’s. He feels safe. Some of the color comes back into Po’s vision. “It’s been a rough week.”

There’s another chuckle from his dad. “It’s a rough life.”

A dry chuckle comes from Po now. “You mean things don’t get easier?” He moves his hand from his dad’s hand to cover his open mouth.

Mr. Allen puts on an expression of mock surprise. “What?” His eyes dart from side to side. “Of course, it does. Forget I said anything. It’s all rainbows and puppies bringing you coffee all day once you leave high school.”

“Whew!” Po wipes the back of his hand across his forehead. “You had me scared for a minute.”

Mr. Allen squeezes his shoulder again. “Are we good?”

Po flings his arms around his dad. The hug is awkward. They’re the same height, and Po has to bend his legs to put his head on his dad’s chest.

“Po?”

“I just need a hug.” Po squeezes tighter.

Mr. Allen slides his arms around Po’s shoulders.

Fear shivers through Po. His father’s fear. He knows his father is afraid of him growing up, of ruining his life, of missing out on things. He’s afraid his wife will leave him one day, that with Po graduating that day will be soon. He’s afraid of the future, of all the things he doesn’t know could be coming.

Mr. Allen seems frail to Po in that instant. The urge to pick his father up and twirl him around makes him clenches his body. Po silently wishes Danny was crazy, because then he wouldn’t have touched power, and he wouldn’t know all the things he doesn’t want to know.

His father pats him on the back. “Everything okay now?”

Po sighs into his father’s chest. He swallows several times to keep himself letting out his tears. “Well, I think I need a shower, but yeah.” He lets go of his father and stands up. “I think I’m okay.” Po tries not to think about the lie.

Mr. Allen nods. “Good. But I think you need to hold off on that shower.”

“Dad, I smell bad. I know you love me, but even you have to admi-”

“Do you smell that?”

Po inhales deeply. “Is that French Toast?”

Mr. Allen nods. “It certainly smells like it.”

“But Mom hates French Toast.” Po starts for the hall, but his dad grabs his arm.

“You should put on a shirt and come downstairs.” His dad walks past him.

Po quickly grabs a clean shirt and pulls it on. Mr. Allen is already halfway down the stairs when Po gets to them. The smell of French Toast and bacon wafts up the stairs making his stomach gurgle again.

“Do you have any cinnamon?” The voice freezes Po halfway down the stairs. “I like cinnamon on my French Toast. Are you guys allergic to cinnamon?” Po takes the rest of the stairs slowly, stopping again when he reaches the bottom. “Or nutmeg? Are you allergic to nutmeg? I hear that’s a common allergy.” Po leans forward, looking down the front hall into the kitchen, where Martine flits back and forth from the counter and stove. “Is there nutmeg in cinnamon?”

Mrs. Allen looks away from Martine when her husband enters. She sees Po down the hall. “Honey!” Her voice is overly perky. Po closes his eyes, not wanting to deal with her anger. “Come join us. Introduce us to your friend.”

Po drags his feet down the hall. He watches Martine scramble to put French Toast and bacon on a plate. She holds it out to him when he enters the kitchen.

“I hope you like French Toast.” She smiles at him. “Because that’s what I made.” She nods to the plate in her hands. “You don’t like it? You don’t like it.” She puts the plate on the counter. “Eggs! I can make eggs. Any way you like.” She looks at him expectantly.

“Mom and Dad, this is Martine. Martine, this is my mom and dad.” Po doesn’t look away from her as he introduces her.

“Nice to meet you.” Martine smiles at them, nodding.

“Martine, what are you doing here?” Po takes a step to close the gap between them.

Martine looks back at him, then down at her hands, which she starts clenching. “I…I…” She takes a deep breath. “I wanted to say thank you for your help. For what you did for me. And I…I can’t help you the way you helped me.” She grabs the plate off the table and holds it out to him. “I can do French Toast.”

“So, what did Po do to help you?” Martine jumps at the sound of Mrs. Allen’s voice, taking a step back from Po.

“He…uh…He…helped me. Changed my life.” She smiles sheepishly at his mother.

“Really? How did he do that?” His mother gently pushes.

“He…He…” Panic paints Martine’s face.

“I’ve been tutoring her. After school. She’s been having a lot of trouble in geometry.” Po finally looks at his parents, offering them a smile. “She just aced a big test.”

“Geometry!” A smile splits Martine’s face. “I’m all thumbs when it comes to tangents and cosines.”

“You mean, you ‘were.’ Until Po helped you.” Mr. Allen looks from Martine to Po with a knowing glance.

“Yeah. I was. But not anymore.” Martine laughs nervously. “I can graph with the best of them.”

Mrs. Allen glares across the kitchen island at Martine. “And you think coming to our house at six thirty in the morning and making breakfast is an appropriate thank you?” She turns her glare on Po, as if this is somehow his fault.

Po smiles at her. “I think it’s sweet.” He takes the plate from Martine, and reaches for the syrup. “Thank you, Martine.”

“I made enough for everybody.” Martine hurriedly assembles plates for his mother and father, before making a plate for herself.

For the next few minutes, Po, Martine, and Mr. Allen eat in silence, while Mrs. Allen silently glares. Po admits, this is good French Toast. He hasn’t had it in years, since his mother isn’t a fan, and it’s the first real thing he’s had to eat in a day, but still. Martine eats in spurts next to him. Mainly she watches him eat, only cutting a piece of toast and shoving it in her mouth after Po has taken a bite.

“Do we have any orange juice?” Po turns towards the refrigerator.

“I’ll get it!” Martine darts around him, yanking the frig door open and pulling out the juice. She darts to the cupboards, opening a couple before finding the glasses and filling one. She takes up her place next to Po as she puts the glass next to his plate.

“Thanks.” Po slowly takes a drink.

“This must have been some test our son helped you with.” Mrs. Allen levels a measuring gaze at Po.

Martine’s face goes slack, her eyes big as she looks at Mrs. Allen. “The biggest.”

A small gasp escapes Mrs. Allen when she sees Martine’s expression. “Roger, can I have a word with you and our son in the living room?”

Mr. Allen freezes, one of Mrs. Allen’s pieces of French Toast halfway onto his plate. “Can it wait until after breakfast?”

Mrs. Allen glares at her husband. “No, it can’t wait until aft-”

Everyone stops as the front door opens.

“Po!” Danny’s voice stampedes through the house.

“God help me.” Mrs. Allen puts her head in her hands.

“In the kitchen!” Po yells down the hall.

Danny strides in with purpose, a grim look on his face. “Po, we need to…” He looks around at Po’s mother and father, nodding, his eyes coming to rest on Martine. “You’re the girl Po…” He shoots a sidelong glance at Po’s parents. “Helped.”

Martine shoots her own glance at Po’s parents, squirming on the stool next to him. “I’m Martine.” She picks up her plate, only one piece of French Toast gone from it. “Do you want some breakfast?”

Danny stares at the plate confused, like it’s the first time he’s seen food. “I’m not hungry.” He turns his attention to Po. “We need to go.”

“Leaving so soon?” Mr. Allen shoves a piece of French Toast into his mouth.

“Yes,” Mrs. Allen narrows her eyes at Danny. “Where are you off to so early? Is the school even open?”

Danny stares at her, face slack, eyes empty. Mrs. Allen stares back with her narrow gaze, eventually her eye twitches and she looks away. Danny continues to stare. “Mrs. Davis is letting us in to work on our project.”

Po crunches bacon. He wonders if he sounds like Danny when he lies. It came out smooth and calm. He also wonders when his life became a series of lies. “Shouldn’t we wait for Clarissa?”

Danny turns his unblinking gaze on Po. “She texted me. We’re meeting her at the school.” A green light flashes in Danny’s eyes. “We need to go.”

Po shoves the rest of the bacon in his mouth, sliding off the stool. “Right. Busy day. Lots of work to do on the project.” Danny’s already at the door. Po jogs down the hall, grabbing his shoes and his coat from the closet. “Have a good day, Dad!”

Outside the world is a muddle of bright gray. Po sticks close to Danny as his eyes adjust to the morning light. A cold wind pushes on his chest, reminding him of his dream. He zips up his coat, warding off the worst of the chill.

“So, what are we really doing?”

Po starts at the voice at his side. “Martine, you’re still here.”

Her cheeks flush, looking away from him. “I didn’t want to hang around your parents anymore.” She looks him in the eyes. “I don’t think they like me.”

Po smiles. “If it’s any consolation, I’m not a big fan of them at the moment.”

“You shouldn’t be here.” Danny’s voice has the firmness of granite.

Po turns to look at his friend’s steely gaze. “Relax, Danny. It’s okay.” He thinks about their situation for a moment. “What are we doing?”

“I told you. We’re going to meet Clarissa.” Danny quickens his pace, forcing Po and Martine to do the same to keep up.

“We’re not going to Clarissa’s house.” Po points out as they turn onto the sidewalk heading away from her house.

“Did she text you last night?” Danny keeps his gaze fixed ahead of them, the green flashes coming faster and faster.

Po fishes his phone out of his pants pocket. Thumbing through screens reveals he hasn’t gotten any texts from Clarissa. “Nope.”

“Here.” Danny shoves his phone at Po, not slowing.

Po thumbs to the recent messages.

Do you know what Po was doing with that girl?

I mean what the hell, right?

Po scrolls down the screen. He skims several more messages of Clarissa ranting about him. “This isn’t explaining anything.”

“It’s the last few that are important.”

Po scrolls to the bottom of the screen then back up.

I can’t believe he went to level 3 without us!!!

Can you believe it!!

I wonder what it’s like.

You said we could tap into the spirit world directly…

You want to go find a ghost?

Let’s find a ghost.

Danny???

Fine. I’ll go without you!!!

Po grabs Danny, stopping him. “What the hell is this?”

Danny blinks at him. “They’re texts. Are they not clear?”

“Why didn’t you go with her?” Po flicks back through the texts. “Why didn’t you talk her out of doing it?”

Danny takes his phone away from Po. “I didn’t get the texts until this morning.”

Po’s heart pounds in his chest. “She’s had all night with a ghost?”

“If she left after she texted me, and didn’t talk herself out of ghost hunting, then yes.” Danny turns and walks away.

Martine grabs Po’s arm, turning him to look at her. “You need to breathe.” She takes a deep breath, Po mimics her. “Ghosts are real?”

Po lets out the breath. “Yeah.”

Martine looks at the ground, clears her throat, then looks at Po again. “Are they dangerous?”

Po shakes his head. “I don’t know.” They jog to catch up with Danny. He stands in the middle of the sidewalk, looking across the street at the houses. “What are we doing?”

Danny tilts his head in the direction of a house. “Going to the one place we know there’s a ghost.”

Po looks across the street. All the houses look so similar in the gray light of dawn, but he recognizes the house Danny indicates. It’s the house, where yesterday, they saw a ghost peering out the window.

“Do you think she would have went there last night?” Po peers up and down the street, a few houses have lights on in them, starting to wake up, there’s a lone car down the road at a stop sign, but really he’s hoping to see Clarissa coming up the sidewalk towards them.

“It’s the only place with a confirmed ghost.” Danny doesn’t take his eyes off the house.

Po studies the house, there’s no movement, no lights. “If she went to level three she might have found a ghost anywhere. Why would she come here?”

“It’s a start.” Danny’s voice is filled with anger.

Po feels his insides tremble, his bowels clench. He has the urge to urinate, and hopes he doesn’t piss himself. He knows this is Danny’s power. It doesn’t make him feel better.

He turns to Martine. “Danny’s right. Maybe you should just go to school.” Martine looks at him with wide eyes, she trembles. Po knows she was hit with Danny’s anger too.

“I…” She swallows a couple times. “I want to help.” Her eyes dart to the house, then to Danny. “I can be lookout.”

Po nods. He knows it’s selfish, but he’s glad to have someone else besides him and Danny here.

“You need to power up.” Danny’s hands clench at his sides. He’s getting worked up for something.

Po barely needs to concentrate to see the words of his poem in his mind. “Railroad Bill was a conjure man/He could change hisself to a bird/He could change hisself to a brook/A hill he could be what he wanted to be.”

Power flows into Po, bracing but comforting, like stepping into a too hot bath after a day out in the cold. It only takes a moment for the power to fill him completely. The world brightens, colors nearly jumping off the houses, lawns, and cars around him. Peering across the street, a yellow cloud rises from the house they’re watching. Black specks buzz in the cloud. Po realizes they’re a portent of death.

“Danny!?” Po reaches blindly for his friend’s hand, squeezing it tight when he finds it.

“I see it.” Danny gives Po’s hand one firm squeeze before letting go and crossing the street.

Po takes a couple beats to steady himself, then he follows Danny. He feels Martine’s apprehension, curiosity, and, a little, excitement. He trips, his feet syncing with Martine’s and stepping as she hops the curb, even though he’s already halfway up the walk of the house. Concentrating, his shield, a soft glow, envelopes him. It’s a small relief to not have Martine in his head.

Danny stands in front of the door to the house. There’s not much of a porch, a few concrete steps and a concrete landing with an awning. When Po joins him in front of the door, there’s no more room. Danny leans from side to side, taking in the house, making sure not to touch anything. Po feels the house breathing, waiting to disgorge whatever secrets it has.

“Are we just going to stand here?” Martine looks up at them from the walk.

“Aren’t you supposed to be looking out?” Danny stops leaning, closing his eyes, centering himself.

Po leans close to his friend. “What do you got?”

Danny shakes his head slowly. Opening his eyes, he stares grimly at Po. “I don’t feel a presence of a ghost.”

“So, we don’t have to do anything, right? If there’s no ghost here?” Martine sounds equal parts relieved and disappointed.

Danny’s eyes slide to the door of the house. “That’s not what it means at all.”

Martine sighs. “Whatever you need to do, you should do it soon. The street’s starting to wake up.”

Danny’s hand reaches for the door handle.

Po catches him by the wrist, stopping him. “I’ll do it.”

Danny’s eyes move back to Po. He twists his arm to free it, and grabs Po’s hand. “Together.”

Po nods, wrapping his hand around the door knob.

The night is cold. Clarissa feels every snap of wind as it changes direction, every degree of difference between her body and the air. She stands across the street staring at the house with the ghost. The power already flowing through her, lets her sense the presences in the object of her attention.

Four presences are warm and vital. Unconsciously, her breathing has matched the family’s sleeping rhythm. The fifth presence is cold, a mobile void. By sensing the spot of nothing in the house, Clarissa can track the ghost.

Already the ghost has been through the entire house three times since Clarissa started watching. It stops for extended periods in one of the rooms in the house Clarissa can’t see, but otherwise it stays moving. The ghost is stopped right now.

Doubt slithers into Clarissa’s stomach, doubt and some fear. She knows how she must look standing here, staring at a house, in the middle of the night. The urge to look at her phone for the time tugs at her, but she ignores it. It was a little past eleven when she snuck out of the house, and she knows she’s been here for a while. If she looks at her phone, she’ll know exactly how long, and if she’s knows that, then she’ll definitely back out. Still, she can’t get her legs to move her across the street.

“You can do this.” Her words come out a white cloud. “You want to do this.” Doubt squirms inside her. She thinks back to her room, texting Danny because she’s mad at Po and she needed to text someone, and Po’s usually the one she texts, but he’s the one she’s mad at, so that only leaves Danny.

Danny’s smiling face appears in her mind. She thinks of how he decoded the journal to unlock this power, how easily he’s taken it by the reigns. Images of the afternoon at his house where he shared the power with her and Po flit through her head; the power connects the images to her intuition, and she gets the feeling he only shared the power with her because she was there, not because it’s what he wanted.

Anger for Danny flares inside her, a righteous indignation.

Her hand goes instinctively to her phone, ready to text Po her suspicion. Halfway out of her pocket she shoves the phone back, remembering she’s mad at him too.

“First.” She practically spits the word into the wind.

She’s mad at Po first. She can’t believe he went to level three without them. They’re supposed to do this together. They’re a team. Danny didn’t even seem to care that he did it without them.

Then there was that girl.

Clarissa practically bounds across the street. Striding up to the door, her fist raised. Common sense kicks in at the last second, and she doesn’t slam her fist into the door like she wants. With effort, she brings her arm back to her side.

Slowly, her thoughts order themselves. She knows the family is asleep. There is no need to wake them up, she’s not here to see them.

Moving with purpose, she descends the steps and moves over to the window where she first saw the ghost. It’s dark inside, but she can see every detail of the room, the living room. Focusing her senses, she finds the spot of cold nothing. She reaches for it.

Come here.

After a while, Clarissa thinks she might have been wrong, maybe there is no ghost in the house. She’s about to turn away, when a gray figure steps up to the window. This close, Clarissa sees it’s a woman. She wears a blouse and a skirt that could be from the sixties, or the eighties. Her features shift between a youngish woman to an aged one. The ghost peers down at Clarissa with an aloof interest.

Clarissa waves at her.

The ghost’s eyes widen in surprise, and she steps away from the window.

“Don’t go!” Clarissa cringes, looking around to make sure no one’s heard her. She reaches out with her mind.

Don’t go.

A few moments later, the ghost glides back into view. She stares at Clarissa, tilting her head and frowning. It’s clear the woman isn’t used to people seeing her.

Clarissa smiles, hoping it’s reassuring. Again, she projects with her mind.

Can you hear me? Understand me?

The ghost tilts her head to the other side, squinting, as if trying to hear something. Eventually, she points to Clarissa then to her mouth, she mimics talking.

Clarissa nods.

The ghost pats the side of her head, then mimes breaking something.

Clarissa closes her eyes, sighing heavily. Part of her hoped talking to the ghost would have been enough. She had hoped Danny was wrong about the levels. That level two did more than just make them aware of spirits. She’ll have to level up to actually communicate with the woman.

Clarissa opens her eyes, the woman staring down at her quizzically. Clarissa smiles, putting her hand on the window. The woman looks from her hand to her. Clarissa motions for her to do the same. Slowly, the ghost puts her hand on the glass. Clarissa’s hand trembles, feels tingly.

“There are some qualities—some incorporate things/That have a double life, which thus is made/A type of that twin entity which springs/From matter and light evinced in solid and shade./There be a two-fold Silence—sea and shore/Body and soul. One dwells in lonely places,”

The earth creaks. The air is too thick to breathe, too thin to hold in her lungs. The wind whisper-whisks across the land, singing of snow.

Clarissa leans against the house, slowly drawing her eyes up to look at the ghost. There’s color on the woman and her clothes now. Her hair is a shiny chestnut brown, which fades into gray as her features shift. Her clothes stand out as something from a vintage store, firmly from the sixties.

Clarissa smiles. “Can you hear me now?” She doesn’t know if she speaks the words or thinks them.

The woman smiles down at her. “Of course, I can, dear.”

There’s a sound of ripping fabric.

The ghost drains from the house, pouring from the window up Clarissa’s arm.

Fear grips Clarissa. She tries to pull her hand away from the window, but it’s stuck. The colors of the ghost travel across Clarissa’s body. Clarissa’s clothes morph into the clothes the ghost wore. She tries to scream, but the ghost envelopes her head. Clarissa’s face is now the face of the ghost. The ghost stands outside the house, where Clarissa was standing.

There’s a beat.

Clarissa stands outside the house. She stands still for some time, before she takes a long, shuddering breath. She rubs her hands across her body.

She smiles.

She doesn’t feel afraid anymore.

She doesn’t feel the cold anymore.

She feels nothing, and everything.

Humming a decades old song, she makes her way to the door of the house and lets herself in.

Po pulls his hand away from the door handle, as if it burned him.

“What the hell was that?” Martine whisper-yells at them.

“A vision.” Po flexes his fingers to make sure they still work.

Martine nods. “Okay. Is there a ghost in there or not?” She looks up and down the street, more lights on in the houses.

“It’s in our friend.” Danny moves past Po, opening the door, and going inside.

Martine watches him go, then turns to Po. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

Po looks from Martine to the door and back again. “We don’t know.” He stalks into the house after Danny, unsure if they should be trespassing like this. He’s in the living room by the time the smell hits him. It’s sickly sweet and pungent, sugary and meaty. The living room is empty, so he spins around heading into the dining room.

He passes Martine, stopped inside the door to the house. “What’s that smell?”

Po ignores her, mind focused on finding Danny. Past the dining room is the kitchen. The gray of the morning slashes through the gloom, aided by the light from the open refrigerator. Open containers of half-eaten food sprawl in a mass across the counter and island. Trails of peanut butter and chocolate syrup handprints lead to open packages of lunch meat. Dissolving potato chips dot a swamp of half melted ice cream. A hot dog pokes out of a jar of grape jelly.

Po gags as the sugary meat smell crests over him again, stronger. “Fuck. Clarissa did this?” Po eyes a moon pie with even more frosting spread on top. Bile rises in the back of his throat when he realizes the frosting is mayonnaise.

“The ghost did this.”

Po’s attention finally shifts to Danny, standing behind the food covered kitchen island, staring at the floor, face pinched in concentration. “How can you just stand there?” Po crosses the dining room to the kitchen doorway.

Danny’s head darts up, pinning Po in the doorway with his gaze. “Don’t come in here.” A wave of dread hits Po.

“What’s wrong?” Po trembles. It might be his imagination, but now that he knows something is wrong the stench of the room takes on a sinister tone. “Danny?” His feet move without his desire, taking him into the kitchen, around the island.

“Po, you don’t have to.” Danny angles in front of him, keeping him from stepping around the counter.

Po looks at his friend. He hears what he says, but doesn’t believe it. He believes that what Clarissa thought last night is true, they are a team. He can’t help but feel responsible for Clarissa coming here by herself. He steps around Danny.

Everything freezes for Po. His breathing. His heart. His thoughts. Time. The world holds its breath so this moment lasts forever.

Po stares at the woman on the floor. The power flowing through him sharpens his mind. Even though he can’t look away from the fork jutting from her eye socket or the unnatural angle of head, he sees every detail. Her fading auburn hair matts with blood and mustard and whipped cream. Her tank top and yoga pants stained with the same combination of condiments. Po’s mind pulls a name out of the ether. Cheryl McGregor. Images of her around town, at her job, in her home, flit through Po’s mind. Without the fork in her eye, face full of life, he recognizes her.

“Clarissa killed her.” The words hurt his gut like a punch, and a groan dribbles from his mouth.

“The ghost killed her.” Danny’s voice is firm, distant even though he’s right beside Po.

Martine’s scream shatters the moment, kickstarts time. Po and Danny are through the dining room and halfway up the stairs before it stops.

Martine stands in an upstairs bedroom shaded white and purple. Clothes are scattered everywhere; the closet door hangs off its hinges. Lying on the floor, halfway in the closet and half out is the body of a girl. Martine’s eyes lock on the congealing blood coming from multiple wounds that look like claw marks.

She gasps air. Po grabs her wrapping one arm around her stomach and clamping a hand over her mouth, feeling another scream rising in her. He picks her up, taking her into the hall. Putting her against the far wall, he moves in front of her so he’s all she sees. He hasn’t removed his hand from her mouth.

“Martine.” Her eyes dart around. Po reaches out gently with himself. “Calm down.” She exhales jaggedly, but her inhale is smooth and deep. “Don’t scream.” He takes his hand away.

“That’s Kasey McGregor.” Martine whispers.

Recognition dawns on Po. That’s why Cheryl McGregor is so familiar. Kasey is one of their school’s success stories. She was a band nerd who got a full ride to study music at college. She must have been home for the weekend.

“Your friend killed her.” Martine’s breathless whisper hits Po in the face.

“The ghost killed her. Our friend is possessed.” Danny stalks down the hall, heading for the back rooms. “You’re the worst lookout.” He disappears into a room.

“Why didn’t your friend stop it?” The strained whisper is full of panic. “I thought you had magic, or something.”

Po looks her in the eyes. Martine is full of fear, but he can feel how much she trusts him. He could tell her anything to reassure her. He wishes he had answers for her, any answer. “You don’t have to whisper.”

She nods.

They stare at each other.

“Po?” Danny’s voice fills the silence of the house.

Po turns to head down the hall. “Yeah?”

Martine grabs his hand, clenching it hard in hers. “Don’t leave me.”

Po nods, tugging to get her to follow him. They head down the hall together. Po looks into the room he saw Danny enter.

Mr. McGregor slumps on the floor, propped against the bed, half covered by a blanket. His chin against his chest, face down, Po can’t tell from where the blood that covers his chest comes. Something on the floor next to him catches Po’s eye, and when he focuses on it, his mind tells him it’s a tongue.

Small grunts erupt from Martine as she tries to scream and Po’s earlier command stops her.

“Martine, look away.”

Without letting go of his hand, she pivots, putting her back against his, resting the back of her head on his neck. Po can’t bring himself to look away. Martine’s question, ‘how could she let it do this,’ echoes in his mind.

“We’re supposed to have power.”

“What?” Martine jumps at the sound of his voice.

“Po.” Danny’s voice comes from the room across the hall.

Po waits for Martine to move, then turns and heads into another bedroom. Danny stands against a wall, staring at something on the other side of the bed. Po follows the gaze, eyes coming to rest on an arm tied to one of the corners. It’s at an odd angle, and Po figures it’s got to be dislocated if not outright broken. Following the length of the arm down, a head of white hair is barely visible over the bed. Po makes his way around the bed to get a better view.

“Ben.” This is Ben McGregor, son to Cheryl and Thomas and brother to Kacey. He’s in Po and Danny’s class. He crouches against the wall, naked, shivering, and covered in a mixture of blood and condiments. “Ben?”

“He won’t talk to me.” Danny sounds indignant. “When I tried to untie his arm, he groaned and kicked at me.”

“How long has he been there?” Po doesn’t take his eyes off Ben. He refuses to look away. This is his penance. He supported going to level two out of some revenge trip on his parents, and he’s the one that went to level three without Clarissa and Danny. This is all his fault.

He hears Danny tapping, impatient. “Shivering on the floor? A couple hours.”
Po steps closer and squats down, an easy arm’s reach from the boy. “Ben?” He reaches out.
Ben darts a glance at him through sweat matted hair. Seeing Po’s hand, a high-pitched noise rockets from him, and he bats Po’s hand away. Po leans back, letting Ben flail uselessly.

“See what I mean?”

Po ignores Danny’s frustration, concentrating on himself. He finds the picture of himself from that first day. The idea of him that is his core. He’s a caretaker. Following the image to the center of him, he feels the power pulse, warm and comforting.

“He’s scared.” Po raises his hand in front of him, it glows a soft orange. The orange drifts from his hand, swirling around Ben turning a dark green. Po’s body stiffens; there’s so much fear. It coats every cell of Ben, it’s all he sees, all he remembers. Slowly, Po pulls the green light away from Ben.

“What are you doing?” Martine’s breathless voice comes from the doorway.

“Quiet. We need answers.” Danny’s voice is tight with anticipation.

Po is only aware of them as an aquarium fish is aware of humans. Ben’s fear has his attention. He pulls it towards him slowly; he knows if he pulls too fast he’ll take too much, and then it will swallow him whole. The green light nearly touching him, Po hesitates, making sure the vision of himself at his core is secure.

The green light jumps at his hand like a snake and coils around it.

Rustling and clanking drag Ben from sleep. It takes his half-asleep mind a couple minutes to register the rustling and clanking as coming from downstairs. He figures someone is getting a midnight snack. Probably his sister. At home, doing laundry, playing the poor college student card.

Ben rolls over, contemplating getting up to relieve himself, or seeing if he can fall back to sleep now that he’s aware of the pressure in his bladder. Sleep is winning out over bladder, when his mother’s scream jolts him awake.

Fear flips him onto his back. His senses hyper attuned now, he hears clearly what’s happening downstairs. There’s more rustling, a shuffling of feet, then a thud. More fear spikes through him.

He needs to do something.

Ben throws the covers off him, but when he tries to get up something shoves him down on the bed and holds him there. He tries to move, but he can’t. “Dad!”

His door slams shut.

“Dad! Kacey! Mom!” Ben struggles against the weight pressing down on him. His body trembles with the strain and the fear.

“Cheryl?” His father’s voice travels down the hall.

“Dad, help!” For a moment, Ben’s fear lessens. He knows his father will help.

“Ben? Where are yo-” A slamming door cuts him off. “Hey! What’s going on?!” His father’s voice is muffled, too muffled to be of help.

Ben struggles to move, but whatever holds him down has gotten heavier.

“What’s all the yelling?” Kacey’s sleep-coated voice stings Ben’s ears.

“Kacey! Kacey, run!” Ben manages to partially sit up, he reaches for the edge of his mattress so he can pull himself up. “Get help!”

“Who are you?”

There’s a howl.

“Ow! Stop! Don’t!”

There’s another thud and the splintering of wood. His sister screams.

“Kacey!” He’s flat against the bed again. The trembling of his body isn’t from struggling now.

Footsteps in the hall.

Ben stares at his door, his breath coming in shallow gasps. His body tenses when he hears a door open.

“What’s going…Who are you?”

Ben relaxes, relieved, when he hears his father’s voice. Tears leak from his eyes, happy whoever’s out there didn’t come to his room next. A moan dribbles from him as guilt for being happy settles over him.

“Where’s my wife? Cheryl? Where’s-” Ben hears movement, his father’s voice being muffled by something. “What are you doing? Who the hell do you think you are?”

“You’re no fun.”

The words burn in Ben’s ears, sear his brain. It’s the first thing whoever’s out there has said. The voice sounds female.

“Get out of my ho-” His father’s voice muffles again. His father screams.

The pressure in Ben’s bladder disappears as he pisses himself. “Dad?!” Ben tries to get up again. The weight on him won’t let him budge. He shakes himself back and forth, trying to move the bed. It doesn’t move. “Dad!”

There’s a quiet to the house. In that quiet, the door to his bedroom opens slowly. There’s a figure, wrapped in shadow.

Ben closes his eyes, turning his head away from the door.

“That’s no way to act.” He hears the person come into his room. It’s definitely female. “You’re the man of the house now.”

Ben shivers, anger mixing with his fear. He opens his eyes. “You killed them!” The figure walks to the closet, takes out two of Ben’s t-shirts, and turns to look at him. With the little light from outside, Ben sees her smile.

“I did.” She lets out a giggle, coming to the side of the bed.

Bits of food, condiments, and blood cover her clothes, her hands, her face. Ben gasps when he finally sees her face. “I know you. You go to my school. I know you!” Again, he tries to move, but he’s stuck firmly to the bed.

The figure’s smile broadens. She twirls one of the shirts into a vague rope. Grabbing Ben’s wrist, she lifts it easily, placing it against the headboard and tying it there. “Honey, you don’t know me at all.” She twirls the other shirt as she walks around to the other side of the bed.

“No. I do know you.” Ben shakes his head, trying to dislodge the memory. “You’re friends with the crazy kid and his friend.” Something inside him feels like he’s got the secret to surviving this. If he can just remember her name.

“I have no idea who you’re talking about.” She picks up his other arm just as easily.

“You’re Claire!”

She hums, putting his arm to the headboard.

“No! Wait!” Fear blocks his thoughts. He can’t think of anything but what’s happening right here and now. “You’re…You’re…Cla…Cla…Clarissa! You’re Clarissa! We have French together.”

Clarissa’s face twitches. She stops moving, eyes wide and distant.

“I came to you for help on a test! After school. It’s only supposed to be for math, but you helped me anyway. Remember?!” Ben watches her face. She still hasn’t moved. Tentatively, he pulls his arm from her hand, and pauses. When she doesn’t move, he reaches over, trying to free his other arm.

“Stop that now!” Fingernails dig into his shoulder, drawing blood. Too easily, Clarissa forces him down on the bed again. This time, when she takes his arm, she ties it firmly to the headboard. “Now, all snug, are we?”

The weight evaporates from Ben’s body. As soon as it’s gone, he resumes his struggles. “Help! Help me!” The headboard clacks against the wall.

“Shhh. Shhh, now.” Clarissa caresses his face, leaving a sticky trail of blood and food. “I don’t want you to tire yourself out.” She tiptoes her fingers across his chest. “Not for what I want you for.” She stands back, taking in all of him. “Not the best example of a man.” She leans down in his face. “But beggars can’t be choosers.” Her tongue flicks out and licks the tip of his nose. Standing up, she reaches for his hips. “Let’s get rid of these messed drawers.” Ben kicks and squirms, but Clarissa smiles and laughs at his efforts. Eventually, his underwear is off, leaving him completely naked. “Well, looks like I might have judged too soon.” Clarissa laughs. “My turn.” Slowly, Clarissa peels her shirt over her head.

Po pushes the memories away. Ben’s fear leaves an acidic taste in his mouth.

“What are you doing?” Danny stands behind him, hand on his shoulder. “We need to know where she went.”

Po eyes Danny. “She’s not here. Isn’t that enough?”

“We need to know if she said where she was going.” Danny squeezes his shoulder, pushing him closer to Ben. “Just skip ahead.”

Po sighs, closing his eyes.

Images of breasts, lips, teeth, fill Po’s mind. Fear, pleasure, guilt, more fear floods him. Time loses meaning for Ben. Every time he thinks it’s ended, Clarissa finds a new way to make him hard, usable. Eventually, she leaves him. Ben hears a car drive away.

Po shakes the green light from his hand; it snaps back to Ben before fading from sight. “Satisfied?” He looks over his shoulder at Danny.

“Rarely.” Danny scans the floor.

Po turns back to Ben, watching him shiver. He notices that a couple of his fingers on the hand still tied to the bed have turned blue. A sadness settles over Po.

“Why would she kill them?” Martine’s voice comes from closer than the door.

He turns to look at her, standing as he does, and sees her at the foot of the bed. “They were her jailors. It’s what prisoners do when they get free.”

There’s confusion and tears in Martine’s wide eyes when she looks at him. “They weren’t jailors, they were a family. They didn’t know.”

“Not from the ghost’s perspective.” Danny bends down and picks up Clarissa’s discarded, food and blood stained clothes.

“Aren’t those evidence?” Martine snaps at Danny.

Danny looks at her, his eyes hard and focused.

After a minute, Martine steps back to the door.

The clothes unravel, falling back towards the floor. “Yes, they are,” Danny doesn’t take his eyes off Martine. Before the loose thread even touches the floor, the strands drain of color, then break apart into dust, which scatters as the house’s heating starts. After the dust dissipates, Danny turn away from Martine, to look at Po. “We need to go.”

Po nods. Danny stalks from the room, pushing past Martine into the hall. Po follows, grabbing Martine’s hand as he passes, and pulling her down the hallway.

“Wait.” Martine pulls on Po.

“Every minute we waste here, the more time the ghost has to cause havoc.” Danny disappears down the stairs.

“Stop.” Martine pulls on Po again.

Po stops, turning to look at Martine. “Danny’s right. We need to go.”

“Help him.” Martine tries to pull Po back to Ben’s room, but he doesn’t budge.

“I can’t.” Po turns towards the stairs again.

Martine plants her feet, holding him in place. “What do you mean, you can’t?” Tears run down her face, slowly leak from the sides of her eyes. “Help him like you helped me!”

Po realizes this was how she was keeping herself together, the thought of him being able to help. “I can’t. I don’t know how.”

“But you can…If you just…” She stares over her shoulder at Ben’s room. “I know…You could…” A moan, low and mournful, slips from Martine. At the same time, the dam bursts behind her eyes, and tears stream down her face in hordes. “B-b-but…Y-y-you…M-m-magic.” Her face contorts into a landscape of fear and disbelief.

Po pulls her to him, smashing her against his chest, and wrapping his arms around her. When she shakes against him, he holds her tighter. She sobs into his chest.

“We are leaving!” Danny’s voice booms up the stairs.

Martine jumps when she hears it. Po slowly unwraps his arms, pushing her away gently. “Maybe you should go home.” Martine nods violently. Po turns, running down the stairs. “Danny?”

“Here.”

Po follows Danny’s voice into the kitchen. He makes sure not to look at Cheryl McGregor again. Danny stands in the doorway from the kitchen to the garage, the outer garage door already open. “We’re taking their car?”

Danny’s face scrunches in disbelief. “That’s what’s worrying you about this?” He gets into the driver’s seat of the SUV.

Po pulls on the passenger door, and joins him. “No. I just…Yes, okay? It feels like we’re disrespecting them or something.”

Danny starts the SUV. “I’m pretty sure the disrespect came from killing them.”

The SUV rocks as Martine jumps into the back seat. Her face is red and puffy, but she’s managed to calm herself down.

Danny peers into the rearview mirror at her. “I thought Po told you to go home.”

“I want to help.” She sits forward between the seats, eyes staring straight ahead. “You’re wasting time.”

Danny shrugs, pulling out of the driveway. “Po, you know what to do.”

Po sighs heavily, but nods and closes his eyes. Envisioning his shield, he opens it slightly, keeping Clarissa in mind. A sharp sting, a pinprick, jabs his mind. The scent of honeysuckle fills his nose. “At the end of the street, turn left.”

The SUV sways as Danny follows his instructions. Po keeps his eyes closed, keeps himself focused on the scent. The motion of the vehicle is the motion of the world for him.

“How does the ghost know how to drive?” Martine’s question is as sudden as it is absurd. No one laughs though.

“The ghost’s clothes looked like they were from the sixties.” Danny’s voice is flat, distracted.

“At the next light, turn right.” Po’s heart beats too hard in his chest. He concentrates on regular, even breathing.

“So, you’re finding your friend’s location, like what, a dowsing rod?” Martine’s breath is too close.

“Pull in to the next parking lot.” Po opens his eyes, seeing a familiar red and yellow sign glowing down at him.

“I think you might be off.” Martine looks around the parking lot, not seeing anyone but the people in the drive-thru.

Po’s mouth fills with the taste of syrup. Rolling down the window, he spits, trying to get rid of it. “She came here first.”

Danny looks around the parking lot, eyes narrowing. He turns the SUV around, heading out. “Where to next?”

Po closes his eyes. The world falls away, all that’s left is the scent of honeysuckle. “Right, out of here.”

Martine gags, as they start off again. “Why did she stop here? I saw the kitchen, you’d think she had enough to eat.”

“This is the first time she’s had a body in decades, her hunger, her cravings are decades old.” Danny swerves around morning traffic, picking up speed.

“Her cravings…” Martine gags again. “I think I’m going to be sick.” Martine’s thoughts flash through Po’s mind. She just figured out why Ben is alive.

“Left side of the road, pull in there!” Po lunges, eyes still closed, for the steering wheel. The SUV swerves violently, screeching to a stop.

The scent of roast beef seeps into the SUV through the vents. Spicy ketchup fills Po’s mouth. It’s not a bad taste, but the syrup lingers there too. He rolls down the window again, leaning out to inhale fresh air, trying not to throw up.

Danny has a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel. “Do we have to keep stopping?”

Po pulls himself back through the window. “Do you want to do this, and I’ll drive?”

Danny thinks about this for a moment, then shakes his head. “You already have the trail. Where to next?” He twists the wheel, heading for the road.

Po closes his eyes. His instinct wants him to reach out with himself as far as he can, and contact Clarissa directly. He feels himself stretching down the honeysuckle trail. Flinching, he hits his head on the closed window.

“Are you okay?” Martine touches his face. Her hand is warm against his cold skin.

Po gives her a weak smile. “Yeah.” Making sure he’s only following Clarissa’s trail, he closes his eyes. “Take a left.”

The SUV surges forward, the back bouncing on the road. Po feels Danny’s aura, which he’s extended around the SUV pulse. Somewhere, someone failed to notice the recklessness of his driving.

“This is why your parents won’t let you have a car of your own.”

“Shut up.” The SUV swerves around something, Danny pumps the brakes, then swerves and speed up. “I’m an excellent driver.”

Po straightens in the seat. “Turn in her…No, don’t. She’s not here. Keep going.”

“Can you do this faster?” The SUV swerves again.

“Do you. Want. To do this?” Po glares at his friend across the seat.

“Hey!” Martine sits forward, blocking Po’s view of Danny. “It’s okay.” Martine grabs Po’s hand, interlacing their fingers. “Take my hand. Listen to my voice. Close your eyes.” Po closes his eyes. “How are you tracking Clarissa?”

Po inhales slowly. “She’s honeysuckle.” In his mind, her trail is a strong perfume.

“Okay.” She squeezes his hand. “Can you follow it more?”

Po hears Danny scoff.

What if I get caught up in her?” Po realizes he’s clenching Martine’s hand too hard, he can’t get his fingers to relax.

“I’m here.” Martine puts Po’s hand on her chest, he feels her heart beat. “Use me as your anchor.”

Po focuses on Martine’s heartbeat. When it pounds, he pushes himself along Clarissa’s trail. One beat. Two beats. Three.

His stomach convulses with hunger pains. His mouth aches from chewing, waters with cravings. His body is sore with strain, alive with feeling.

A fourth beat.

Po’s eyes snap open. “Turn left at the next light.”

“You found her?” Danny wrenches the wheel to the side, the tires squeal as they take the corner.

“There!” Po points with his free hand. “The taco place. She’s there.” He turns to Martine, still holding his hand to her heart. “Thank you.”

She shrugs. “Glad I could help.”

The SUV bottoms out as they pull into the parking lot. Not bothering to find a spot, Danny slams on the brakes, jumping out. “Which car?”

Po joins him in front of the SUV. He gags. Without a word, he strides over to the car with the fogged windows rocking back and forth. He pulls open the back door. A man, pants around his ankles, writhes on top of Clarissa. Power courses through Po’s body, he grabs the man’s leg and pulls, throwing him from the car. Martine yelps, sidestepping the flailing man. Danny watches him where he lands.

“What the hell, man?!” The man gets to his feet struggling to raise his pants and look menacing. “What the fuck you think you’re doing?”

Danny steps in front of the man. “Get in your car and leave.” His voice carries the weight of a flood.

The color drains from the man’s face. His pupils dilate. His jaw goes slack. He turns, gets into one of the other cars there, and drives away.

A mix of food smells waft from inside the car, pancakes, meat, cheese. Peering inside, syrup drips off the steering wheel, half used spicy ketchup packets rest in the crack of the dashboard and the front window. Fast food napkins and wraps litter the seats and floor of the car.

The worst sight, for Po, is Clarissa herself. She lays on the backseat, shirt pulled up revealing her breasts, fresh bruises blooming there from the mauling the man gave them; her skirt is up around her waist, she’s not wearing any underwear. The most disturbing thing, is the smile on her face, more a sneer, half animal challenge.

“Couldn’t wait your turn?” She fans her knees at them. Then her hand comes up from the floor, bringing a taco out of the chaos of wrappers. The crunch as she takes a bite is the least appetizing thing Po has ever heard. “Replacing me already?” She points the taco at Martine, lettuce, cheese, and meat fall onto her stomach. “I know all about you.”

Martine looks like she might really vomit now. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“Wrong!” Clarissa throws the taco into the parking lot. “You’re after my man.”

“What?”

“Give us our friend back.” Po grabs Clarissa’s leg. The world goes white, falls away, pain spreads through his face, he tastes blood in his mouth. There’s a crash of breaking glass. When the world re-appears, Clarissa is crawling through the window behind her.

She springs to her feet on the other side of the car. Her eyes shine with a primal mischief, an animal playing with her food. “Not much of a friend if you abandon me.” She leans on the roof of the car. “Of course, Danny-boy’s never liked me, have you?”

“I don’t know you spook.” Danny takes a couple steps to the side, moving around the front of the car.

“Names!? That’s the best you got?” Clarissa bucks her hips, the back of the car slides forward, tires screeching on the pavement, keeping the car between them. Clarissa laughs, then stops abruptly, eyes narrowing at Po. “You wouldn’t even look at me. But her?!” She stabs a finger in Martine’s direction. “You’ll look at her?!” Clarissa pulls the back door off the car in a scream of tearing metal, and tosses it behind her into the parking lot. “Her?!”

“Don’t listen to her, Po.” Despite everything Danny’s voice is calm and even. “It’s not Clarissa. It’s whatever’s in Clarissa.” Danny cocks his head. “Do you even remember your name?”

Po feels something pelting against his shield, like rain against a window. Tentatively, he makes a crack in his light. Images dance in his head, from Danny, a plan.

Confusion flashes across Clarissa’s face before being replaced by anger again. “It doesn’t matter. I’m Clarissa now.” She rubs her hands up her body, stopping at her breasts, which she hasn’t bothered to cover up yet. “I like it here.”

“What about your husband?” Danny ignores Clarissa’s mocking. “What about your children? Your mother? Father? Sister? Brother?” Danny puts his hands on the hood of the car. “Do you remember having any of them? They’re waiting for you. You know that, right?”

Confusion and anger war on Clarissa’s face. “Shut up! I’m not…I don’t…There’s nothing! Coldness and nothing!”

Danny shakes his head. “That’s just what you’ve felt for the last few decades, but that’s not all there is. There was something before all this,” He tilts his head around to indicate the world. “I’m sure there’s something after it.”

“What?” Despair wipes away the confusion and anger on Clarissa’s face.

“Railroad Bill was a conjure man/He could change hisself to a bird/He could change hisself to a brook/A hill he could be what he wanted to be./One time old Bill changed hisself/ to a dog and led a pack on his trail.”

“What did you say?” Clarissa jolts her head in Po’s direction.

Danny shoves the car, tires shriek. Po jumps away from the back of the car, then lunges forward, reaching for Clarissa. Clarissa’s face contorts in anger and surprise, she backpedals. The front of the car, still pushed by Danny, slams into her back, stopping her. Po grabs her shoulders, fingers sinking into her flesh. He curls his fingers into the cold thing at the center of her being.

Despair spills into Po. Visions of families, too many families, pour into his head. The despair is laced with longing, for family, for love, for warmth. They fester inside him.

Po opens his mouth; he doesn’t hear himself scream, but he feels like he does. He pulls at the coldness, drawing it out of Clarissa. Clarissa winces in pain, her scream pierces the air. Her face blurs, then a gray, ethereal face appears over top of hers. The new face shifts from young to old, fear to hate. Gray ethereal arms push on Po’s chest. He won’t let go.

Danny jumps into the car, behind Clarissa. Po sees power swirl about him. When he reaches for Clarissa, his arms sink into her back up to the elbow. He pulls gray, ethereal legs out of Clarissa. The legs flail and kick, but Danny’s grim face never loses focus.

Po and Danny and Clarissa pull at the ghost.

Po’s perception shifts.

First the world drifts away. It’s just Danny, Clarissa, and him struggling in a black abyss. Then Danny disappears, in his place is a giant bat. Its claws sunk into the calves of the ghost, wings a thrum of flapping as it pulls. Clarissa no longer stands in front of him. Instead, a massive snake coils around the mid-section of the ghost squeezing. Po no longer holds the ghost’s shoulders with fingers, but claws sunk into metaphorical flesh. Brown, shaggy hair covers his arms. Opening his mouth to ask what’s happening, a roar flings saliva into the ghost’s face. Po knows he’s no longer himself, but a bear.

As one, the animals flap, squeeze, and wrench at the ghost.

The ghost’s mouth stretches wide, but instead of a scream, a hollow wind hits the bear in the face. For a moment, the bear feels sorry for the ghost, it almost stops pulling. Then the bear looks into the calculating eyes of the snake, and then the cold eyes of the bat, and it accepts this is the only option. The bear lets out another roar, joining it is the hiss of a snake and the screech of a bat.

The ghost’s eyes widen. The head, arms, and upper chest fall into the bear’s arms. The mid-section is held by the snake, as the legs tear off in the bat’s talon’s. There’s an agonizing moment where the parts quiver, try to move, then shift to smoke and drift away.

The world fades back in around them. The sun blares down on Po standing in the fast food joint’s parking lot. His body covered in sweat, lightheaded. Clarissa gasps, collapses on the pavement, and starts sobbing. Danny stares at Po from the car, breathing too fast. In the distance, there are sirens.

“You kids are in trouble,” an overweight man in a straining shirt and cheap tie yells at them from the safety of the doorway. “I’ve called the cops!” He jabs a finger at them, then pulls the door closed and locks it, staring at them.

“We should go.” Danny starts wiggling to the other side of the car.

Po watches him for a second, then looks down at Clarissa, she’s pulled her knees up to her chest, her sobbing rocking her entire body. He squats down. “Clarissa, we need to go.” He grabs her arm to help her up.

“Don’t touch me!” Clarissa flails her arm, flinging his hand away. “Don’t touch me!” She tears at her shirt, ripping chunks of fabric off and throwing them into the parking lot until the tattered remains fall away from her. “Don’t touch me.” She tears at the skirt until it too falls to the pavement and she’s huddled against the side of the car naked. “Don’t touch me.”

Po stares down at Clarissa, millennia of instinct telling him to comfort her, to hold her, to tell her everything will be alright. A millennial undercurrent of knowledge tells him there is nothing to be done, no comforting or holding, this is just something she must get through on her own. He looks to Danny, standing at the end of the car, watching the scene face slack and emotionless, for answers. Seeing that he has none, a glacier forms in Po’s chest.

“W-we…We need to go.” Po voice is helpless, tears run down his face.

Martine moves past Po, sitting down on the pavement next to Clarissa, leaning against the car.

“Don’t touch me!” Clarissa’s curled her head into her chest.

“I’m not going to touch you.” Martine rests her head against the car. Her voice is soft and low. “I’m just going to sit with you.” She brings her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around them. “I’m going to sit with you, and Po and Danny are going to stand with you. And we’re just going to be here for you. Whenever you’re ready to do whatever you want to do, we’ll do that too.”

Po stands there, the sun too hot on his skin. There’s pelting on his shield again. Opening his light to Danny, their thoughts mix. Their power swirls and loops, twining like a rope. They wrap their power around the scene.

Everything stops.

The only sound is Clarissa’s sobbing and their breathing.

Po concentrates on holding the power firm. Time ceases to mean anything. It feels like they’re there for a long time.

“I…I couldn’t stop myself.” Clarissa’s breath comes in sharp stutters.

Sadness appears in Martine’s eyes. “No one’s blaming you.”

“I’m blaming me!” Clarissa’s head darts up, electricity travels across her eyes, the pavement cracks underneath her.

Martine doesn’t flinch, doesn’t back down. “And you will for a long time.” Clarissa’s eyes widen, surprised at the bluntness of the statement. “But one day you’ll realize you did nothing wrong.”

Disgust covers Clarissa’s features. “I went looking for…I opened myself up to…If I hadn’t…” She curls her head down again, sobs returning to wrack her body.

Martine sits up, moving into a crossed leg position, leaning forward. “Clarissa, all you did was open yourself up to someone. It’s not your fault they were a monster.”

“I’m a monster too. That family…” Clarissa tries to curl into a tighter ball, but she can’t.

Martine leans in as much as she can without touching her. “You’re not a monster. You’re a victim.” She looks up at Po then back to Clarissa. “But we’re all here to help you. Me and Po and Danny.”

Clarissa hesitantly raises her head. “You want to help?” Martine nods firmly. “B-but I’ve only ever been mean to you.”

Somehow, Martine smiles and lets out a chuckle. “Two months ago, my biggest problem was geometry homework. A month ago, I was worried the boy I liked didn’t like me back. A week ago, I was going to be a teen mother.” Clarissa darts a look at Po. “And two days ago, I discovered magic is real.” She dramatically flips her hair off her shoulder. “I can take being yelled at by you.” She lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You weren’t really good at it.”

Clarissa lets out a laugh, then winces like it hurt, or like she feels she’s not allowed to be happy. She looks over her shoulder at Danny, then over to Po, then back to Martine. “You…You still want to help me?”

Martine nods. “I had to force these two to bring me along.”

Clarissa puts her head on her knees. Martine moves back to leaning against the car. Po wants to help, can’t figure out how, and waits for someone to tell him what to do. Danny stands impassive as always.

Eventually, Clarissa looks up, nodding at Martine. “I-” Her face trembles, she starts sobbing again. It’s another few minutes before she’s calmed herself down and caught her breath. “I want to go home.”

Martine nods. “Do you want some help up?” When Clarissa nods, Martine gets to her feet and holds out her hands, waiting for Clarissa to take them. On her feet again, Martine gives her a small smile. “Why don’t you take my coat?” She shrugs it off, putting it around Clarissa’s shoulders.

“Thank you.” Clarissa pulls the coat tight around her, and walks to the SUV. Martine walks close by her side.

Po watches, wishing there was more he could do. Danny taps him on the shoulder. He tilts his head towards the taco place. Po nods. Reaching out, he finds the minds of the employees there. He pinpoints the incident in their minds, erasing it. To them, it’s been a normal day at work. Next, Po finds the security cameras. He turns them off. Erases the hard drives. He lets the manager know the cameras have been broken for a week.

It takes a few seconds. It’s easy to do.

It scares Po how easy it is.

“All done.” He turns towards Danny, numb. The car is on fire. Danny stands, staring at the car as flames appear on the seats and the dashboard. The heat feels nice. “Ready?”

Danny nods. “Yeah.”

They stand there, watching the car burn in silence. The other one sensing the thoughts of the other, but neither saying anything. Danny knows Po wants to help. Po knows Danny doesn’t know what to do either. The flames of the car are simple, hungry in a natural way. For a moment, Po doesn’t feel as numb.

The world shudders. The power shudders inside them.

A sharp pain shoots through Po’s chest, his breath catches in his throat. “We need to go.”

Danny rubs at his own chest. “Okay.” They turn and head back to the SUV.

Martine and Clarissa are in the back seat. Somewhere, they found a blanket to wrap around Clarissa’s legs. The older girl leans against Martine’s shoulder. Martine has her arms around Clarissa, holding her. Clarissa’s stopped crying, but her face is slack, her eyes distant.

Danny drives again. As they pull onto the road, the boys release their grip on the power, and everything starts again. Po can’t believe how loud the world is, even through the closed windows and blow of the heater. It makes the silence in the SUV that much more oppressive.

The drive back is longer. Danny doesn’t go over the speed limit once. Every now and again, Clarissa moans, starting a stream of tears, and Martine tells her it’s alright, rocks her until the tears stop. No one talks beyond that. Po is left with his thoughts. Images of the McGregors bombard him. The look on the ghost’s face when they ripped it apart. Stray thoughts spin from the images: are the deaths of the McGregors on them; did they do the right thing destroying the ghost; could they help Ben; should they? Yes or no, the answers flip back and forth, and neither way puts Po’s mind at ease.

He jumps when he feels Danny take his hand. Grams always used to say, ‘you mourn the dead, but you take care of the living.’ An image of Clarissa pushes all the other images out of Po’s head. Danny squeezes his hand, then puts it back on the wheel.

Po turns, watching Clarissa and Martine. Neither one acknowledges his staring. He thinks about what to do once they have Clarissa home.

He’s still staring when they pull into Clarissa’s driveway, and he still hasn’t figure out what to do. Instead of thinking, he moves, jumping out of the SUV and opening the back door for Martine and Clarissa. He holds out his hand to help them out.

Martine shakes her head. “We’ve got it.”

Clarissa doesn’t look at him.

Po watches them walk into the house, then looks for Danny. He watches them go inside from the driver’s seat. The two boys stare at the door after it’s closed.

Po is the first to rouse himself. “What should we do?”

Danny stares at him, his face placid, calculations silently running behind his eyes. “I’m going to take care of the SUV.”

“Should I come?” Po reaches for the passenger door with a hand he’s unsure is his.

“Maybe you should stay. You look like you’re in shock.” Danny tilts his head, studying Po.

“You’re not?” Po reaches out towards his friend with himself. He wants to know he’s not alone. Instead of feeling Danny, he feels the rough brick of his shield.

“I’ll be in shock later.” Danny shifts into reverse. “Stay here in case Clarissa needs you.” The SUV backs up slowly.

Po shoves the passenger door shut, then watches Danny and the SUV pull onto the street and disappear into the distance. He turns his attention back to Clarissa’s house, wishing Danny had asked him to come along. Po feels Clarissa inside, cold, distant, numb. He wonders if he’s feeling the same because he’s taking it from her, or if it’s really him. Knowing that the only way to know for sure is to stop channeling the power doesn’t help; he doesn’t want to stop channeling power. It’s the only thing letting him feel safe.

“You can’t stand outside all day.” He could, he knows he could, but what kind of friend would that make him? “I was already not there for you once.” Wrapping his shield tightly around him and taking a few deep breaths, he goes inside.

Upstairs the shower runs, it’s the only sound in the house. Po looks around, memory overlaps reality, and he’s standing in the McGregor’s living room. Chills run through his body. He wonders if he should call the police about the house. Then he remembers they left the McGregors’ car a burning heap in a restaurant parking lot; the police will get to the house eventually.

Stopping at the stairs, Po looks up. He knows Clarissa and Martine are in the bathroom. He gets the feeling, that if he wanted to, he could send his senses in there to see how they’re doing. He doesn’t. He wanders into the kitchen. It strikes him as overly clean and organized after the last kitchen he was in. A wave of memory rises in him, and he pushes it down.

He decides to make breakfast. Turning on the stove, getting out pans and plates, searching the cupboards for pancake mix, it feels good to have a purpose, to keep his hands busy. He can’t remember if Clarissa likes pancakes or waffles, so he decides to make both. Things take longer than they should, he feels, all the checking multiple cupboards for what he wants takes its toll on his efficiency. Sweat runs down his back as he mixes the milk and eggs, he shrugs his coat off, letting it fall to the floor. With the first pancakes poured into the pan, Po looks for bacon and orange juice. The bacon he finds right away, but the only juice in the Denning fridge is grape juice. He grabs it anyways, almost dropping the carton when he sees it blur in his hands, becoming orange juice. Holding it, staring at it, he wonders where the grape juice went. Putting it back, he decides to make some tea. He remembers Clarissa mentioning a hot shower and tea being just what she needed a few days ago.

When he feels there are enough pancakes, he starts in on the waffles. He doesn’t know if anyone else will want food, so he fries up all the bacon. He puts out one cup for the tea, but that doesn’t look right, so he puts out four. There’s an uneven amount of bacon, so he shoves one in his mouth, barely tasting it, putting three pieces on the four plates.

“You’ve been busy.” Martine’s voice floats to him tiredly from the door.

Po turns, spatula in hand. “These are regular pancakes, and these are chocolate chip pancakes, and I’m just finishing up the waffles.” He turns back to the counter, taking the last waffle from the press.

Martine moves to the counter, eyeing the food like it might lunge at her, and leans against it. “Believe it or not, I’m not hungry.” A small smile flits across her face. “Besides, I already cooked you breakfast. Is there any orange juice?”

“No.” Po nudges her to the side so he can put the last waffles on a plate.

“Pff, lame.” She turns around, swiping up a coffee cup. “This tea?”

“Green tea with mint.” Po gives her his own small smile. “It’s all they had.”

Martine takes a gulp from her cup. “At least it’s hot.” Po sees she’s gripping the cup with white knuckles. “I like mint.” She takes another long drink, putting the empty cup on the counter. “Couldn’t you just magic up some different tea?”

Po swallows several times before he looks at her. “I think we’ve had enough magic for one day.”

“Is that why we have, like, forty pancakes from one box of mix?” She elbows the air in his direction.

Po drops the plate he’s holding, hands shaking. “I didn’t…I wasn’t…” The plate hits the floor, breaking into three large pieces. “How did I…”

Martine steps forward, grabbing his hands. “It’s okay.” She squeezes his hands. “It’s just pancakes.”

Po snatches his hands away from her, he feels dirty and doesn’t want to get any on her. “It’s not. It’s ghosts and murder and setting cars on fire and knowing what the person next to you is thinking and being able to delete memories and…and…”

“And giving a girl back her life.” Martine reaches for him again.

Po backs up, out of her reach. “By taking the potential of another.”

They stare at each other. Tears roll down Po’s face. Tears roll down Martine’s face. Neither one of them knows what to do.

“Things they don’t prepare you for in high school, huh?” Martine smiles, but it’s strained.

Po lets out a sigh that’s half a laugh. “I’m beginning to think there’s a lot they don’t prepare you for in high school.”

“You think?” Martine wipes at her face, taking a piece of bacon from a plate and shoving it in her mouth. Another small laugh escapes her. She bends down and picks up the plate, which is in one piece again. “Well, that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about.” She sets it on the counter.

“Christ.” Po deflates, feeling more defeated. He pulls the fridge open, yanks out the orange juice, and hands it to Martine.

“Hey, I thought…” She looks to the juice, then back at Po. “Magic juice?”

“Magic juice.” Po reaches down to pick up the bacon that was on the plate, but it’s not on the floor anymore.

Martine smacks her lips after chugging the juice straight from the carton. “Tastes like real orange juice. Maybe you should power down if you don’t want to-”

“How’s Clarissa?” Po stacks pancakes and waffles on a plate.

“She’s lying down in her room.” Martine watches him prepare a plate. “She wants to be left alone.”

Po hefts the plate from the counter. “I’m just going to take this up to her. She needs to keep her strength up.” He turns towards the door.

“Po.” Martine grabs his arm. “They may not prepare us for this in school, but I do know pancakes and waffles are not going to help.”

Po shrugs her hand off. “She needs to know she’s not alone. That I’m here for her.”

“She knows, I think. But she doesn’t want to see anyone right now.”

Po shoves the plate back onto the counter and pulls out his phone.

I made pancakes and waffles. I couldn’t remember which you liked more. I can bring some up…

“What are you doing?” Martine’s voice is soft, but accusatory.

Po doesn’t take his eyes off his phone. “I need to make sure she’s alright.”

Martine crosses her arms, leans against the counter, and waits with him. They wait for a long time. Po doesn’t look away from his phone. Martine snatches another piece of bacon from a plate.

“I’m going up there.” Po strides for the stairs.

“Po, don’t.” Martine jogs behind him.

Po’s phone buzzes.

I’m not hungry.

Po breathes a sigh of relief, knowing that Clarissa’s still up there.

Okay. I can come up and sit with you if you want.

Martine moves up next to him, staring at his phone. They don’t have to wait as long this time.

No. Can you just go?

Po stares at his phone in disbelief.

“Po, I’m sor-”

“She wants us to go.” The screen blurs, his tears dripping against the words.

“I know.” Martine puts her arm around his shoulders.

“I just want to help.” Po can’t stop looking at the words, ‘just go.’

Martine’s hand covers the screen, taking the phone from him. “Why don’t we put the food away?” She leads him back to the kitchen, putting him near the counter. Letting go of him, she sets about finding containers for the food. “So, where’s Danny?”

Po watches her pull open several cupboards before stepping forward to help. “There are plastic bags in the drawer over there. For the bacon.” He opens a bottom cupboard, taking out a plastic container for the pancakes and waffles. “Danny’s taking care of the SUV.”

Martine picks up bacon, tossing it into the freezer bag. “I guess something had to be done about it.”

Po slams the container down on the counter, a plastic thunderclap racing through the kitchen. “He should be here!”

Martine jumps back from the counter. “Whoa! Okay! Christ!” She watches Po, getting her breath back as she does. “You feel better?”

Po picks up a waffle and throws it into the container. “No.”

Martine moves back to the counter, picking up the last of the bacon. “If it’s any consolation, I don’t think he would have been much help. What with the scowl and emotionless doll eyes.”

It shouldn’t be funny, but it makes Po laugh anyway. “You may be right.”

Martine smiles too, and for a moment they forget where they are. “So, dishes go in the sink, or…”

“Just wrack them in the dishwasher. They probably won’t even notice.” Po looks around the kitchen for anything else to do as he puts the pancakes and bacon in the fridge.

Martine finishes putting the plates away and turns towards him. “I don’t think there’s any more busy work keeping us here.” She gives him a small, half smile.

Po continues to scan the kitchen. “I’m sure I could find some.”

“I’m sure you could too.” Martine picks his coat up off the floor and hands it to him. “Or, we could respect Clarissa’s wishes.”

Reluctantly, Po yanks on his coat. “My phone?”

Martine hands it to him. “You’re not going to do anything stupid?”

“Almost exclusively.”

Everything’s cleaned up. Leaving now. Pancakes and bacon in the fridge if you get hungry.

“She could be asleep.” Martine takes his arm, leading him to the door.

“I know.” They stand by the door overly long. Po not wanting to leave yet. Martine half worried about how he feels, and half worried he’ll try to dart upstairs. “She must be asleep.” Po takes one last glance up the stairs, then follows Martine out of the house.

They walk in silence to the end of the street. Po automatically turns to make his way home. Martine keeps step next to him. It occurs to Po that he doesn’t know where she lives.

“Are you headed home?” Po thought he’d leave the cold and numbness behind when he left Clarissa’s, that he was feeding off her, but it’s still with him.

“I think I’m going to hit the rest of my classes. I’ve got a future to think about now.” Her face contorts in disgust and confusion. “Not that I didn’t before. What with…the…you know…but…”

Po puts a hand on her shoulder to stops her. “I know what you mean.”

She smiles awkwardly. “Yeah, okay.”

“Thank you for today.” Po pulls her into a hug.

“Oh.” Martine wraps her arms around him. “It’s the least I could do.”

Po lets go, looking her in the eyes. “It’s not. It’s exactly the opposite of that.”

“Okay.” A thin smile spreads across her face. “I guess this makes me part of the group, huh?”

“You won’t get an argument from me.” Po bops her on the shoulder with his fist. “Happy to have ya.”

They look at each other. Po doesn’t know what else to say. He feels Martine trying to figure out something in her head, but he doesn’t pry. The wind picks up, stealing the puffs of their breath.

“Well, I should get going.” Martine points in the direction of school. “Off home?”

Po looks towards the school, then off into the distance. In his dream, there was a mountain over there. He wishes it was still there, it would give him a place to go, something to do. “Maybe for a bit. I could use a shower. A chance to power down.”

“Take it easy, okay?” She bops him on the arm, and heads for school.

Po watches her go. “And then there was one.” He wonders where Danny is, what he plans on doing with the SUV. Another fire maybe.

Walking home feels like crossing a desert. The world around him simultaneously too much and on mute. The feeling isn’t helped by all the power flowing through him. The earth wants him to inherit its story. The wind whips half forgotten memories around him. If he wanted, he could count the number of light particles in the air.

Seeing his house is a sigh of relief. Seeing his mother’s car in the driveway doesn’t faze him. When she stalks onto the walkway, he’s happy to see her.

“I can’t believe you, young man! All the school you’ve missed this week! Your father told me he talked to you. I guess it didn’t work! Just because you think you have something on me, you ca-”

“Railroad Bill was a conjure man/He could change hisself to a bird/He could change hisself to a brook/A hill he could be what he wanted to be./One time old Bill changed hisself/ to a dog and led a pack on his trail.” Power flushes from Po. Colors washout, his mother’s yelling tunes down. He stumbles forward.

“What? Was that poetry?”

Po collapses into his mother, causing her to stumble back. Before she can fall or move, Po encases her with his arms. Squeezing her into the tightest hug he can, sobs jolt him.

Mrs. Allen’s arms shoot around him, squeezing him back. “Po, are y-”

“Don’t.” Po squeezes harder. “Please, don’t say anything.”

Mrs. Allen doesn’t say anything. They wait, embracing, for Po to stop crying. Time loses meaning for Po, not like this morning in the parking lot, there time stopped. Time still passes now, he just doesn’t care.

Eventually, Po sobs himself out. The only thing left, a dribble of tears and snot and nausea. He lets go of his mother, standing up. “Thank you.”

Mrs. Allen holds onto his arms, searching his face. “Come on.” She gets in her car, and Po follows without question. On the drive, he cleans himself up the best he can with the tissues his mother keeps in the car. It’s ten minutes before they park in front of a coffee shop. “Sit down. I’ll grab us drinks.”

Po finds a table with a little more space around it next to the window. Normally, he’d people watch, but he’s had his fill of people for a while. He sits at the table waiting for his mother, and failing at not shivering. He may have dozed for a minute or two, because his eyes jump open when his mother sets a cup in front of him.

“Thanks.” He picks up the cup and takes a drink. The heat of the cup feels good on his hands. There’s barely a taste to the liquid, but he thinks it’s chai tea. He also thinks he might have burnt his tongue, but he’s not sure.

“Can I ask what’s going on with you?” Mrs. Allen blows across the top of her drink before taking a sip.

Po takes a long drink of his tea. His stomach fills with warmth, and gurgles at him. He glances in the direction of the pastries. “Would you believe growing pains?”

Mrs. Allen studies him, turning her cup around on the table. “Do I have a choice?”

Po glares across the table at her. “We all have a choice.”

Mrs. Allen narrows her eyes at her son. “Ah, we’re not talking about you anymore, are we?” Po takes another drink; his cup is almost empty. “Go ahead and ask.”

“Do you even love dad?” The warmth in his stomach disappears.

“Of course, I love your fath-”

“Then why cheat?”

“Because I like dick.” A few people look their way. Po is suddenly very aware they’re in a public place. His mother gulps whatever she’s drinking. “I was a wild girl in college until I met your father. When I met him, I felt he was a man I could spend the rest of my life with.” She taps her cup on the table a few times. “Looking back, meeting Roger probably saved me from myself.” She smiles at him. “I was faithful for years. The urge was always inside me though. Like a sting, or a splinter just under the skin.” She glances around the coffee shop; the people have gone back to ignoring them. “I was at a conference for work, and I met a man.” A smile flits across her face. “I thought, just this one time. This one time, and I won’t have to worry about it again.” Her eyes drift off, lost in memory. “When I came home to you and your father, everything was happy and fine. I thought I kicked it. But I met the man again at another conference. And then again at another. And then it wasn’t the same man. And then I found myself volunteering to go to conferences.”

Po remembers a couple years where it seemed all his mother did was go out of town. He remembers barely seeing her, but a lot of pizza and action movies with his dad.

“Eventually, I decided to make it a part of my life that I could control, so I could be at home too. Now, I have a couple male friends I meet-”

“I don’t need to know the details.” Po swallows the dregs in his cup as an excuse to look away from his mother.

“If it’s any consolation, I think your father knows.” His mother frowns, creases mushing her face, accentuating her age.

Po doesn’t say anything. He watches the anguish. Part of him wants her to feel this way forever. Another part of him… “He suspects, a lot.”

“How do you kno-”

Po puts his hand up, and she quiets. “What he’s really scared of, is you leaving him.”

“Why would I leave him?”

“I don’t know, mom. The fact that you sleep with other men.” As soon as it’s out of his mouth, Po darts looks around the coffee shop. Several people are pointedly not looking at them.

“Hey!” Mrs. Allen slaps the table. “I’m still your mother.”

Po nods. “I know. Sorry. Just…” He tries to find the right words. “Try to make him feel special. Like you’re happy with him.”

“I am happy with him.” Mrs. Allen stares at her cup.

Po watches her for a minute, then turns to the window. The outside is gray. It feels like a painting to him. The illusion isn’t diminished by the movement of cars and people. Somehow, the scene feels farther away because of the movement. The shivers start up again, or never stopped, he’s not sure.

Picking up his cup, he takes it up to the counter for a re-fill. He picks up a muffin too. His mother looks up from her cup when he comes back to the table. Po picks at the muffin, taking a couple pinches out of it, before sliding it to the center of the table. It feels like a peace offering, but it also feels like two strangers sharing a muffin.

Mrs. Allen leans forward, taking her own pinches out of the muffin. After a couple bits, she gets up and gets another of whatever she’s drinking. There’s a silence about the coffee house.

Po lazily looks around, he sees two, no three, faces he remembers from earlier. He wonders how many of them will remember the “incident at the coffee shop.” Or if Po and his mother will be forgotten as soon as they leave. Certainly no one will remember exactly who it was yelling about dick and cheating. He wonders if any of them think he and his mother are a couple. A grunt that’s supposed to be a laugh flops from Po’s mouth. His throat is still dry. He downs the rest of his tea.

With nothing but crumbs left of the muffin, his mother checks her watch. It’s her way of saying she’s ready to go. She doesn’t actually say anything though, just sits quietly in the seat across from him.

Po slouches in his chair. He imagines tiredness seeping from his pores like a garlic stink. He doesn’t want to move, but he’s over being at the coffee shop. Enough new people have come in that the volume has risen around them. Grabbing the muffin wrapper, he shoves it into his cup and stands.

His mother gets up too. They follow each other out and back to the car. Mrs. Allen holds the keys out to him, offering to let him drive. Po shakes his head. He can’t tell where he is in relation to the world; it’d be a bad idea for him to drive. On the drive back, Po remembers stopping at the second light, then he opens his eyes as his mother pulls into their driveway. Neither one of them moves to leave.

“Are we okay?” Mrs. Allen doesn’t look at her son, she stares out the window at their house.

Po turns in his seat to look at her. Despite the slight panic in her eyes, she looks larger than life to him; barely able to fit in the car, or her life. Red waves of heat pulse from her, passion surging through her, overflowing from her. Po doesn’t see her as his mother, but as a woman.

“We’re not bad.” Po takes a deep breath.

“It’s a place to start.” Mrs. Allen turns and smiles at him.

“It is.” Po find himself smiling back.

She nods. “You can’t keep missing school like this.”

Po barks a laugh. “I’ve finished the work in my classes for the next month.”

Mrs. Allen tries to hide her surprise, but Po catches the shock on her face before she’s stern again. “Showing up counts.”

“I know, right?”

She narrows her eyes at him. “We’re not talking about you, are we?”

Po’s face protests as his smile broadens. “I think we’re talking about everyone.”

Mrs. Allen smiles back at her son. It feels good to them both. “Let’s go inside. The neighbors are going to think we’re weirdos.”

Getting out of the car, Po looks around at the other houses. “You know, I don’t really like our neighbors.”

“Neither do I.” Mrs. Allen slams the door a little too hard. “But your father does, so…Appearances.” She plasters the biggest, fakest smile Po has ever seen, on her face. Then, she crosses her eyes and sticks out her tongue.

Inside, Po peels off his coat, feeling like it weighs fifty pounds.

Mrs. Allen shucks her suit jacket, throwing it on the back of the couch. “What’s the plan for the rest of the day?”

Po blinks several times, trying to alleviate the stinging in his eyes. “I need a shower. Maybe a nap. I guess I could do another month of work for school.”

Mrs. Allen nods. “Okay. I’m going to the office to see if I can get some work done. If you need anything.”

Po nods. They stand there, looking at each other. Starbursts of color appear around Mrs. Allen. Po identifies the conflicting emotions easily. He’s not sure what he’s supposed to say here. “If I need anything, I’ll call.”

Upstairs, in the bathroom, Po peels his clothes off his body. It’s a slow process, his body is sore. It gives the water time to heat up. Even with nothing but the hot water turned on, the shower falls on Po like hail. His skin turns red under the stream, but the cold doesn’t abate.

His eyes fling open as he nearly falls. Wiping water from his face, he turns off the shower and gets out. Barely dry, he shuffles back to his room and collapses on the bed. All he wants to do is sleep. He shifts from one side to the other, unable to get comfortable. His body too sore; his mind too on.

His phone buzzes in his pants on the floor. Somehow the vibrations find his head, rattling it. Sliding from his bed onto the floor, he pulls his pants to him.

It’s done.

Danny’s usual brusqueness brings a smile to Po’s face.

What did you do?

Po absently taps the phone screen, eyes half closed. The clacking of computer keys as his mother does work downstairs sends shivers up his spine making his teeth hurt. He nearly drops the phone when it vibrates again.

A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell. Speaking of which, how’s Clarissa?

The words on his phone cut through the fogginess surrounding his brain. Outrage surges through him, stopping his shaking mid-shiver. Po’s about to call his friend when he realizes what Danny’s doing, purposefully being vague so nothing can be connected to them. The rage leaves him slumping against his bed again. The shaking seeming twice as rough than before.

Kicked me out after you left. Wanted her alone time.

Po stares at the words, wondering if their vague enough. He tries not to focus on how callous they sound.

You struck out???

Po squirms, uncomfortable with the connotation of the question, awareness doesn’t make it any less awkward.

I’ll call her later to check on homework.

Po pulls the blanket off his bed and wraps it around his shoulders. Before he can back out, he quickly sends.

Can I come over?

He tries to think of the last time he was over at Danny’s house, before the day he found out magic is real. It’s been a couple months. Po sees himself in the den with Danny, homework forgotten, a song from a new band he wanted to share with Danny playing through Mr. Carver’s surround sound speakers. ‘This is the best part.’ He watches himself close his eyes to “experience” the music. While his eyes are closed, Danny pulls out the journal from his bag and flips through it. He watches himself sway a little to the music. ‘Isn’t this a great song?’ Danny’s nose deep in the journal, absently doodling what he’s reading onto a separate sheet of paper. ‘It’s great.’ Po watches his two-month-ago self stop swaying, slowly opening his eyes, a frown appearing on his face. ‘You’re not listening.’ Danny nods, then stops himself. ‘I’m totally listening.’ Two-month-ago Po picks up his pencil, taking up his math book to finish the last few problems. ‘No, it’s okay. I just thought you’d like the band.’ Two-month-ago Danny tries to grab the math book out of Po’s hands, but Po pulls it away just in time. ‘I do like the band.’ Danny reassures him. ‘You’re not listening.’ Po erases something from the notebook. Danny shrugs. ‘I wasn’t listening for a moment. I had a-’ ‘You had an epiphany. Fine, work on your journal.’

Po pulls away from the memory. He’d finished up the last few problems and came home. He can’t believe that was two months ago. He can’t believe Danny didn’t listen to the music. All Po wanted to do was share something with his friend; to do something normal kids their age do, and not talk about obscure illuminati symbols and their origins.

After the morning I had, I’d like some alone time too. Talk to you soon.

Po stares at his phone, at the words. He stares at them a long time. Nothing else pops up. “’Kay.” He lets his phone drop to the floor.

Standing up is a chore, but it lets him wrap the blanket around his entire body. Sitting at his desk presents the same problem as laying down did, he can’t get comfortable. Eventually, he gives up trying to be comfortable, and pulls his math book from his book bag. Opening it to where he left off the other day, he starts in on the problems. The numbers, the patterns, the equations, manage to push everything else out of his brain. His shaking stops bothering him, though he has to erase more than a few jagged numbers. Po’s happy to lose himself in the work.

Flipping the page, the glossary peers up at him. Seeing a page filled with words jars him out of his thoughts. Confusion pumps through him. Picking up his notebook, there are only a few empty pages left. He flips backwards in the book, checking the problems with the work in his notebook. They match. He flips back a few more pages, finds the problems neatly solved on the lines of the notebook.

“Po?” His mother’s voice startles him. He turns to look at her; she’s changed into more casual clothes. She’s halfway between him and the open door, a look of concern on her face. “Are you alright?” She looks behind her. Po feels her urge to call for his father.

He holds the notebook towards her. “I’ve finished the book.”

“You wha-” She takes a step forward, taking the notebook from him. She flips through it, staring at the pages of equations and answers. Her mouth opens several times, but closes again without saying anything. Finally, she hands the notebook back to him. “You must be hungry. Come downstairs, your father’s home.” She turns and walks away.

Standing up, the blanket to fall from around his shoulders, Po realizes he’s still naked. He pulls on some sweat pants and a hooded sweat shirt, and heads down stairs. His parents are already around the table.

“Hey, slugger. You cold?” Mr. Allen shoves a plate at Po as he sits down.

“Do you have a fever?” Mrs. Allen leans over and puts her hand to his head. “He’s a bit warm.” She looks to Mr. Allen. “I told you he’s not feeling well, and that’s why I picked him up from school early.”

Po stares at his mother. He wonders if lying is part of her DNA. He wonders how many lies they’re going to share. He tallies the number of lies he’s involved in now. He wonders if it will be different when he’s an adult with a family of his own. He hopes it will be.

“You didn’t have to come down if you’re sick.” His father puts his hand on his shoulder. “We could have brought something up to you.”

Po stares at his father, at his too trusting eyes. He wonders why his father puts up with his mother if he suspects what she’s been doing. He wonders if it’s just that his father loves his mother so much. He hopes one day to love someone so much he ignores their flaws, no matter how big.

He finds the strength to smile. “It’s okay. I wanted to come down.” He lifts some eggplant lasagna onto his plate, gagging when the smell hits him. “I’m just really ache-y and tired.” He ignores the cup of orange juice next to his plate, grabbing a piece of garlic buttered bread. “I wanted to see you. I’ll probably crash when I go back upstairs.” To emphasize his point, he takes a big bite of garlic bread. Immediately, his stomach lurches, and he wishes he didn’t have a mouth full of food. For a moment, he almost lets himself throw up, but instead he swallows. His stomach begins to calm down. He remembers he hasn’t eaten anything since the muffin.

Dinner is slow. Po measures each bite of lasagna and bread so as not to overwhelm his stomach. He also doesn’t say much. He listens. His parents talk about their day, they banter, his mother tells his father she loves him at least a dozen times. She mentions going somewhere for the weekend; to which his father references Po’s illness. His mother nods, but demands they make plans for next weekend. Po knows his mother is making an effort, and this warms him in a way the shower, blanket, and sweat clothes couldn’t.

When dinner is over, Po moves to help clean up, but his father orders him upstairs. He doesn’t argue. The food filled Po out, made him feel alive, but it made him aware of how tired he is. So, he trudges up the stairs to his room.

The first thing he does is check his phone. There are no messages from Danny or Clarissa. There is a message from Martine.

Just checking in to make sure you’re okay.

Po doesn’t remember giving her his number, but she had access to both Danny and Clarissa’s phones today. He makes sure to save her number before texting back.

Ache-y and tired, but I’ll live. I think. Going to try to get some sleep.

He debates texting Clarissa or Danny, but both were clear on how they feel right now. Looking at the bed, his shoulders immediately tense, and he rolls them several times to get them to relax. Instead of going to bed, he goes back to his desk. He pulls the books from his bag. He picks up the French book, flipping through it. It might as well be written in English for as hard as it is for Po to understand it. He takes out his French notebook, opening to a blank page.

Once again, he loses himself in his work. Not as deeply as before, the words connect to sentences which connect to plots which connect to stories, which keeps him connected to the world, if only on an abstract level. He’s just as surprised as before when he turns the page and sees the glossary. Flipping through the mostly full notebook, he only vaguely reviews the finished exercises.

Closing the notebook, he shakes his head. “It’s never going to be the same.” Tears swell in his eyes. Sobbing at his desk, the side effects of what’s happened to him form a list in his mind. First, math and language skills have been enhanced. Going through class on that first day, he’d been amazed when the numbers and words made complete sense to him, to all of them. Now, even with the power locked behind Danny’s post-hypnotic suggestions math and language mean little to Po. Not only that, he hears the television on downstairs, he feels his parents asleep on the couch together. Looking out his window, he catches the neighbors’ cat bounding around their backyard, even without their back porch lights to cut through the night. “What have we done to ourselves?” He wipes his tears away with shaking hands.

He snatches his phone from the corner of his desk.

How are you?

He’s not expecting an answer, but a minute later his phone buzzes.

Can’t sleep.

Po imagines Clarissa tossing around like he did when he laid down earlier.

Too sore?

He moves to his bed, hoping the mattress doesn’t feel like cinder blocks now. It’s just the opposite; the bed is too squishy, he feels like he’s being swallowed. When he moves to try a new position, his sweat shirt feels like sandpaper against his skin. He sits up and throws it to the floor.

Being asleep feels too much like being possessed. Plus, I keep seeing their faces.

The air catches in Po’s throat, he coughs violently. The McGregors’ faces snap to the forefront of his brain. He’s able to push them all away except for Ben’s. The fear etched into his being defining him now.

Danny would be upset with how specific we’re being.

Po stares at the words, decides it’s a horrible way to change the subject, and deletes them. “Maybe the subject shouldn’t be changed.”

Do you want some company? I can come over tomorrow some time. Or now if you want.

While he waits, he pictures Martine staring at him disapprovingly. He doesn’t care if he’s intruding, he’s her friend he’s allowed.

I don’t want to see anyone. I told my parents I don’t feel well. I just can’t.

Pain swells in Po’s chest. He knows Clarissa blames herself. He wishes he knew an argument that could convince her otherwise.

Clarissa, it’s not your-

The phone buzzing interrupts his typing.

I’m going to go.

Po looks at the words, knowing that there’s something broken in his friend that might never be fixed. A primal instinct thrums inside him. “Railroad Bill was a conjure man/He could-” He jumps out of bed, shaking himself, and takes a couple tight laps around his room. “What are you doing?” He shakes out his arms, then stares at Clarissa’s text.

‘Kay.

He waits for a reply, but after several minutes he turns off his phone. Turning off his lights, he crawls into bed. He’s not hopeful that he’ll be able to fall asleep.

Cold wind buffets Po’s face. Through the clouds, he catches glimpses of the world. From this height, all he can hear are air currents, all he can see are dots of light. He might as well be looking at the sky. The illusion only broken by the fact the dots aren’t random enough to make constellations.

He finds himself smiling, and remembering Peter Pan. It wasn’t his favorite movie as a kid, he never liked the recklessness Peter treated life with, but flying is flying. Reaching out, he trails his hand across a cloud.

Without warning, he descends. There’s quite a large building below him, his destination. He descends to the roof, then through the roof. He falls through floor after floor. Finally, his feet touch a floor and he stops.

He’s in a hospital.

The hallway blurs and swirls around him.

Ben McGregor sweats, straining against the restraints holding him to the bed.

Po knows he’s been sedated. He knows that he thrashes to fight off his dreams. He knows the boy’s dreams are his memories. He knows Ben McGregor’s memories of today will never stop repeating.

A green miasma swaddles Ben McGregor, exudes from every pore, hangs about him like a too big shadow. The cloud twists and shifts with his thrashing, but it doesn’t dissipate.

Po knows it will never dissipate.

Not considering the consequences, Po reaches out, plunging his hand into the fog.

Screams. Ben’s screams. His family’s screams. Being unable to move. A feeling of helplessness. The knowledge that his family is dying around him. Fear. Fear crawls inside him, wriggling, and jiggling, and tickling. A shadowy thing embraces him, but it’s not comforting. The thing takes from him. It takes from him, and when he’s given all he can it takes more. It pushes at him. It pulls at him. It’s warm and sharp. It hurts. It comes to the edge of breaking him. He wants it to break him.

Screams.

Po jolts awake in bed, screaming.

“Son? Are you okay?” His father’s voices comes through the door.

Po jumps out of bed, yanks the door open, and hugs his father. “Dad! You’re alright!” He pushes his father away, jogging down the hall. “Is mom okay?” He peers into his parents’ room. His mother sits up groggily in bed. He runs to her, dropping to his knees to wrap his arms around her.

“Po? Are you alright?” She hugs him back.

“I’m glad you’re okay.” Not letting go of her, he wipes tears from his face.

“Why wouldn’t I be okay?”

“Because of the ghos-” He tightens his grip around her. “I had a bad dream.”

“I’ll say.” His father’s voice comes from the bedroom door.

“I…I’m sorry.” Po lets go of his mother, sinking down on the back of his heels. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Nonsense.” Mrs. Allen brushes sweaty hair out of his eyes. “You can’t help what you dream.” She smiles at him in the dim light.

“I guess you can’t.” Po hangs his head, adding another lie to the list.

“You want a hot totty?” His father moves next to him.

“We are not giving our son warmed rum.” Mrs. Allen shakes out her hair. “For one thing, that’s disgusting. And two, no.”

“What are you talking about?” Mr. Allen offers Po his hand, and helps him to his feet. “My grandmother swore by them. And it’s warm apple cider and rum.” He looks his son in the eye, then touches his forehead, checking for fever.

“Your grandmother was an alcoholic, and we don’t even have apple cider.” Mrs. Allen takes Po’s hand and squeezes it.

“Don’t speak ill of the dead.” Mr. Allen puts his arm around Po’s shoulders. “And I can always put some cinnamon in the rum. Do you want some warm, cinnamon ru-”

“I’m fine.” Po pushes away from his father and pulls his hand away from his mother. “I’m…I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?” Mrs. Allen moves to stand up.

“Don’t get up.” Po motions her back down. “I’m sorry I woke you.” He ducks around his father, heading for the door. “I’m going to get a glass of water and go back to sleep.”

“Are you sure?” His father takes a step towards the door protectively.

Po holds up his hands. “Yes. I’m okay. I think.”

“If yo-”

“If I need help, I’ll come get you.” He grabs the door and pulls it shut behind him. “Promise.” Leaning against the door, trying to catch his breath, Po hears his parents murmuring. Their worry permeates the air around him.

Making his way downstairs, he pours a glass of water and downs it in one go. The McGregors’ kitchen appears in front of him. Mrs. McGregor’s lifeless eye staring up at him from the floor. “I’m sorry.” Po fills up his glass and heads for the living room, leaving the grisly scene behind him.

Flopping onto the couch, Po turns the television on, turning the volume down so he doesn’t bother his parents. He flips through the channels for a few minutes, eventually turning the T.V. off, nothing catching his interest. He sits in the silence, sipping water. His mind wanders, first to Clarissa then to Danny, then to Ben McGregor.

The same urge he felt last night talking to Clarissa twinges inside him. The hairs on the back of his arm stand on end. Raising his hand in front of him, sparks flick from his fingers, lighting the room briefly before fading. A tingling starts in his throat and travels to his lips.

“Railroad Bill was a conjure man-”

Po jumps to his feet, spilling water down the front of him. He shakes his head to clear it, it only partially helps. “Get a hold of yourself.” Glancing around the living room, the book his mother has been reading catches his eyes, resting on the coffee table. Angela’s Ashes stares at him from the spine.

Sitting down, he picks it up, opens it, and begins reading. He loses himself in words and images. It’s not something he would normally read, and because of that he has to concentrate on reading it, leaving little time for his mind to wander.

He doesn’t notice when the sun comes up, light flooding the house. He barely notices when his parents come downstairs and start breakfast. It’s only when he’s done with the book that the sounds of breakfast bring him into the kitchen.

“Enjoying my book?” His mother sips her coffee at the kitchen island.

“Not really my cup of tea, but it was well written.” He hands the book out to her.

“You’re finished?” She takes the book tentatively from her son. “It only took you two hours?”

Po comes up next to his father to see what he’s cooking. “Yeah. I guess.” He gags when the scent of frying sausage hits him. “Oh God.” The kitchen island hits him in the back, stopping him from backing up anymore.

“I guess you’re still sick.” Mr. Allen turns around, examining his son.

“I guess.” Po sees Mrs. Allen shoot him an annoyed look that says, ‘don’t overdo it.’ He wishes he was pretending. “I think I’m going to try to get some sleep.”

“Do you want me to do you up an egg white omelet? Or some soup?” His father keeps an eye on the sausage.

At the mention of more food, Po’s stomach somersaults. “No.” He burps bile into his mouth. “I’ll come down and get something if I get hungry.” He rushes from the kitchen, trying to get away from the food stink. Before heading up to his room, he stops in his parents’ office. There are a couple bookshelves, he grabs four books off them, and takes them to his room.

The rest of the day is taken up with words, images, and other people’s lives. It’s not an escape so much as a distraction. Halfway through the third book, he snatches up his phone, thumbing to a picture of him, Danny, and Clarissa. He stares at the picture for a while. Eventually, the images morph into a bat, a snake, and a bear. Thumbing away from the picture, he brings up the keypad. Staring at it doesn’t give him any ideas about what to say. Instead, he calls Danny.

When he gets voicemail for the fourth time, he gives up. He grabs the two books he’s finished and heads downstairs. His parents are laughing from the living room, but instead of going in to see them after putting the books away, he heads to the kitchen. His stomach has finally decided it’s hungry and not nauseous. Even the flashes of the McGregors’ kitchen aren’t enough to dissuade his appetite. The memories do inspire a thread of fear in him. He decides to go with comfort food, and makes himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

He feels much better after a couple bites. Taking the sandwich with him, he goes to check in with his parents. They’re sitting on the couch, the coffee table pulled up to them, playing Scrabble™. His mother giggles as his father puts down a word.

“Ah, ha. And that’s a triple word score.” His father smiles, picking up the pad and pencil to mark down his score.

“Nu-uh.” His mother pushes the pad away between giggles. “I’m challenging your word.”

His father looks shocked and hurt. “What do you mean? It’s a good word.”

“I’m pretty sure ‘flabbercar’ isn’t a real thing.” She controls her giggling, and starts picking up his letters.

“Hey, stop that.” His father tries to grab the letter out of her hand. “Where do you think they keep the flabbergast?” This sends his mother into another fit of giggles.

Po coughs as crumbs lodge in his throat, when he tries to laugh.

His parents look his way, sitting up and composing themselves.

“Feeling better?” His mother eyes him in the way mothers do.

Po nods. “Until you tried to kill me with word play.” He clears his throat.

“We’re playing Scrabble™.” His father takes the tiles from his mother’s hand, and reluctantly puts them back on his stand.

“Your father’s losing.” His mother smiles big.

“Only because I’m letting you.” His father studies his tiles, brow furrowed in concentration.

“You keep telling yourself that.” His mother pats his arm.

“I didn’t challenge your word!” His father flinches away from her hand.

“What word?!”

His father stabs a finger at the board. “Crunchiest.”

“What’s wrong with ‘crunchiest’?”

“You spelled it with a ‘k’!”

His mother snorts trying to contain her laughter. “Well, it’s too late to complain now.” She leans towards Po. “It was a triple letter and word score. I couldn’t resist.”

Po smiles. For a moment, he forgets everything that’s happened over the past week. Everything he’s seen and found out. For a moment, he feels safe.

“You know. You guys don’t have to cook for just the two of you.” They peer at him from the couch, suddenly feeling far away. “If you want, you can go out to eat. I’m sure I’ll be fine on my own for an hour or two.”

His father frowns. “I don’t know if we can leav-”

“I think that’s a great idea.” His mother nods at him.

“Really?” His father looks surprised. “He’s sick.”

“He’s seventeen, Roger. He can take care of himself for two hours, sick or not.” His mother puts on a pouty face. “Please.”

His father looks from his mother to Po. Po smiles and nods. He looks back to his wife. “Alright then. Where do you want to go?”

Po shoves the last bit of sandwich in his mouth, and turns back to the kitchen. He puts his plate in the sink and heads back to his room. He’s about to pick up his phone, but realizes no one he wants to talk to wants to talk to him. So, he goes back to reading.

As he’s finishing the fourth book, his mother knocks and opens the door. “Hey.”

“Hi.” Po puts the book down next to him.

“Are you doing a project for school?” His mother nods towards the books.

“No. I’m just trying to keep my mind busy.”

His mother studies him through narrowed eyes. “Is it working?”

“Well enough.” Po feels the strain between him and his mother, and he feels bad for it, but he likes the frankness in how they deal with each other now.

“Thank you for…” She looks down the hall, making sure his father isn’t there. “For the advice.” She looks down at the floor. “I forgot how fun your father is.”

“How could you forget that?” Mrs. Allen jumps as Mr. Allen comes up behind her. “I’m a barrel of monkeys.” He wraps his arms around her from behind and gives her a squeeze.

Mrs. Allen smiles, resting her head back on his shoulder. “You’re an acquired taste.”

“Like mustard?”

“Yes, like mustard.” Mrs. Allen pats his cheek. “You’re my mustard.” She turns his head so she can kiss him.

“Hey! I’m sick over here. I don’t need to see this.” Po pulls his pillow out from under him and covers his face, a twitch of rage springing up in him seeing his mother kiss his father.

“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” His father’s muffled voice makes it through the stuffing.

“Are you done kissing?”

“Yes.” His mother sounds disappointed.

“Then I’ll be fine.” Po moves the pillow away from his face.

His father studies him over his mother’s shoulder. “Seriously.”

Po sighs, smiling. “Seriously. I’m probably just going to take a shower and try to get some sleep.”

“If you’re sur-”

“He’s sure already.” Mrs. Allen turns and gently pushes him out of the doorway and down the hall. “It’s been a while since you took me out to eat. If you play your cards right, you may get lucky.”

Po cringes slightly.

“Does that mean we’re getting pizza?”

There’s a muffled thump, and then his parents laugh down the stairs.

Po hears the car leave. He stays in bed for some time, looking up at the ceiling, and thinking. His thoughts aren’t new; they circle each other on a carousel of guilt and despair. First Clarissa, then his parents, then Ben McGregor. Their faces merge and melt together. Po feels dizzy. He doesn’t know when he falls asleep.

He’s flying above the clouds again. It’s not as fun this time. The wind buffeting his face is a cold slap. The clouds look menacing; he doesn’t reach out to them. The city lights look too dim and too few.

When he descends this time, the swoop feeling in his stomach isn’t a fun rollercoaster swoop, but the swoop of the world pulled from under his feet. He descends to a road, towards a car. A car he recognizes. He sinks into the roof, and he’s sitting in the back seat.

His parents listen to music low, talking about dinner, their week. They smile and laugh. Po doesn’t pay attention to what they say. He focuses on the emotions shining around them. For the most part, his father is happy, an orange glow, but fear sprouts and weaves through the happiness. His father’s fear is a nasty yellow color that reminds Po of pus. His mother, on the other hand, is happy a brilliant scarlet. It radiates out from her center, from her-

Po throws up his hands, pushing at the air. He’s shoved out the back of the car, slowly drifting back up towards the clouds. Thinking of his mother infuriates him. How oblivious to his father’s pain she is. Her total lack of guilt about what she’s done.

‘It’s impossible to deny your own nature.’ Gram’s voice echoes among the clouds.

Po always thought of the saying as a positive thing, but he doesn’t see the upside in this case. The wind whips, the clouds shift, one turning into the rough shape of a family, the other of a woman and a man dancing.

‘Only by accepting one’s nature can one be truly whole.’ Gram’s voice shudders the sky like thunder. The clouds shift again, the dancing woman taking up the space of the mom in the family.

“By not having guilt about what she’s done, my mother’s been a better wife and mother?” The wind blows the clouds in Po’s face. “I’m not sure I like the moral of this story.”

The clouds swirl.

Po shakes his head. “No. I don’t think so.” He concentrates on being somewhere else.

Po opens his eyes, he’s back staring at the ceiling. Pushing himself into a sitting position, he reaches for his phone. It’s early, the sun hasn’t yet risen, but Po doesn’t feel like going back to sleep. Instead, he moves to the floor, taking a crossed-leg sitting position, and turning some nature sounds on his phone. He meditates for as long as he can stand it, a surprisingly long time.

Still too early to be moving around the house, he pulls a textbook out of his book bag. It’s his science book. He’s not excited about it, but he reads it. It takes him about an hour and half to get through the whole thing. Equations and facts seared into his brain. Honestly, he’s not sure he’s ever going to use them.

Light finally coming through the curtains, Po grabs the books from his parents’ office and takes them back there. He grabs four more books off the shelves. The plan, as he sees it, is to keep his mind occupied all day. Tossing the new books in his room, he takes a quick shower. On the way back to his room, his parents come out their bedroom. They greet him, and he waves. When they ask him about breakfast, he tells them he’s not hungry, and heads into his room. Po loses himself in the books, and when he’s done with them, he puts them back and grabs more. If asked, he could recite the books from cover to cover, but he doesn’t have much interest in the contents of the books, only that they keep away the contents of his mind.

Dinner comes, his parents don’t let him bow out of the meal, and it’s quiet, but meaningful. There a few jokes, some jabs, by his parents to him about his isolation. He assures them he’s just trying not to get them sick. His father brings up a couple of the books he’s read, and they have a lively debate about the meaning of some of the passages.

Then dinner is over, Po does the dishes to keep himself busy. His parents offer to let him pick a movie for them to watch, but he declines, heading back to his room and the books he has there. He reads until he feels tired, then reluctantly goes to sleep.

His dreams are filled with sky and clouds, which lead him to Ben McGregor’s bedside. Po wants to help, but is unsure how; he recites the books he’s read until he wakes up.

Po watches the sun rise, his body tingling as the light touches it. It doesn’t feel like Monday. He remembers how each day had its own feeling. Monday always felt like a fresh start. It doesn’t feel like anything today. Po wonders if it’s his new perception on things that’s leeched the feeling from the day, or a sign he’s maturing. The sun doesn’t provide answers, it burns and will continue to until it doesn’t anymore.

“I could learn from you.” Po gets dressed for school.

Downstairs, his parents are already up, Mr. Allen drinking his coffee and reviewing the news on his tablet, Mrs. Allen going over the crossword puzzle in the paper. “The prodigal son returns.” His father raises his mug towards Po.

“Where did I go?”

“Ignore your father, dear. He’s just being dramatic.” Mrs. Allen kisses the air in his direction.

“Okay.” Po grabs a banana from the fruit basket on the counter. “Not having breakfast?”

“Not after last night’s dinner.”

“I’m waiting for that nice girl to show up again.” Mr. Allen cringes when he sees the look Mrs. Allen gives him. “Is she not coming today?”

Po almost laughs at the disappointed look on his father’s face. “I think that was a one time thing.” Po bites down on half of the banana. “But I’ll let her know she’s welcome back.”

“You know,” Mrs. Allen pointedly slurps her coffee. “I always liked Clarissa, such a smart girl.”

Mr. Allen reaches over and flicks Mrs. Allen’s paper. “Hush.” He turns to Po. “As long as you’re happy, son. Just make sure to be safe.”

“What?” Po chokes swallowing the banana, as he realizes what his parents are talking about. “I’m not…” He swallows several times to get the banana down. “We’re not a couple. I really did help her out with a problem.”

“Mm-hm.” His mother slurps her coffee again.

“We’re not prying, son.” Mr. Allen puts his hand on Po’s shoulder and squeezes.

Po shoves the rest of the banana into his mouth. “I’m going to go.” He tosses the peel in the garbage and rushes for the front door.

“I thought you were sick.” His father calls after him.

“I’m feeling much better.” Po staggers outside, closing the door behind him. He lets out a long sigh. He can’t believe his parents think he and Martine are a couple. Looking back at the other day, he can understand why they might think that.

Shrugging his backpack on, he makes his way to the corner to wait for Clarissa. He spends the time waiting for her trying to think of something to say. ‘Hi’ doesn’t seem like enough, and ‘good morning’ seems inappropriate. “What do you say to a friend after you exorcise them and help them cover up a murder?”

“Hey, you.” Martine’s small voice startles Po.

Po turns towards her. “Hi. Are you…Did you come from Clarissa’s house?”

Martine immediately looks guilty. “Yeah. She…” Martine looks back over her shoulder, before looking at Po. “She texted me this morning, asked if I could take her work to school.”

Po takes a couple steps down the sidewalk, looking past Martine. “Is she not coming to school today?”

Martine puts her hand on Po’s chest. “No. She’s not.”

“Oh.” Po looks down at the concrete. “Should she be alone?” He instinctively tries to move forward, but Martine’s hand stops him.

“I don’t know, but she wants to be.” Martine looks at him with sad eyes. “Let’s just give her a few days.”

“I could have gotten her work and taken it in.” Po half glares at Martine.

“I know.” Martine gives him a small smile. “Let’s go, huh?” She steps around him, heading to school.

Po takes a quick look in the direction of Clarissa’s house, then turns and follows her. They walk in silence until they get to the next corner, then they stop and wait for Danny.

“I forgot to ask, where do you live?” Po feels like it’s out of her way to go to Clarissa’s house before school.

“Over on Oakknoll.” Martine almost sounds embarrassed to admit it.

“Oh.” Po looks away from her for a moment. “That’s quite the walk before school.”

“I had my mom drive me to Clarissa’s before she went to work.” Martine shuffles her feet.

Po doesn’t need to feel her embarrassment about where she lives, he sees it on her face. “I’m pretty sure my parents think we’re sleeping together.” Her laugh is louder than he expected, and goes on longer than he thought it would. “You can stop laughing anytime.”

“S-s-sorry.” She sets off on another round of giggles.

Po’s starting to feel embarrassed himself. “It’s not that absurd an idea.”

Martine looks at him, the biggest smile on her face he’s ever seen. “Po, other than the secrets we’re keeping, what do we have in common?”

Po can’t stop his brow furrowing. “Opposites attract.”

Martine lets out another blast of laughter. “Not that much.” She gets herself under control. “You’re a great guy, but I’m not…I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know I wasn’t ready until it was too late.” She turns her face up to the sky, taking a deep breath. “I saw…I felt everything you did in that art room.”

“You did?” Po hadn’t even thought she might have experienced everything too.

She looks him in the eye, her gaze watery, but her eyes steel. “I feel like I’ve aged. And then everything with Clarissa.” Tears leak from her eyes, but her eyes don’t waver. “The world is larger than me, larger than I thought. And I don’t care. I just want to find my own little corner and make it as safe a place as I can.” She takes a step forward, having to look up at Po to keep staring at his eyes. “You’re not part of that future. You’re too big for something like that.”

Po feels the impact of her words deep in his gut, in the dark places of his mind. Martine’s eyes fill with hurricanes, of forest fires, explosions. He’s a force of nature to her. Him, Clarissa, and Danny are things to safeguard against. Po pants for breath, a cold sweat seeps from his skin.

“I don’t think Danny’s coming.” Martine backs up, wiping her face, and peering down the street.

Po shakes himself, taking several deep breaths to calm himself. He glances down the sidewalk. It’s starkly Danny-less. “Shit.” He rubs his head, pressure building there.

“You going to text him?” Martine sounds oddly normal now.

Po glares down at her, then down the street. Part of him hopes Danny can feel the glare. “No.”

“Off we go then.” Martine turns and starts walking. After a few steps, she turns. “Coming?”

“Are you sure you want to walk with me?” Po hears shrieking winds and tearing metal in the back of his mind.

Martine smiles, walking back to him. “You’re still my friend.” She grabs his coat sleeve, tugging him into step with her. “It’s not my fault you’re you.”

Po falls into step with her. He listens to her talk about classes, how things look different to her. The words, ‘you’re too big for something like that’, tumble through his mind. He wonders if she’s right, if he’ll never have a simple life.

Once they’re at school, he tries to push the words away. Martine gives him Clarissa’s work, then goes off to her classes. Po goes through the motions in class, but his mind keeps wandering. Martine’s words coming back again and again.

Martine’s there after every one of his classes. She finds him in the hall, and walks with him as far as she can. Po notices some sidelong glances in their direction, some at him, some at Martine. Martine doesn’t seem to notice. Except at lunch, Po didn’t know they had the same lunch, when she mentions going somewhere besides the cafeteria to eat. At the end of the day, she walks part of the way to his house, before her mother pulls up and tells her to get in the car. At home, Po reads until dinner, then again after, until he falls asleep.

It’s a pattern that repeats all week. Martine gets Clarissa’s work and meets Po on the corner. Then they walk to school, and Martine meets him between classes, they eat lunch together, then they walk home. Po gets a lot of reading done. The pattern is comforting; it makes Po feel normal again. His concern for Clarissa doesn’t diminish, but she texts him a few times, asking about class—the big thing being the English presentation Po gives by himself—and how he’s doing. Po keeps the texts casual, not wanting to scare her off again.

His dreams are the same every night. They start with him flying, then arriving at Ben McGregor’s bedside. At some point in the week, they move him out of the hospital, but Po still finds him. Each night, Po recites one of the books he’s read to Ben. While he talks, he reaches into the green fog of fear surrounding the boy, kneading, pulling, and shaping it. When he’s done, he takes what he’s fashioned with him, leaving Ben with a little less fear. The first night, Po didn’t know what he was making until he finished and found himself standing on the surface of the ocean. Only then did he recognize the cuttlefish in his hands. Dropping it into the water, it springs to life and swims away. The next night, his hands work faster, shaping several dozen things, then a large egg to contain them. Standing among the clouds at the end of the night, he breaks the egg open and a flock of starlings flutter away from him. On the fourth night, Ben stops thrashing in his sleep.

Po floats in the sky. Part of him wonders what animal he’ll make tonight. Mostly, he enjoys the feeling of weightlessness. Up here feels like a different world.

After what feels like an eternity, not nearly long enough for him, his thoughts focus on Ben McGregor. Slowly, he descends. The clouds are dark and foreboding tonight.

“A storm must be coming.” Saying it brings realization.

Panic rises in him, and he tries to veer away from the clouds. They’ve crowded around him, boxed him in, there’s nowhere to go. The sky flashes, blinding him, the clouds rumble, hurting his ears. They sound like they’re blaming him.

The hairs on the back of his neck raise, and he spins to the side. The sky flashes again, a bolt of lightning passing through the air where he just was. The thunder shakes him, disrupts the beating of his heart. He wraps his arms around his head to muffle the noise.

He falls.

No longer weightless, gravity strangles him, pulling him towards the ground.

His hairs raise again. He knows there’s nothing he can do.

The sky flashes.

Something, multiple somethings, slam into Po’s side, driving him away from the lightning. His fall slows, then stops.

Opening his eyes, Po sees a dozen burning bird corpses falling to the ground. Around him, dozens of starlings, his starlings, latch onto his clothes and push against his back to keep him aloft.

Before he can thank them, he sees something at the center of the storm that draws his attention. Sensing his need, the starlings move him toward the storm.

The black clouds swirl, forming a vague face. It glares at Po. This time the thunder that rocks him is a single word. “MINE!”

Flash.

Po cringes, waiting for the hit. Instead, he hears the starlings scream. Again, charred bird corpses fall around him. The remaining starlings angle away from the clouds.

“No. Please!” Po wills them to take him into the storm, and they switch direction, taking him up.

“MINE!” The thunder rocks him, half a dozen birds lose their grip and tumble away, stunned by the noise.

Flash.

Before the birds can recover, they’re struck by lightning.

Po feels himself sinking, there aren’t enough birds to keep him up. The starlings weave through the sky as they descend, trying to keep him safe.

Flash.

The birds pull him to the right.

Flash.

To the left.

Flash.

To the right ag-

Flash.

The last of the starlings let go, shielding him one final time.

Po falls with their burning bodies. He waits for the impact of the ground. The entire back of him screams when he hits. He expects that to be the end, but he sinks. Water enters his nose, stinging him, panic forces his eyes open. The storm looms above him, the face glowers at him.

A wariness settles over him as the water envelopes him. The thought, ‘why do I have to be the one to fix everything’, bubbles up in him like the last of the air leaving his lungs. Po accepts the fatigue, doesn’t fight the water’s pull. He can’t remember where, but he’s heard drowning is a peaceful way to die.

The rumble of thunder barely reaches him, but what does sounds like laughter.

Po doesn’t get the joke.

His chest hurts. His heart staccatos. There’s a pressure in him that’s getting harder and harder to deny.

Something nestles against his back. Po stops sinking. He rises.

Po tries to wiggle away, he doesn’t want to go back up, but his strength is gone.

He breaks the surface, coughing and sputtering. He’s dizzy. The air feels too thin.

The storm roars down at him.

He tries to sink again, but whatever’s behind him keeps him up. Po bobs in the water; he kicks his legs to steady himself. Now he’s swimming, holding himself up.

A cuttlefish, his cuttlefish, swims around in front of him. He recognizes its eyes. It has Ben McGregor’s eyes. There’s a pleading look in them. It says, ‘you have to help.’

“Why me?” Po’s still out of breath.

The cuttlefish peers at him, into his soul. ‘You’re the only one willing.’

“No, I’m not. I want to drown.”

The cuttlefish seems to sway in a head shake motion. ‘You’re swimming.’

Anger fills Po. “You pushed me up!”

‘I’m not pushing you anymore.’ The cuttlefish sinks out of view.

Po watches the water rock back and forth in the storm, letting it take him where it will. He doesn’t stop swimming, doesn’t let himself sink again. Now that the moment is gone, it seems foolish that he wanted to let everything go.

The storm rages above him. Lighting tattoos the sky with light. Thunder bellows down at him.

Po looks up into the hard rain. “Can’t get me here, can you?”

Lightning slams into the water next to him, but the water diffuse it, only a tickle reaching him. Thunder flattens the water around him like a depth charge, but Po only sinks a few inches.

He sees the figure in the storm that he saw before. “You have something I want.”

Clouds whip around the figure, obscuring him from view. “MINE!” More lightning crashes into the water around him.

Po shivers. “You missed.” He exerts his need on the water. “Let me help you.” A wave rises behind him, picking him up.

Lightning strikes, thunder rocks, the wave continues to rise. The storm roils in anger. The clouds slip from the figure. Po stares at Danny, swathed in the storm, crackling with lightning.

“Danny!” Po lunges for his friend.

Lighting bursts his side.

Po sits up in bed. His side aches, a bruise blossoming there. Jumping out of bed, he grabs clothes and throws them on, then he snatches his phone, dialing Clarissa. She doesn’t pick up the first time, or the second, or the third.

Clarissa, Danny’s in trouble.

Rushing downstairs, he grabs his coat and heads out the door, jogging to the corner.

Danny can take care of himself.

Po’s heart skips a beat, feels slower. He thought they were better friends than that.

Not this time. He needs us.

He glances in the direction of Danny’s house, then in the direction of Clarissa’s. “I don’t…I don’t have time for this.” His phone buzzes, and he stares at Clarissa’s response for longer than he should.

No.

Po squeezes the phone so hard his fingers hurt. When the plastic creaks, he almost drops it.

Clarissa, please. I need your help.

He stares at the screen, waiting for Clarissa to tell him she’ll be right there. He watches down the street, hoping to see her there. She’s not there, only a few charred corpses of birds lying on the sidewalk.

Po shuts his eyes, trying to center himself.

He sprints down the sidewalk. Standing in front of the Carver house, Po can’t figure out if the black clouds twisting and churning above it are real or not. “Railroad Bill was a conjure man/He could change hisself to a bird.” Power runs through him, a spreading warmth, comforting.

The storm looks ten times as menacing as before. Po instinctively steps back, there’s something dangerous in there. He pushes down his instincts; he’s more than them. He needs to know if Danny is alright. His need drives him forward.

The door is unlocked, and Po steps inside tentatively. He feels the presence of power here. It’s not Danny’s power.

“I’m going to assume you’re a friend of the family to just walk into the house like this.” The voice is measured, old but vital. “Come here then.” Po gets the feeling the owner of the voice is used to giving orders.

Looking around for Danny, Po makes his way into the den, standing behind the sofa. A man sits in one of the chairs. He’s dressed in a business casual way, a way that says, ‘I’m better than you, but I know how to get things done’. He’s somewhere in his thirties, and fit. There’s something about him that’s familiar.

Po’s instincts scream at him. This man is the danger he sensed outside.

“Where are the Carvers?” Po flits his eyes around the den, into the dining room, trying to look for Danny and his family, but his eyes keep coming back to the man. He doesn’t want to keep the man out of sight for too long.

“Hm, straight to the point. Are you rude or just no nonsense?” The man takes a drink from a cup Po hadn’t noticed until just then. “It’s so hard to tell with the youth today.” When he sets the cup down it vanishes.

Po sees the magic the man uses, black swirls devouring the cup. “Why can’t it be both?” He pushes out with himself, trying to feel Danny.

“Yes. There it is. That beautiful power he shared with you.” The man stands. Po fights with every ounce of courage to not back away. “You must be Mr. Po Allen. You take up a lot of Danny’s thoughts.” The man chuckles. “The ones the journal hasn’t gobbled up.”

Po hasn’t felt Danny yet, he needs more time. “Okay. And you are?” Po pushes out again, a heat shimmer ripples from him.

“It won’t do any good.” The man absently checks his watch. “I’ve warded Danny.”

“So, he’s safe.” Po’s insides jump. Part of him wants to run through the house until he sees Danny. The other part wants to vault the sofa and tear this man’s throat out. He tries to concentrate on the words.

“Of course, he’s safe.” The man smiles at him, holding his gaze for minute. “Daniel, would you mind coming in here?”

“Yes?” Danny moves into the doorway between the den and dining rooms.

“See? He’s fine.” The man’s smile broadens, it’s a familiar smile.

“And his parents?” Po glances at Danny. There’s something wrong with him, his eyes are vacant.

“I let them go to work this morning. Why would I hurt them? I’m-”

“You’re family.” Po finishes for him, noting the surprise on his face. He can’t help his own small smile at the man.

The man’s eyes narrow, studying Po, possibly seeing him for the first time. “You’re clever.” Another smile, what Po now re-names the Carver smile, spreads across his face. “I can see why my grandson chooses to spend time with you.”

Po hopes his surprise doesn’t show. “We used to pretend to be you.” He pushes out, tries to connect with Danny. Electricity snakes along his power, causing his heart and lungs to seize. “We’d read your letters from the war and re-enact them.” He glances in Danny’s direction, the color of the world shifts. He studies the wards Grandpa Carver put on Danny. “You were our hero.”

“You know what they say, Mr. Allen.” Grandpa Carver smiles that broad grin at him. “Never meet your heroes.”

Po has a flash of memory. The scent of blood, smoke, and a dozen men shoved in close together. His uniform suffocates him, rubs him raw in places. One thought keeps him going, ‘he’s not going to let those dirty krauts break him.’

Coming back to his senses, he turns, running for the hallway. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Grandpa Carver snap his fingers, pulling from the memory. A Browning Model 1903 appears in his hand.

Po wasn’t expecting the gunshot to be so loud.

He’s only two steps into the hall when searing hurt erupts in his back. The hallway spins, and he slams into the wall. Plaster geysers into his face. He ducks, falls to the floor, scrambles on hands and knees into the kitchen.

“Gods dammit, boy! Stay still!” Grandpa Carver’s footsteps echo in Po’s heart.

His arm’s gone numb, pain dances along his back. His instincts understand his shoulder blade has been shattered. His need fills his lungs, rushes through him, and out his mouth.

“Railroad Bill was a conjure man/He could change hisself to a bird/He could change hisself to a brook/A hill he could be what he wanted to be.”

His blood comes alive as power surges through it. It absorbs into him through his skin, even being sucked from his clothes. ‘Waste not, want not.’ He hears Grams say in his head. His shoulder rubs and grates against the bullet in him, breaking it down, using it to rebuild his shoulder. There’s nausea. Po coughs and gags, spitting black slugs on the floor. They writhe and wriggle. He recognizes them as Grandpa Carver’s magic.

“Don’t hide, boy.” Grandpa Carver’s voice comes from the hall. “Die with some dignity.”

Po doesn’t know what to do. Fear rips and tears at his insides.

“Come on now. You don’t want to annoy m-”

Instinct propels Po over the kitchen island.

Grandpa Carver’s eyes widen only for a moment, then he takes aim with the gun.

Po latches on to his instinct forming a shield. The bullet spells dissolve in the air in front of him.

“Sonuvabitch!” Black swirls of magic sprout from Carver as he raises a shield of his own.

Po crashes into him. His momentum carries both of them to the floor.

Carver’s magic encases his hand, and he slams it into Po’s face.

Po feels several teeth tumble inside his mouth, washed along with a wave of blood. His cheek bone collapses. His eye explodes.

Immediately, the power inside him floods his injuries; more teeth grow, his cheek rebuilds, and eye inflates to fill the empty socket.

Po ignores all this, focusing his instinct into his hands. His fingernails form into talons. Carver sees this happen, and fear spreads across his face.

Po sinks his talons into the man’s chest.

Carver screams.

Po roars, the blood in his mouth splattering on Carver’s face. Po pushes himself at Carver.

Images clatter and flash through Po’s mind. Explosions. Gunfire. Watching the life drain from the eyes of a man stab in the chest. Sobbing—Carver’s—in the trenches at night. Resolve not to die, to never be vulnerable.

‘Sumtimes it skeps a generation or two, but we all pass down the kenning of it.’ Carver’s grandfather tells him the history of magic in their family, passed down from father to son. ‘Yer pa never had time fer practice. Too worried about the now to wonder about the next.’

Carver’s uniform is torn, mud and shit stained, the officer eyes him, sizing him up. Carver can tell the man dislikes him. ‘The men follow your orders more than their commander’s, Sargent. Why is that?’ Carver looks at the man, he knows the truth. He’s been using his magic to survive the war, to stay one step ahead of the enemy, to keep the rations fresh, to heal what he can, keeping himself alive, bringing as many men as he can with him. He doesn’t tell the officer the truth.

Years later, age creeping up on Carver, he pores over tomes looking for an answer. The question is the same as it ever is, survival. Carver wants more. More control. More power. More time. Symbols, he finds, hold the most power. If he could tap into them, he could-

Hands grab Po, lift him off Carver, throwing him down the hall, through the kitchen wall, and into the back yard.

The injuries, the pain, lasts only for a second, but they’re enough to clear Po’s head. He needs to find a way to get Danny away from here. Getting to his feet, he readies himself to face Carver again, and freezes. “Danny?”

Danny helps Carver to the hole in the wall, the same blank expression on his face. Carver sneers at Po. “All that power, and not a clue how to use it.” He spits blood onto the ground. “Power is truly wasted on the young.”

Po’s thoughts fall into place. He feels himself smile. “You can’t beat me.”

Carver’s face shows more hate than Po’s ever seen in his life. “Clever boy.” He straightens, taking his weight from Danny as his magic heals him. “Fortunately for me, I don’t have to beat.” He pats Danny on the shoulder. “Kill your friend for me.”

Danny’s vacant gaze turns to Po.

“What have you done to him?” Po stares at his friend, not seeing anything that makes him him.

Carver smiles. “I’ve taken away all his doubt, self-loathing, and-”

“And free will.”

Carver growls at him. “Make it quick, Daniel. Places to be.”

Po switches his attention back to Danny. He feels his friend gathering power. The storm overhead twists and rumbles. Fear slices through Po as he realizes, under Carver’s control, Danny’s accessed all his power.

Danny’s eyes are swallowed by whirlpools of red will. He sends his power out, and there’s a tearing sounds. The wind howls around them. Dark, hungry, figures from the beginning of time appear in the back yard.

Po can’t focus on any one of them for too long. The figures are vaguely humanoid. They appeared standing, but when they move they hunch forward, using their knuckles as support. Their skin glistens, or do they have scales? Hissing echoes between them.

Po knows they’re hungry for him. Fear drives his instinct into his chest. It readies him to run.

He doesn’t run. A glowing spark of need burns in his mind. He’s not leaving Danny. His need pulses, tears leak from his eyes. “Danny, don’t do this!”

The creatures cross the lawn, spreading out, boxing him in.

“Danny, you’re my best friend!” Po pushes out with himself, groping for his friend. He feels the power flowing through Danny. He tries to plunge through it, but its current is strong, it has its own gravity. It flings him away.

The creatures tense to spring.

Po feels their instincts driving them, jacked up by Danny’s power. He takes a deep breath, his poem coming to his mind.

A howl sounds behind him. Wolves, his wolves, jump the fence into the yard, and charge past him at the creatures. They bark and snap at the creatures, driving them away from Po.

“What fresh hell is this?” Carver raises his hands, magic swirling around him.

An unearthly yowl comes from behind him in the house. Po sees a cat jump at his face. When he ducks under it, another cat jumps on his back. Carver stumbles forward, but before he can put his foot down, a cat runs under it. He loses his balance and falls. Po sees dozens of cats rush forward.

Po turns his attention back to Danny, still standing there with a vacant expression. He latches onto his instinct to run with his need to get to Danny and sprints forward. From his left, one of the creatures breaks through the biting wolves to lunge at him. The collapses under it, swallowing the lower part of its body. A second later the thing screams. Thousands of ants skitter across its skin.

Danny stares at the scene passively. Once Po is close enough he focuses on him. Po feels him gathering power to fulfill Carver’s last order. Shielding himself, Po slams through the current of power around Danny. He grabs his friend, pushing him against the back of the house.

“Danny, stop!” Po looks into his friend’s eyes, sees no recollection. “It’s me!”

Lightning flashes overhead, thunder shakes the windows of the house.

Po pushes out, finds wards coating Danny like a cocoon. “Danny, I need you to come back to me.”

Danny’s features scrunch in confusion.

Po feels the wards shift as Danny tries to push out from them. Po smiles. “That’s it. Come back to me. I need you.” The wards grind against each other.

“Don’t listen to him, Daniel.” Carver’s voice comes from nowhere. “I’m your family. He only wants your power.”

Po feels the wards stop grinding, begin settling back into place. “No!” Po squeezes Danny’s shoulders. “That’s not true!” Po’s need and instinct collide, then mesh, then combine.

The storm, rumbles, breaks. Warm rain falls on them.

Po smiles. “All I want is you.” He presses close to Danny, smashing his mouth against his friend’s. Danny’s lips are cold, unresponsive. His body is rigid. Behind them pre-prehistoric things hiss and scream, wolves bark, cats yowl in a way that feels like torture. Through all that the kiss still feels perfect. Po pulls back. “I love you, Daniel Carver.”

Danny’s eyes clear. “P-Po?”

“Yea-”

Po lets go of Danny, his hands grabbing the blade sticking out of his chest.

“If you want something done right.” Carver leans over Po’s shoulder to look at the wound. The blood has already stopped, his body dissolving the knife. “I don’t think so.” The knife blade glows, and he twists it, re-opening the wound.

“Grandpa?” Danny’s still confused, he can’t organize his thoughts.

“Somnus.” The word whispers from Carver, and hits Danny like a brick. The boy’s eyes shut immediately, and he falls to the ground.

“R-rail-railroad B-Bill-”

Carver covers Po’s mouth. “Shh-shh, now.” He leans in to whisper in Po’s ear. “I wasn’t at Hiroshima, but I hear it was a sight.”

Po’s chest explodes. He falls to the ground next to Danny.

“I doubt even your power will heal you from that.” Carver bends down and picks up Danny.

Po tries to move, but he can’t feel his body. He tries to speak, but can’t find his voice. He doesn’t hear Carver leave through the rain. Even the sounds of wolves, and cats, and creatures is gone.

Darkness closes in.

The last thing to cross his mind is the cuttlefish, and how he could really use a lift from him right now.

A baby cries, clear and loud and alive.

Jason. If it’s a boy, I’ll name him Jason.

Mrs. Carver answer the door and smiles. “Hello, Po.”

Po smiles back. “Hi, Mrs. Carver. Can I come in?”

“Oh, you don’t have to ask.” She steps aside so he can enter.

Po shivers as he steps into the front hall. It was only a couple days ago he died the Carvers’ back yard.

“Po?” Mrs. Carver steps in front of him, worried look on her face. “Are you alright?”

“I’m sorry.” Po smiles. “My mind wondered. I’m just missing Danny.”

Mrs. Carver rubs his arm. “We do too, but at least you’ll be joining him soon. Early admission into Princeton.” She sighs contentedly. “We didn’t even know you and Danny were applying.”

“Applying for what?” Mr. Carver comes out of the kitchen drying a plate.

“Princeton early admission.”

“Right.” Mr. Carver joins them. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell us you were doing it.”

Po shrugs. “We didn’t want to tell anyone in case we didn’t get in.”

Mrs. Carver lightly slaps his shoulder. “As if the two of you have anything to worry about.”

Mr. Carver chuckles. “Are the two of you rooming together?”

Po sighs, his eyes hurt from holding back tears. “Uh, I think we’re rooming with Freshman. They’re supposed to show around, help us get settled.”

Mr. Carver nods knowingly. “That sounds about right.”

“What can we do for you? I’m sorry, but we just put dinner away.” Mrs. Carver indicates the plate in Mr. Carver’s hands. “But we can get some back out if you want.”

Po steps back from them. “I’m not hungry. I just came by to see if I left something in Danny’s room.” He moves to the stairs. “Is it okay if I go look?”

“Sure.” The Carvers watch him go up. “We hope you can find anything in that room.”

Po lets out the perfunctory laugh, then rushes into Danny’s room and shuts the door. He takes a minute to get himself under control. He hates lying to the Carvers, but he’s not sure how well the truth would go over.

Breathing deeply, he stares at Danny’s room. He knows the Carvers like to joke about it being a mess, but it’s one of the neatest rooms Danny has ever seen. Danny’s scent permeates the room, strong and pungent. It’s not the best smell, but Po doesn’t mind it. All the nights he spent here with Danny tumble through his mind.

He touches the wall, sending himself into it.

The room shifts, the furniture fades. It’s night, there’s not much in the room but a crib, a dresser, and a mobile. Po feels the warm presence of baby Danny in the crib. There’s something wrong. Danny wakes, wailing and crying. It’s only a minute, maybe two, before Mrs. Carver rushes into the room. She scoops up Danny, holding him to her, rocking him back and forth, talking to him in a soft voice. Danny, feeling safe, calms some, but still fusses. Mrs. Carver walks to a mini-fridge in the corner and takes out a bottle of milk. As she feeds Danny, she hums to him. Danny falls asleep in her arms.

Po takes his hand off the wall and the bedroom as it is now comes back. “Was that the last time you felt safe?” Po swallows, thinking he might be as ready for this as he thought. “No rest for the wicked.” He moves to the desk, sitting down. Taking a deep breath, he lays his hands on top and enters the wood. Over the next thirty minutes, Po watches Danny translate the journal, unlocking its secrets. He memorizes what Danny’s finds with ease.

When he leaves he has to fend off another offer of food. He also promises to make sure Danny calls from time to time.

Po floats cautiously into Clarissa’s room. She’s asleep, but there’s no telling how much she can sense even now. He watches her for some time. She looks peaceful, like all her mistakes have been washed away.

She knows the truth of course. She found him in the Carvers’ back yard. He was just standing there looking at the devastation. She apologized and helped him clean everything up. It was her idea to make up the Princeton early admissions thing.

Po knows he will always be grateful for having Clarissa Denning as a friend.

He reaches out and takes the truth from her. He takes the truth from her and rolls it into a pearl. Then he takes the parking lot exorcism and rolls that into a pearl too. Next comes the McGregor house. Then seeing Martine and him in the art closet. He takes every memory from the last few weeks. The last thing he takes is her poem. When he’s done he’s fashioned a pearl necklace. He sets the necklace on her dresser, then bends down, and kisses her cheek.

“Stay safe.”

He glides through the town until he finds a little house on Oaknoll. The television blares from the living room. Even in the back of the house, in Martine’s bedroom it’s loud. Po concentrates on the noise, and the television goes off.

Martine’s room is more girl-y than he thought it would be. He’s only seen the tough, no nonsense Martine, it’s hard to picture her living in this room. Po concedes that his experience with Martine, while intensely personal, is fairly limited.

Po reaches for her.

She sits up in bed, shuffling away from him to crouch on the corner. “I know you’re there.” She peers around the room. “I can feel you.”

Po sighs, shaking his head. He had to know she was going to make this hard on him.

“I know what you’re here to do too.” She swipes her hand back and forth in front of her. “You don’t think I believed you and Danny got accepted to Princeton early, did you?”

Po admits that he should have known she wouldn’t.

“Please don’t.” Tears stream down her face. “Please don’t erase my memory.” She crawls to the middle of the bed, sitting on her knees. “I don’t want to be that girl again.” She rubs at her face, but it doesn’t help. “That stupid girl who made stupid decisions. If I’m her again, what’s to stop me from making the same stupid choice all over again. And if you’re not here to…” She peers into the dark of her room, pleading at shadows. “I won’t tell anyone. I promise! Please.”

Po reaches out. When he touches her, her eyes close and she falls back to sleep. He watches her for a few minutes, then leaves.

Po wakes before dawn. He packs a duffle bag, then takes a few minutes to look around his room. He’s not sure if he’s ever going to see it again. “Jiggety-jig.”

Before he leaves he checks in on his parents. They’re asleep, his father’s arm wrapped around his mother. He hopes they’ll be okay once he’s gone, but it’s not his job to live their lives. He knows that now.

It’s a moderate walk from his house to the field near the train tracks. Po takes his time getting there. Not every street he passes has a memory on it, but enough of them do to make his feet drag. By the time he’s in the field the morning train is already rolling past. He watches it go for a minute.

With a thought, he moves to the top of the train. It’s all cargo cars, no passengers, but he doesn’t mind having the wind blow in his face. It reminds him of flying.

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