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