By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. I’d been cooped up inside all weekend working on homework. Now, as I walked to school with Ana, I realized that Autumn had arrived. I should have realized it days ago when Daggerbeak, my pet cockatiel, kept staring alertly at the window. She must have been seeing the first of the leaves coming down.
The thermometer had swung way upwards today, but it would probably be the last warm spell of the year. Anna skipped along, her outrageous silky pig tails swishing about on either side of her head. Ana is an exchange student from the Philippines who has been staying at our house in Illinois and going to my school. She skipped past the graveyard and the daycare center but stopped in front of the window of Slow Roast, a coffee shop.
“They’re selling Mouldering Coffee,” said Ana. “We have to find out what that is!”
Before I could stop her she’d gone in the door and was talking to the teenager on the other side of the counter.
“Yeah, it’s made with special molds,” said the teenager. “Some grow especially well on oak leaves, others grow on birch leaves, and there’s a beech one, too.” She bent down low and whispered to Ana, “Though to tell you the truth, I think they all taste the same.”
“Yeah, sounds neat,” said Ana. “Can I try some?”
“Well, you seem a little young to be drinking coffee, in my opinion,” said the teenager, glancing back and forth between us and probably guesstimating that we were both in middle school. “But we make a hot chocolate version. It’s only a dollar seventy-nine.”
I tried to speak up and remind Ana that we should make sure not to be late for school. But I also wanted to try some of the mold stuff. At the same time, the coffee shop made me feel very uncomfortable…too noisy, and I didn’t like the color scheme. Ana noticed and said that maybe we would come back later.
Ana is good that way. She knows that I hate making decisions and that certain places trigger bad feelings for me. She can help me break out of the situation and the emotional funk.
Ana and I left the coffeeshop and spent the rest of our walk talking about our big project for school. We were writing a story called The Intriguing, Interesting, Motivating, Humorous, and Fantastic History of the Land of Brevity. It was turning into a very long story. It started out being about knights and castles but soon we were just throwing anything in there. It was going to be the first historical fiction/adventure story/joke book.
It was such a relief when Ana and I first became friends and I had someone I could really talk to. About anything. Especially ridiculous things. Inside we are kindred goofballs.
After school, as we were heading home, Ana ran ahead of me. In a few minutes she was running back with two hot chocolates. She must have gone back to Slow Roast, who apparently were not slow at serving hot chocolate. She gave me one. I tried it. I expected it to taste like bleu cheese, since that’s moldy, too. It did. A little.
“So, Bartholomew,” said Ana, “Did you decide what happens to Sir Barculaine and Lady Faluvial?”
Sir Barculaine and Lady Faluvial are the main characters in our story. Sir Barculaine is a knight who has a beach ball instead of a sword or shield. He has learned to be very effective with it and has vanquished many foes. Lady Faluvial is a lady who can jump very high. When we left off they were defending the castle against an evil pencil, who wants to steal the Declaration of Independence and try to erase it. (Because there still has to be some history in there. The project is for school. We think.)
“No,” I said in answer to Ana. My head was still full of all the stuff from today’s classes. The science teacher had shown a time lapse video of mold growing on various items as they shriveled up and decayed. For some reason this stuck in my head. So much happening in just the blink of an eye.
“We’ll figure it out later,” said Ana, meaning the next chapter of The Intriguing, Interesting, Motivating, Humorous, and Fantastic History.
When we got home we spread out the pages we had typed up and printed out so far. It was looking very colorful. There was a splatter of dried spaghetti sauce on one page. (I think my little sister Frankie was to blame for that.) Elsewhere, some holes through which the carpet was showing through. We’d also purposefully glued various items to the paper because we thought it enhanced the reader’s experience. Mom removed a couple items she thought were dangerous.
Daggerbeak flew down onto the floor and walked all over our story, ripping out little chunks of paper here and there. Ana still had half of her mold hot chocolate and she tipped her cup forward so Daggerbeak could take a sip. Daggerbeak, always a curious bird, leaned towards it and touched the surface of the liquid with the tip of her beak.
“You can’t do that!” I shouted. “You can’t give that to her!”
Daggerbeak squawked and flew up into the air.
“Pets can’t have chocolate!” I continued. “It’s really bad for them. Or mold. And you’ve already drank some of it. It’s got human saliva in it! ”
Only when I stopped yelling did I realize that I had flung out my arms and knocked the hot chocolate out of Ana’s hands and all over our story and her favorite shirt.
Ana stormed off without saying a word.
I get angry at times and I can’t see anything else but my anger and how wrong everyone else is. I’m guessing this happens to everyone.
But I had never gotten angry at Ana before. Not since we met.
Ana and I did not talk much the rest of the day. I felt wearier than I had felt in a long time. Maybe it was the change in the season….the thermometer did indeed drop again in the afternoon. Usually I like feeling tired. It’s a good excuse for just sitting around on the floor and talking to Daggerbeak. But right now I didn’t like it.
The next day was a Saturday but Ana stayed in her room. I could hear her speaking Tagalog with a Filipino friend or family member. She video chatted with her folks from time to time. This was normal. But today it made me feel afraid. Because Ana didn’t need me. Even just sitting at her computer, she had the world at her fingertips, and a whole other world inside her head, just as rich as mine, or more so.
I also really understood for the first time that Ana would be going away sometime and I would probably never see her again in person. True, I had my folks, and Daggerbeak. But I would probably outlive that bird by a long time. And my sister was way more serious than Ana. Too serious. Not your typical little sister.
I went outside and began kicking at piles of leaves. Then I sat down in the leaves, in a dry spot, under a tree. There had just been a rain shower and there was a golden quality to the air. It was the sort of atmosphere I associate with sentimental scenes of elderly sweethearts watching for wildlife and reminiscing about their lives together. (I know, that’s a little random, but it’s the truth.)
I pulled my sweater over my head. It was big sweater. I realized that I had a piece of paper and a broken pencil in my pocket. Eventually I began to write. I had just written a paragraph when someone yanked the sweater back down, exposing my head to the world once again. It was Ana.
“I wrote the next chapter,” I said.
“So did I,” said Ana. She began to read from the paper she was holding.
Lady Faluvial could be reckless at times. She left the door of the castle open when she went for a walk. Suddenly, the evil pencil appeared and ran in and poisoned the food and water supply with his wicked lead heart. Lady Faluvial decided that she would do something really special to atone for this. She would travel to the Isle of Golden Light to try learn what that might be. She would have to cross the Wastes of Tediousness to get there. But she had faith that her journey would be successful.”
“My turn,” I said, after her epic words had faded from the air. I began to read from my own paper.
Sir Barculaine had forgotten to keep an eye out for the evil pencil, who snuck up on him and poisoned him. There was now a mold growing in his heart. It caused an unholy anger in him. One day he accidentally punctured his beach ball while in an angry fit. It went shooting all over the place and destroyed the banquet of delicious food everyone was just sitting down to. Sir Barculaine decided he would have to journey to the Bright Mountain to learn how to control his anger.
“They’re very similar,” I said. “What you wrote and what I wrote.”
“Goofball minds think alike,” said Ana. “But I think we can do even better.”
“Yeah, we’ll work on in later,” I said.
“I heard that you’re supposed to go inside and set the table,” said Ana. “I’m going to make sure I save a whole potato from dinner for Daggerbeak.”
Boiled potato, once properly cooled, is Daggerbeak’s favorite.