Hours and hours later, the sound of a lawnmower, distant and low, woke Cary. Sunlight angled into the room from the drawn curtains and the door to the guest bedroom was still closed. Cary rubbed at his eyes sleepily as he sat up and looked blearily around.
The clock said it was past ten in the morning. He hadn't been allowed to sleep that late ever. Not ever. Bird might be a sodden drunk who passed out in the wee hours of the night, too drunk to move to his own bed, but somehow he always rose before seven in the morning, ready to drink again, ready to go do whatever it was he did all day. And Bird never let Cary stay asleep after he himself had awoken. There were always chores to be done. Cary pulled open the bedroom door and left the bedroom, walking quietly.
No sign of Bird.
Not in the living room nor the kitchen, not in his bedroom or bathroom.
His truck is gone.
Not wanting to waste good fortune, Cary ambled into the kitchen and made himself a large breakfast: with eggs and toast and some slimy, possibly outdated bacon, oatmeal and the last of Bird's Captain Crunch cereal, though he had to use water, as there was no milk in the fridge.
It wasn't bad either. Even the bacon, surprisingly. As Cary licked the last crumbs off his fingers, he sat back and reveled in being full and satiated for the first time in,like, forever.
His mind was oddly calm as well. Not racing with thoughts as usual. Cary hardly knew what to think, on his own as it were. He gathered up the dishes and washed them, put them away and wiped down the table out of habit. With no sign of Lana or Bird and a bright sunny Saturday outside, his mind clear and his memories of the night before vague at best, Cary was light and jubilant.
I am going to go back over to Clearing's house.
See if his teacher was home, if he could or would let Cary do more work on the computers and maybe get another glimpse of Pottermore. It called to Cary every time he thought of it, as though it were connected to him.
That's when a knock came at the front door.
Cary's head whipped up and he stared in the direction of the foyer and the front door. With caution, Cary made his way to the door and on his tiptoes managed to peer through the little spy hole. It was Lurlene Darxis, her expression grim as it had ever been, her pale white skin not luminous as it had been the night before, but pallid and waxy, as though sunlight did not agree with her.
Tremulously, Cary opened the door and peered out from behind. His mind raced again and it was hard to get a thought in edgewise, much less say something. Cary stared resolutely at the floor.
“I want you to come with me, Carver. Now.” Lurlene said grimly. Cary looked up and blinked at her.
Come with you? Where? What about...
She answered him, though he had not spoken aloud. "I'm going to the school's swim meet today and I want you there to answer questions about some of the swimmers and other students.”
Cary had no ready response to this. He wanted to tell her no, if for no other reason than being alone with her sort of terrified him, especially after their meeting in the hall at school the other day. But her eyes bore down upon him and he gulped under the strain of her stare.
Besides, what answers can I really give her? They hate me. And I don't REALLY know them. I don't know ANY of them...
Lurlene harrumphed and arched an eyebrow.
Cary had not realized he had spoken aloud. "You've lived here your WHOLE life, haven't you? Surely you must be friends with SOME of those kids?” Lurlene said. Cary shook his head no.
“Well, you're coming with me anyway. Bird came by to apologize this morning and asked me to look in on you today. So are you ready... now?” Lurlene demanded.
Cary seized up. He blinked at the floor, shifted from foot to foot.
Bird apologized to Lurlene? Bird asked Lurlene to babysit me, and she agreed?
These things were truly, masterfully unusual.
“And what were you doing out last night so late anyway? You're not one of those kids who gets into that kind of trouble.” Lurlene asked.
Cary started to tell her, but the words didn't want to come. Lurlene waited for a moment before she grumbled. “Well get whatever stuff you want and let's go.” Lurlene crossed her arms under her breasts and turned away, tapped her foot impatiently.
Cary ran off into the house, trying to think of a way to get out of going with her. But his mind raced again and he couldn't find a solution, so he grabbed his book sack, stuffed Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince paperback inside it and closed the door behind him. Lurlene led him to her run down old Cadillac sedan. Once inside, they did not speak. She pushed a button and an eerie ambient music came on. It calmed Cary's nerves somewhat, lulled him, as he watched the scenery whiz by. Before long they had made it to Happy Ending High's Natatorium and parked the car.
Lurlene turned to Cary, “I want answers to my questions, Cary. We don't need to talk.” Cary blinked at her feet. What makes her think I want to talk with her?
Inside, the Natatorium was full of chattering teenagers, cheering parents and excited athletes. The first thing Cary noticed, however, was Troy Smalls. The other teenaged boy stood at the edge of the pool: no shirt on, a towel wrapped around his narrow, tapered waist, a haughty expression on his face as he surveyed the area around the pool. Cary stared at him as Lurlene pulled him along, her grip still monstrously strong, even though he felt no pain from it. “What are you looking at?” she grumbled.
Cary shrugged, and let her guide them to the bleachers, where they sat halfway up and seemingly as far from other people as Lurlene could place them. Cary watched Troy fling his arms behind his back, stretching and twisting his body around, the sight captivated Cary. Other boys did the same, including swimmers from the other team, their green swimsuits marking them. Cary was excited, even though he didn't care anything about swimming, didn't even know how to swim himself. Something about Troy, though he was sure he hated the guy, was fascinating.
“Alright ladies and gentlemen and students! Welcome to the All-City Championship Meet! Everyone give a handy round of applause for our student athletes!” A voice said over the loud speaker.
The swimmers raised their arms as the applause rained down on them. Lurlene grumbled something indistinct under her breath.
“And let's everyone keep an eye on our very own superstar, Troy Smalls!” Cheers from all around. “He broke a state record last week folks! Let's see if he can do something as miraculous again today!” More loud applause. Troy shook his clasped hands and waved them at the crowd. Troy's teammates looked a tad disgruntled, thin lips and averted eyes. Maybe they don't like him? Lurlene fixated on Troy. At first Cary did not know why, until he recalled the conversation he had overheard at the school between Lurlene and Principal Jenson.
Lurlene asked about someone named Smalls! That's TROY's last name! She is here to find about him!
“Broke a state record did he?” She said, as if in answer to Cary's realization. “Was he always a good swimmer, or did he just...recently become so?”
Cary didn't know. He shrugged, tried not to give Lurlene reason to think he knew more. I don't anyway. Lurlene kept watching Troy like a hawk. And indeed, improbable as it was, Troy did break another record, as the announcer informed them all after his first race, the 200 meter Butterfly.
“And folks, this is AMAZING! Happy Endings High's own Troy Smalls has just shattered the NATIONAL record for the 200 meter Butterfly! If these results are verified we might just have a new WORLD RECORD!”
Thunderous applause rang throughout the Natatorium. Troy hefted himself out of the pool and nodded perfunctorily to his losing competitors before turning to the adoration of the crowd. Cary looked to see Lurlene staring intently, her eyes almost slits, fixated, on Troy.
Why? Is he really adopted, like me?
Her eyes never seem to leave the boy. Cary looked away and his eyes swept over Jonathan and Eric, seated two rows below. Troy sauntered over to them and high-fived both boys. Another race was taking place and most of the people in the stands were avidly watching, though a few reached down to pat Troy on his shoulder. Cary, dumbstruck, realized Troy and Jonathan and Eric were coming over to him. He couldn't move fast enough, so he stayed statued. Once he stood in front of him, hair mussed and still dripping, a glistening Troy Smalls sneered down at Cary. His expression was mirrored almost immediately by Eric, and then by Jonathan.
“Come to see us in our Speedos, then Ickie Queenie?” Troy said. Lurlene was watched silently, though her eyes widened. Her expression was all but unreadable, though her upper lip seemed poised to peel back. Jonathan gulped, though no one noticed this but Cary. He had no response for Troy's jibe. He was used to the nickname, though only recently understanding it meant more than he had ever though. Cary stared at the floor beneath the bleachers, counting shadows, hoped they would go .
“I guess he's got his fill!” Eric said.
Jonathan said, "Fag.”
Lurlene moved like a flash of lightning. In one instant she sat aside Cary, the next she stood before the three boys, managed to loom over them, though each of them was actually a bit taller than she. Still, all three moved back a step and quailed under her glare.
“You.” Lurlene said, jabbing a finger into Troy's slick, hard chest. "Who are your parents?”
Troy looked decidedly unsure. Put off. He looked to both of his friends before he hesitantly he answered. “Dorothy and Mark Smalls.”
“And where are THEY?” Lurlene asked forcefully, looked around curious. Troy began to look more nervous, as though he knew he was in trouble. Eric and Jonathan became agitated, both of them fidgeted as if they wanted to turn and run away.
“Um, down there...” Troy said. Lurlene's eyes followed where Troy pointed: to a small, mousy looking couple seated in the first row with stick-mounted poster placards plastered with pictures of Troy on them. Without another word Lurlene darted away, towards Troy's parents. Cary was left with Troy and the other two. “If she rats me out, you're dead at school on Monday, Ickie Queenie.” Troy said, thrusting his whole body at Cary only to stop at the last moment. After he looked to be sure no adults watched,Troy reached out and pushed hard at Cary's shoulder, but whether his arms were tired from swimming or what, Cary didn't know, the push barely registered against Cary's shoulder. His body did not move. Shocked, Cary looked up and made eye contact with Troy. Troy was alarmed. His head stutter shook. “C'mon. Let's go” Troy said to Jonathan and Eric. They were gone moments later.
When Lurlene came back, she refused to talk about what she had said to Troy's parents. “Don't worry about it Cary. That's between me and them, and maybe Troy. I've seen all I needed to see. Let's go.”
On the way home, there was no talking, just Lurlene's odd ambient music. Cary was utterly relieved when she told him to go home and didn't add restrictions. Which meant Cary was free to see if Clearing was home. Bird's house was empty, no sign Lana had returned and no sign of Bird, either. It was almost two in the afternoon by the time Cary had made a lunch and was ready to walk down to Clearing's house. It was still bright and hot outside, the occasional sounds of people mowing their lawns colliding with the brief hum of passing cars.
Cary made his way, undisturbed, to Clearing's house and was very pleased to see his teacher's car in the driveway. He knocked lightly on the door under the carport. The same door he had sneaked through the night before. Clearing's old Mazda hatchback rested behind him, stick clacking and clanging on its pinions, Clearing must not have been home for long.
The door handle turned and the door swung open. “Cary?”
Clearing asked, confuddled. The teacher blinked several times behind his enormous glasses before Cary answered, with a nod and averted gaze. Well used to Cary by now, Clearing sighed pleasantly and said, “Didn't expect you back so soon...” He didn't sound bothered, which Cary took to be a good thing.
“Well, come on in then, we'll do some work.” Clearing said moving into the kitchen, Cary right behind. “I assume things went OK with you and Bird?” Clearing asked, looking over his shoulder at Cary. Cary nodded. “Fantastic.”
As they walked through the living room, Cary couldn't help himself, he walked slow and stared at the display case containing Clearing's tablet.
Pottermore. I wish I could look at it some more, maybe find something better than whatever that garbage last time was.
He eyed it with apprehensive hunger, fingers twitching to swipe and read the mysterious pages again. On the walk over to Clearing's Cary had made a determination next time he got the chance to use the he was going to experiment and wish, with all his heart, for one thing only and wait and see if it happened. Simply because the text had told him to do so.
It can't hurt...maybe it will come true!
He knew it was stupid to wish for things that way, stupid to believe a website could grant wishes under any circumstances, but he could not get Pottermore out of his head. Is like that for everyone? I wish I had a computer somewhere else I could read it. Maybe at school? Mesmerized, Cary didn't even notice his own feet had stopped moving, his body slowly swayed from side to side as he stared at the case holding the tablet.
“Um, Cary?” Clearing said, tugging at Cary's shoulder. “Carver?” Cary snapped back.
“Ugh.” Cary said as Clearing's living room and Clearing himself came flooding back. “Sorry.”
“Not a problem, come on on then.” Clearing said, but Cary was sure the man's eyes drifted towards the strange book which held the tablet and back to Cary with a most suspicious glance. Cary let himself be pulled into the second bedroom to where Clearing's workbench was. As they were setting up, Cary couldn't help himself, he asked Clearing about the book, not letting on he knew it was just a case for a tablet.
“Um, sir?” Cary said, startled at the evenness in his voice. “Is there anything ...special...about the Harry Potter book in the display case out there?”
Clearing set down a pair of needle-nose pliers and turned on his stool towards Cary, pushed his glasses up his bulbous nose. Cary stared back, not feeling the slightest urge to stare down at the floor.
“Somehow I knew you'd ask me about that book.” Clearing said. “My Derek, he was a devoted reader, Cary. And he loved all the Harry Potter books, that's part of why he worked so hard to become a programmer on Pottermore. He just loved those books so much, you know, so I bought that one on eBay for him. I sold the rest after...after he left.” Clearing waited for Cary to nod. “That one was his favorite. I just couldn't bear to get rid of it.”
Cary didn't quite understand.
Derek left? Why didn't he take the book with him?
Clearing provided the answer.
“Derek would have wanted me to keep it, to remember him. Although he'd probably have thought me keeping his signed copy of The Deathly Hallows to be, more delightfully ironic, considering.” Clearing said, answering Cary's unasked question. “He would have thought it quite amusing!” Cary goggled at this.
Derek is dead. Cary saw the sadness around Clearing's eyes.
“I often wondered, maybe, if he hadn't found that...thing... he might still be...” Clearing seemed unable to continue for a moment. Cary, who had never really had a person as close as Clearing and this Derek had been only sort of understood the man's feelings. “He became obsessed with that book, Cary. He thought he could read the strange symbols in it. Said there was no way it should be there, and he should know! He helped program the website! And those symbols, they didn't correspond to any language or cipher or known pattern we could find. And there was something about the thing, it seemed to draw Derek's energy away, the more he obsessed over it, the more he stared at it, thought of it: the weaker he became and the more he wanted to be near it.” Clearing sighed and wiped his eyes. “I've never read it, Cary, hardly ever even touched the thing. After Derek left, I wanted to be rid of it, but somehow, I just could never make myself do it. It's like Pottermore as a whole, it connects me to him. Reminds me of him more than anything else, maybe I'm just not ready to let it go.” Clearing sighed and laughed, in a hearty but fake way. “Listen to me, Cary! Nattering on like a heartsick old biddy!” Clearing chortled, his large stomach heaving. He pushed his glasses back up his nose again.
“Enough of that, right, Cary? Let's get our hands dirty!” Clearing said. Cary's mind was racing again, thinking about what Clearing had said.
Derek was obsessed with it?
The symbols don't match any known language.
But I read it.
Am I sure I'm not crazy?
A nasty voice said the last in Cary's mind. Cary tried to brush the voice away but it was persistent. Always persistent. It drowned out most of what Clearing was saying. Cary noticed Clearing staring at him questioningly.
Cary started, nearly fell off his stool. “Um. Sorry, sir. What?”
“I asked if you had any interest in Harry Potter...” Clearing said, examining Cary's face as though looking for some sign of a bump to the head. Cary had honestly never given it any thought.
“Not really.” he lied. "But it sounds cool.” He added, hoping this would lead to Clearing letting him look at the book again without having to sneak. Clearing nodded and smiled. “Well, I'm sure it couldn't hurt to let you look at the book, just don't open it, OK? Derek read it so many times it's liable to tear apart if anyone opens, OK?”
Cary could hardly believe his ears, despite knowing Clearing had just lied to him. His fingers twitched with eagerness and excitement. He waited for a moment, to be sure Clearing had meant what he had offered. Cary found he cared more for his teacher than he had realized, the man really was a friend.
Like Jonathan should have been.
This thought only made Cary want to not mess up even more. Clearing smiled permissively. “Go on then, I can tell you won't be able to concentrate until you've looked at it. So much like Derek...” Clearing sighed and waved Cary off. “Just don't open it, Cary. Promise me.”
“I promise.” Cary said, with no intention of adhering. He darted through the house back to the living room, his feet carrying him along as his mind was fixated on the tablet, on Pottermore. Before he really knew, he stood in front of the display case, quivering, his hand reached out towards the black cloth which covered the case. But he stopped. Something Clearing said running back into his mind.
“..it seemed to draw Derek's energy away, the more he obsessed over it, the more he stared at it, thought of it, the weaker he became...” Clearing's voice said clearly in Cary's head.
Cary's hand pulled back a bit. Nervously, halfheartedly,
Cary moved back away from the case. His whole body was thrummed now, yearning for the tablet, brimming with a need to touch it, to read it. To wish. Before he could second-guess himself, he was flipping the cloth over and stepping up on the little box sitting in front of the case, opening the hard leather covers of the ancient-feeling book. A warm, pleasant feeling rushed through him. He sighed. But when he opened it, it was just a book. No hole cut in it. Flipping pages, Cary forgot to be cautious, he scanned the pages, saw text he recognized from his many, many readings of The Sorcerer’s Stone. Nothing unusual. He slammed the book shut in anger, the loud sound made him wince.
“What was that, Cary?” Clearing said, as he rushed into the room.
“Um.” Cary went cold and still. “I accidentally fell off the box. But I'm OK,” Cary lied. “Do you have a computer here I could use really quick, sir? So I can...search for something on Google?”
Clearing looked suspicious for a brief moment, but he sighed and nodded.
“Over here, Cary.” Clearing led him to a room with a desk and lots of bookshelves. “Just be careful.” Clearing left after Cary sat down.
Cary typed in pottermore.com. The page came up, and though Cary had expected he might have to register or something, he did not. It was already as it had been when he viewed the tablet, only it had some boxes with text he cared nothing about in them. New on Pottermore. Community News. And Have you discovered?
“Where IS it?” Cary said to the empty room.”I wish it would just pop up!”
Cary shoved himself away from the computer when the screen changed.
A new box had appeared.
The Book of Fates.
There it was.
Cary sighed. “Quit being silly. This has to be normal.”
He eased himself back to the computer and the website. Cary clicked the link in box, “Click here” it said. The page went black for a moment then a page came up which read, “The Epic of Creation.” The words were written in the same font as a chapter heading of Harry Potter. It looked like it belonged. Cary nodded at the page, impatient, and skimmed the text. But remembered his mission, his silly idea.
“I want a REAL best friend. Someone who won't ever abandon me. Someone who won't call me Ickie. Or Queenie. EVER.” Cary said, aloud. He looked around nervously, but there was no sign of Clearing or anyone else, no one to make fun of him. He repeated his wish again, like a mantra, this time quietly, almost under his breath, while the computer screen stared back at him, disinterested. “A REAL friend. I wish for a REAL friend.” His brain flashed across images of Jonathan and Clearing and his mental picture of Harry Potter and Ron, and Egwene from the Wheel of Time and Ryu from Street Fighter and a few others. He still kept repeating his wish as he clicked through pages. At first the text was normal, a story about Draco Malfoy or something. Suddenly the screen flickered black and began to scroll strange symbols in the text box. Cary was transfixed, watching the symbols, in columns blinking like little neon lights as they reformed themselves into letters and words he could understand. His mind was not really parsing those words,not really reading, something innate told him it was not necessary, he assumed it would simply be more of the nonsense it had given him before, on the tablet which wasn't there anymore. And he couldn't be certain, but he almost felt as if something tugged at him behind his chest, pulled slightly towards the screen. It was a singularly strange feeling, unlike anything Cary had ever felt before and he really couldn't imagine any way to qualify it.
The warm, pleasant feeling radiated all through him now, like a just-hot-enough pool of water rising from his feet to just under his neck. He smiled without even realizing, luxuriated in the feeling, so fuzzy and contented he would not have been able to convey to anyone else, even had he wanted. Which he didn't. A thought strayed into his mind.
Was this how Derek had felt?
The thought should have sent warning bells off in Cary's mind, should have made him warily step away from the computer. He often wondered if things would have been different if he had done just so. He did not step away though, he continued to lazily click through pages, paying brief attention to flashes of words he caught, his mind fixated on the wish he was still slowly repeating in the back of his mind. Something very unexpected happened.
A picture of a tablet appeared on the screen. It spun quickly at first, but slowed down as Cary gaped at it. Once it had slowed to a lazy, drawn out revolution it began to grow until it eventually took up the whole screen, Pottermore gone.
A sound like a thunderclap rang above Cary's head and the electricity winked out. But a small bit of light still shone from the monitor. Amidst the light was the tablet, gleaming. Unsure what he expected, or why it made sense to him to do it, Cary reached forward towards it. His fingers did not encounter the glass of an LCD screen, but instead felt the rounded edges of a tablet. Cary gingerly stroked it in disbelief, then grabbed the edge and pulled.
The lights flickered back on.
And in his hand was a gleaming black tablet. Cary lifted his head up and saw Pottermore still on the screen. Confused, he glanced around. Nothing else seemed wrong or changed, except there was a tablet in his hands now, where none had been before. A tablet he had pulled directly from inside the monitor of a computer displaying a website.
Cary dropped the the tablet on the desk and backed away in fear. Distantly he heard Clearing at work in the other room, oblivious, as though nothing had happened. No flickering electricity, no magically appearing tablet, no mysterious Pottermore site.
Am I going crazy?
Softly, Cary crept through the house and peeked in on Clearing. His teacher's attention was rapt as the portly man leaned over an open computer case, his thick fingers fiddling with something. Cary backed away, turned and ran towards the front door. When he reached it his hand froze over the handle.
Don't be stupid. The nasty voice in his head warned.
Go back and get the tablet before Clearing sees it!
Cary stayed frozen in doubt. His hand quivered over the handle. He chewed his lower lip, fretting.
Go take it! The nasty voice urged.
Giving in, Cary moved, quietly as he could back to the office which contained the computer. He closed his eyes just as he walked in to the space, though, not wanting to be confronted by his own descent into craziness when he saw the desk - and saw no tablet there at all.
He bumped into the desk and shouted before he remembered to muffle the sound.
“Cary? You OK?” came Clearing's voice from across the house.
“Yes, I'm fine sir, just bumped my knee on the desk!” Cary lied quickly.
Cary's eyes flicked open at the sound of Clearing's voice and he gasped in shock, his hand flying up to cover his mouth.
There it was.
Shining darkly and waiting for him on the desk.
A black tablet.