BLUE SNOW CONES AND A KARATE MAN
Our last day of middle school was supposed to be amazing, but instead Marco and I are standing at the sinks in the gray boys' bathroom trying to wash half a snow cone out of my hair.
"And we were all excited when they said there were snow cones, too," Marco says. He's scrubbing my forehead with a paper towel. "It's always like that when they bring stuff to school. It's like you've never heard of that thing before, ever. Remember when the cafeteria had limeade that one time? And everyone freaked out completely? Running around all hyped up on limeade."
That was two months ago, April 9th. I don't even have to check our case file to know that. Limeade Day is still a legend around here. Snow Cone Day was supposed to be, too. It's this big celebration for the last day of school.
I think the universe has tapped into how completely I do not want to celebrate the last day of school.
"That hurts," I say.
He stops rubbing. "Sorry. Here." He hands me the paper towel. I sponge my forehead for a while, but the color isn't going anywhere.
"You should embrace it," Marco says. "Blue hair."
"I don't want blue hair."
"You look like a rock star." He's gone from sounding sympathetic to jealous in less than a second. That's pretty much the most Marco thing in the world.
I say, "You have enough rock stars in your life."
"If only." He leans against the sink, all dramatic. He isn't even pretending to help me rinse my hair out anymore. "If only, if only, if only, Stephen."
I dunk my head under the faucet. When I come up for air, he's watching me in the mirror, his face completely earnest. It's like I said. Marco can change his entire face in the amount of time it takes me to blink. It's like I never know exactly who I'm going to be talking to.
He says, in a voice to match his face, "That was really cool of you, you know?"
"Trust me, I know." I put up with a lot for this kid.
He says, "Getting in the way like that."
Yeah. I took a hit for Marco. What else is new? "Eh. I was already there. It's nothing."
Then his expression breaks, and he gets sarcastic and smiley and jams his tongue into his cheek. "Stephen, you're my faaaaaavorite," he says, in this voice that's probably supposed to make him sound silly but really just makes him sound like he did when he was six. He messes up my hair with both hands, then he laughs at his blue palms.
I decide that he's worth getting a snow cone thrown at me. I'm not always sure.
But it's not like I had any other choice this time. Luke and Chris said that if Marco didn't kiss me, they'd throw a snow cone at us. Marco didn't kiss me. They threw a snow cone at us. Except Marco's a way smaller target than I am, and I guess maybe I was in front of him a little, so most of it hit me. Anyway, it's pretty much the most straightforward thing that's ever happened to me in my whole life.
Except, I guess nothing is straightforward when Marco's involved.
And Marco's my best friend, and when you have a best friend like Marco, he is always, always, involved.
He drums on the lockers on the way to homeroom. Any other day we'd be accosted by some hall monitor for being out after the bell, even though my hair and his stained shirt should count as a perfectly good excuse. But it's the last day of school. These halls are a totally lawless place right now. Some seventh grader runs past us spraying a bottle of Silly String. It streaks behind him like a flag.
A seventh grader has Silly String, and Marco and I, eighth graders—almost ninth graders, now—are just going to homeroom like upstanding citizens or something. Marco isn't looking at me, but I can tell he's thinking the same thing I am: We should be doing something so much cooler than this right now.
Marco and I are criminal masterminds. We solve crimes and plan heists. We've apprehended more cell-phone thieves, and returned more lost puppies, and sneaked in and borrowed more gym uniforms from the office when we've forgotten ours than most thirteen-year-olds could ever dream of. Just because we're usually on the side of law enforcement doesn't mean we should be shuffling around like sheep on the last day of school, right?
Honestly, this school owes us. Look at that fluorescent light bulb that always flickers in time, perfectly, to the words of "Hey Jude." Who do you think discovered that? And who do you think breaks into the janitor's office and steals all the light bulbs every time they are about to fix it?
Marco, yeah. But I mean … I was there. I'm always there.
He jerks his head toward the front door at the end of the hallway. "Jailbreak?"
"It's raining." It seems like it's raining all the time lately.
He looks outside and sighs. "Yeah."
"Wouldn't be any fun."
"This is terrible. Worst day ever, Stevey. Worst day of my whole life."
I should be used to him saying this kind of stuff. Marco is really dramatic, but, I mean, seriously? I'm the one walking around looking like someone spilled toilet cleaner on me.
"There's cookies in homeroom," I say. I hope this is true. It's a rumor Sasha told me. I don't think schools know any other ways to celebrate things than to feed us.
"Yeah. This is what we have to live for, Stephen. Cookies in homeroom."
Mr. Takeda gives us this long look when we come through the door, but he holds out the tray of cookies without saying anything. There's only one chocolate chip left, so Marco grabs it and hands it to me like he thinks someone's going to snatch it away if he doesn't. "Thanks," I say.
Marco nods all short and confident. His secret agent nod.
Mr. Takeda is still looking at my hair. Everyone's giggling at us a little, but someone makes a noise like a sick sheep over in the corner. Like the world's happiest, evilest sick sheep. I don't even have to look to know it's Luke.
Last day of school, I remind myself, over and over. If the snow cones had worked out, there would have been two good things about middle school ending. Now there's one, and I'll latch on to it. Last day of middle school means the beginning of three months without Luke.
And it means this is Marco's last day of Luke forever, because Marco isn't going to high school with us.
I still can't believe it. Clinton Preparatory Academy. It sounds like a school for dogs. And Marco, for some reason, is actually excited about going.
Marco glares at Luke for half a second on the way to his desk, then turns his attention, just like always, to a different boy at the edge of the class. Benji gives him a smile and a brief wave. Marco lights up.
I bite into my cookie and sink into my seat next to him.
These didn't used to be our desks, but I bribed Daniel Rivera with boxes of leftover Girl Scout cookies—I have three sisters, I could repave my driveway with Girl Scout cookies—until he switched with me. Marco gave me a hard time about it at first, but he gave in when he realized that the seat next to my new one has a great view of the back of Benji's head. Besides, it's not like it's big news that I want to sit next to Sasha.
"We were talking about our summer vacation plans," Mr. Takeda says. "Miss McGuire, continue where you left off, please."
Sasha tugs a piece of hair by her ear. I really like Sasha's hair. It's curly and really dark red, like the inside of a cherry. "Just that my parents think that the chances we're going to find real fossils are pretty small, but I've been doing some outside reading, and I think that if we go to some of the places that haven't been checked in a while…"
I am trying to listen to Sasha.
But Marco won't stop pulling on my arm.
"What?" I whisper.
He points his pen toward Mr. Takeda's desk. I immediately see what he's all scrunched up about. There's an action figure, some kind of three-inch-tall martial artist, perched on top of Mr. Takeda's keyboard. There's a rolled-up piece of paper shoved under its arm.
"Wasn't there yesterday," Marco whispers. It's his job to notice these things. Marco is the eyes and ears of our operation.
We haven't done a simple reconnaissance case in a while. To be honest, we haven't done many cases lately.
Marco knows I need to start small again, I think. After our last case.
Aimee raises her hand and tells Mr. Takeda that she's going to Paris and will also be playing a lot of paint ball. Now that Sasha's done talking, I have no reason not to concentrate on the karate man. I can pretend there's nothing else important in the whole world. I hardly even feel my sticky hair anymore.
Marco digs a sheet of paper out of his backpack and scrawls me a note: Please confirm that the action figure is, in fact, a new item of interest. Our usual notes to each other aren't this formal, but this one will end up pasted into the case notebook, so it's important it be professional.
I root through my backpack. I can tell Marco is not impressed by how long it takes me to find the notebook.
But I get it eventually, of course. Documentation is my job. I handle the notebook and I take pictures. But it's not as if I can whip out my camera right now, not while Aimee's still teaching the class how to say protective gear in French.
I find the homeroom section in my notebook and read through my notes. I don't have anything on the state of Mr. Takeda's desk besides a quick Note: desk messy from way back in October. I can't tell Marco that. He'll kill me.
I would have remembered if the action figure were there before. And Marco would have, definitely. New, I write. Confirmed.
Sasha leans over my shoulder and whispers, "I can't believe you guys are still doing this." She must have just been chewing mint gum, because her breath feels cold in my ear.
I don't know why we still do it. Probably because neither one of us wants to be the one to suggest we stop. My older sister and I used to have these really expansive made-up worlds, and we kept it going for so long, and as soon as she hinted we might be too old it was all over. And this is how Marco and I started off. We hardly knew each other, and then one of the fish in our first grade classroom went missing and we jumped on the case. It's just something to do, but it's just something that's ours.
Anyway, Sasha doesn't sound judgmental, even though she's definitely trying to. She sounds intrigued. She wants to be a journalist, and she can never decide if we're giving investigative writing a bad name or if we're living the dream while she's still stuck in real life.
Mysteries are exciting. This one is starting small, but you never know what one clue will uncover. The mystery of Ms. Lagerman's hamster in fifth grade started out with Peepers looking a little bloated one morning. It ended with eleven hamster babies. Marco got to keep one because he was the one who diagnosed her with The Pregnant. He offered the baby to me, but I thought my sister would eat it.
He nods toward my notebook, so I turn back to it and begin copying down the details of the incident as we know them so far. Desk. Karate man, tilted about forty degrees. I write forty-three because it sounds more technical.
I don't think anyone else in the class has a clue what's going on. Even Sasha doesn't know what we're writing about exactly, and she should really stop trying to sound hardcore and be thankful that Marco and I are keeping a close watch on this school. Without us, no one ever would have figured out that it was the chicken fingers that sent forty kids home puking before they poisoned another batch. Without us, everyone would still be wondering who stole all the dodge balls out of the crate by the playground.
"This school's going to fall apart without us," Marco always says.
I write, Need to get a closer look, meaning I think we should stall by Mr. Takeda's desk for a few extra seconds on our way out, but Marco reads this, and then thrusts his hand right up in the air.
Mr. Takeda waits for Aimee to finish talking, then raises his eyebrows at Marco. "Yes, Mr. Kimura?"
Marco says, "Would it be a major interruption to the class if Stephen and I ran a criminal investigation in the background of this discussion? Considering this isn't a real class and that this isn't a real day of school, and that technically speaking it probably isn't an actual criminal investigation. Likely vandalism or property theft. Nevertheless, this is a matter of national concern and importance, and you could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice. If need be."
The guy has no shame. It's like someone removed his shame gland.
I think he's probably just trying to show off, though. He has this habit of playing up everything about him whenever Benji's around, even the parts of him that aren't particularly impressive, which I think is weird, but hey, I support Marco. It's what I do. Even when he's embarrassing. Even when he's a jerk.
"And what exactly will you be investigating?" Mr. Takeda says.
"There's a karate man on your desk."
Mr. Takeda looks at it and frowns a little. Then he crosses over to his desk and picks it up.
Marco groans. "Now we can't dust for prints, sir."
Mr. Takeda takes the piece of paper out from under the karate man's arm. He unrolls it.
Marco says, "No offense, sir, but this is really a job better left to professionals. Here." He gets out of his desk and goes up to the front of the room. "Stephen, come on."
I follow him.
"Boys," Mr. Takeda says, but not like he really cares. He's had Marco in his homeroom for three years. He knows to pick his battles, I guess.
Marco peers over Mr. Takeda's elbow. "It has Xs over its eyes, Stephen," he says. "Like when Wile E. Coyote dies in Looney Tunes."
I write this down. "I need a picture of that."
"Okay, later. I'm still conducting a primary visual investigation." Marco doesn't know how to share. He's an only child, at least until next week. "He has a scroll or something."
"What's it say?" Benji says.
Marco's head snaps up like it's on a string. He looks at Benji and bites his lip. Then he looks down at the karate man and then back up at Benji, everything around him entirely forgotten.
"Marco," I say.
He looks at me and nods a little, and he's back to reality in time to see Mr. Takeda unroll the scroll. But he barely gets a glimpse of it before Mr. Takeda folds it back up and puts it into his pocket.
"Back to your seats," he says.
Sasha says, "Come on, what did it say? Marco, you saw it."
"I don't know," he says. "It looked like Japanese or something."
Luke mumbles, "You look like Japanese or something."
I turn to him and say, "Hey," but Marco doesn't say anything, so I drop it.
Tabitha and Lauren, who are practically identical but not even related, sit on their desks to try to see what Marco's doing and go "What does it say?" at the same time.
Marco recites the only Japanese sentence he knows, which means I don't speak Japanese. His dad didn't want him to learn to speak it—I don't know why—but he taught him how to say that, at least.
Except I'm the only one who knows what it means, and that's only because I've heard Marco say it a million times. The whole rest of the class is staring at him, waiting for him to translate. He groans hard. "I don't know what it means. I speak Italian. Not Japanese." He's half-Italian, half-Japanese. Italian first name, Japanese last name.
I say, "Mr. Takeda, do you have any idea who might have left you this karate man? Do you have a secret admirer? Is it your birthday?" I check the notebook. "No, it's not your birthday."
"Back to your seats, boys." But he doesn't seem mad. Just tired.
I look at Marco, silently asking him if we should give in, and he shrugs and nods so we go back and sit down. In this quiet voice, Benji goes, "Welcome back, Marco."
This moment means so ridiculously much to Marco, I can't even explain.
Meanwhile, Sasha's still rolling her eyes at us. Pretending like she didn't care as much as everybody else what that scroll says. Not that it would matter, because I have to pay attention to everything Benji says to Marco, because Marco will make me confirm everything later. He smiled, right? He said my name all intense, right?
Out of all the entries in our notebook, Benji's is the longest, because Marco added little bits of commentary to all his bullet points. Every one of my bullet points.
BENJAMIN JAMES CONNELLY
• birthday: 3/9/97 (EXACTLY two and a half months before my birthday!)
• two older brothers: Nathan and Mark (WHICH SOUNDS LIKE MARCO)
• plays bass in Nathan's band, THE FLOOR IS LAVA (I love them.)
• born just outside of London (and his accent is perfect)
• goes back to England every summer for soccer camp (He plays midfield. Why isn't that already in the notebook, Stephen? God. MIDFIELD. He plays midfield.)
• stays in England for the whole summer (I don't want to talk about it. I love him.)
• makes Marco act like a little girl (bite me)
Mr. Takeda says, "Mr. Connelly, would you like to tell us your plans?"
But instead Benji says, "Please tell us what the scroll says, sir. We can't concentrate," and I swear he makes that accent even heavier, which makes him sound all young and innocent, which I guess is the point.
Mr. Takeda says, "I can't really be sure, considering the terrible quality of the translation. Not to mention the penmanship. It's not important, but if anyone knows anything about this, come see me after class, okay? No one's in trouble."
"I was the first one in here," Tabitha says. "And it was already on your desk. I saw it."
I say, "It wasn't here yesterday. It would have been in my report." I hold it up. Luke snickers. Shut up, Luke.
"Thank you, Miss Baker, Mr. Katz," Mr. Takeda says to us.
"It wasn't me," Marco says. "I don't know Japanese."
Mr. Takeda shushes him a little and puts his hand on Marco's desk. It's this really gentle touch, like he's patting Marco's shoulder or the top of his head instead. But he isn't.
"I don't," Marco says. "It wasn't me."
"Looks kinda suspicious to me," Troy mumbles from the back of the class.
Marco turns around. "It wasn't me. Why would I do something with a karate guy? I don't even know karate."
Sasha lights up. "I know karate! Oh. But I didn't do it."
"Thank you, Miss McGuire. Mr. Kimura."
Sasha and Marco both slump down a little. Mr. Takeda is the only one of our teachers who calls us miss and mister. I think he does it to make us feel old, but somehow it makes us feel way, way younger.
He claps his hands together. "We have ten minutes until assembly. Who hasn't told us their summer plans?"
"Benji hasn't," Marco says, but Katherine starts talking instead, so Marco rolls his eyes and picks his pen up. HATE CRIME? he writes in big letters.
I glance at Mr. Takeda. He's doing a really good job at acting calm.
Maybe I write. I don't know. Marco thinks everything is a hate crime, always. There's been this really gross rash of them at the high school lately, and he's waiting for them to hit our school, I guess.
Katherine finishes, and Mr. Takeda gives her a smile and says, "Mr. Connelly, I believe it's your turn."
Benji says, "Not really anything out of the ordinary, sir. Going back to London early Sunday morning."
Marco startles and fumbles with the pen. I pick it up and put it back in his hand. He nods a little, staring at Benji.
Mr. Takeda says, "You won't be at graduation?" We have this graduation ceremony on Sunday afternoon. Our teachers are all acting like it's a big deal. My mom tears up whenever I mention it. It's this whole thing. But, honestly, it's probably going to be really boring, if it's anything like my sister Julia's was. It's just a bunch of teachers giving speeches.
"Afraid not, sir," Benji says. "Flight leaves brutally early Sunday morning."
That's not enough time Marco writes, taking up almost the whole page. Marco writes in huge letters when he's excited. It's why he's not allowed to write the case reports.
Enough time for what?
"Mr. Katz, if you please," Mr. Takeda says. I crumple the note up, fast, and he exhales. "Thank you. Don't let me catch you again."
Like there aren't three hours left of school, or something. But I'm perfectly content to shut up and stay out of trouble for the rest of the day—my hair is still blue, okay?—but Marco pulls me over to his desk when homeroom is over. I make a really halfhearted attempt to get away, but he's intense about getting this job done. His attention barely even wavers when Benji walks by and smiles at him. He's serious.
Mr. Takeda says, "I guess you two need a picture." I shouldn't be surprised. Mr. Takeda adores Marco. He's the one who nominated Marco for his big award.
"If that's okay," I say.
Marco nods hard. "We're going to have the perpetrator brought to justice."
Mr. Takeda gives us a tired smile. "It's nothing to worry about. He picks up his thermos and sighs. "I need coffee."
I snap a picture, and Marco sticks out his hand to Mr. Takeda. "Don't worry. Detective work is our life." He doesn't leave until he gets that handshake.
But as we walk out and head toward assembly, Marco's shoulders slump and he sticks his hands in his pockets. He doesn't look like an investigator, just like my exhausted, lovesick best friend. "Benji is my life." He sighs. "And he's leaving."
Copyright © 2013 by Hannah Moskowitz