Time was passing, but bringing no resolution. Spring was showing the promise of summer to come as the days grew longer. Michael’s second CT scan was normal and after a week he returned to school. Dewey walked Kit home from the bus stop after her ballet lessons until Michael could take over. Every time Michael walked past the house, he could not bear to look at it and turned his head away.
The missing girl had not turned up. The police department was now declaring her a “possible homicide”, but had no clues to follow. Her case went from front page news to the back page and then slowly disappeared. Except for her grieving parents, it was as if she had never existed.
Michael wanted to celebrate his sixteenth birthday with little fanfare. His parents splurged and charged a mountain bike on a credit card to compensate for his temporary banishment from his skateboard. They were desperate to do something to help relieve the melancholy that seemed to engulf him. Michael had to blink away tears when they brought him downstairs to see it that morning. He’d asked for nothing for his birthday because he knew his parents’ finances. Seeing the shiny blue Trek in the living room filled him with a mixture of joy, gratitude--and guilt.
Dewey expressed admiration when he saw it. He had turned seventeen and now had his driver’s license. His parents had purchased him a small used car, though limits had been placed on just when he was allowed to drive it. Still, it was a car, a first step to adulthood that was approaching far too quickly, if he gave himself time to think about it. College was looming and he did not feel ready.
Short Round’s sixteenth birthday was approaching. Feeling an emotion—guilt—that he claimed he did not possess, he wanted to mend fences with Michael and invite him to his family celebration. No one knew better that his ego and temper set him up to get in trouble if he didn’t control himself. He was counting on Dewey to smooth the way for a reconciliation, but he would have to approach Mike and that would involve no small amount of humility. Humility was something that he did not do well, but he, Mike, and Dewey had known each other since childhood, practically since they were little boys. Michael’s friendship was far too valuable a thing to throw away.
There was not a day that passed that Short Round did not miss his grandfather. If he had asked him what he should do, his grandfather would have thumped him on his head and said, “Go see your friend Mike. Tell him you’re sorry”. In those days that was all it would have taken.
A wave of nostalgia passed over him and he suddenly felt the urge to visit the old man’s room. Though he was no longer living, it had been left just as it was when he was alive. The family still retained their traditional beliefs, but it had been Grandfather who had kept the rituals alive.
No one had been in Grandfather’s room since he died. It seemed to be an unspoken rule that the old man’s shrine should be left undisturbed, as though it were his tomb. Short Round hesitated for a long moment before he opened the door and went inside. For a moment he was not in the now, but instead he, Dewey, and Michael were sitting at the old man’s feet, listening to the stories Grandfather seemed to have in endless supply. They were eating sticky rice balls, licking their fingers and sipping from the cups of jasmine tea he had poured.
Short Round drew a deep breath and shook off the vision. If there was a power in this room, it was a good one. He took the cloth he had brought and wiped the dust off the brass Buddha and the altar. He took a vase and filled it with water, then placed in it the small bouquet of carnations he’d bought. He placed three satsumas in front of the statue of Buddha, as the old man used to, and put a candle in a holder at each end of the altar. He fumbled in a drawer looking for the incense that he knew must be there, placed the sticks in the holder, then sat down to admire his work.
He lit the incense and knelt in front of the altar. All that was missing was the scent of the liniment the old man had used. He closed his eyes and tried to remember the sight of his grandfather praying in this very spot.
He put his palms together and began chanting softly. He had prayed with the old man so often that the words came back to him without effort. He wished he had his grandfather’s prayer beads, but they had disappeared, so all he could do was to focus and chant.
As he chanted, he remembered his grandfather’s stories about escorting American soldiers along hidden trails in VC territory. Sometimes they would run into an ambush and the Hmong and Americans fought side by side, looking out for each other. He remembered hearing about the American who had sponsored Grandfather and his family into the after the end of the Vietnam War.
Grandfather had held that up to his children and grandchildren as true examples of friendship. “Never forget your friends,” he would always say, “and you will not be forgotten.”
Short Round sometimes wished he had taught him something more useful, like how to banish spirits. Their family practices combined both Shamanism and Buddhism, and Grandfather had known how to banish ghosts. If he knew how, he’d banish the ghost that was haunting Mike so that his friend could go back to living a normal life again.
“There is no such thing as a normal life.” Short Round backed away suddenly from the altar. He recognized the voice that had spoken those words. Grandfather had promised that he would always be there if the family needed him and Short Round needed him now more than ever.
“There is no such thing as a normal life.” When had Grandfather told him that? He realized the truth of that now. Mike couldn’t have a normal life, not any more. Compared to the other kids in school, Short Round knew he did not have a normal life, either. Grandfather would have said that Mike would have to learn to manage as best he could. Short Round had no great love for Michael’s ghostly companion, but maybe she was there because he needed her. Mike was doing the best he could, ghost or no ghost. Short Round blew out the candles, but left the incense lit as he let himself out of the room. He had been given his answer.
A few days later, he was alone at the skate park, waiting. Ordinarily he enjoyed having it to himself, not having to share, but today the concrete course seemed too empty. He had the feeling that if he stood at the bottom and yelled, there would be an echo that would go on and on until it passed into infinity. People strolled past the park; some stared at the young Asian boy in his torn t-shirt and mohawk holding his skateboard, shaking their heads. Short Round pretended he didn’t care. He lived his life rushing headlong through it, as if he had no plans, caring for nothing. Those close to him knew better.
He felt guilty about not visiting Mike in the hospital, not talking to him, walking away from the best friend he could have lost. His anger at Mike stemmed from worry, not the blind fury it must have seemed. He had come around to realize Mike didn’t know about these things. Short Round and his family felt the spirit of Grandfather in the house, a caring presence that looked after his loved ones. It was different with a ghost you didn’t know. Harmless footsteps in a hallway could turn to angrily slamming doors, then scratches on your arm that burned like fire. It was then that you better call in the shaman and have the spirit removed before real harm came to your family.
Short Round sighed. He should have kept his cool and explained it to Mike. He wasn’t about to go near the ghost girl himself, but maybe he could have told Mike what he needed to do to protect himself—just in case.
He looked at his watch: it was almost time. “Don’t be late,” Dewey had warned him. As if on cue, Michael and Dewey entered the skate park together, Michael pushing his BMX. Dewey held up his hand in greeting, Michael looked as though he didn’t know what he should do. Short Round watched the two confer quietly, then Dewey pushed Michael towards the Short Round.
“Here goes,” he thought. He forced a smile. He wanted to make this work—he missed his friend. It was an effort to take each step to where Short Round stood, but it was take them, or lose his friend for good.
“How are you going to retain your title of king of the skate park riding that thing, Blondie?” Short Round pointed to Michael’s bike.
“I’m better on my BMX any day of the week than you are on your skateboard, just wait till the doc clears me to skate again.” Michael was smiling the broad grin that few saw these days.
“You think?” Short Round countered, “Oh, you’re coming to my birthday party, right?” He paused for a moment before saying the words that always came so hard for him. “And dude, I’m sorry—for everything. I mean it.” He looked at Michael, searched his eyes, hoping the apology was enough, however brief it had been.
Michael tried to shrug off his embarrassment. This was hard for him, too. “It’s cool,” he said, trying to stifle the emotions that wanted to well up. “Don’t worry about it. I’d only be pissed if you hadn’t invited me to your birthday party. Will you ask your mom to fix that peanut sauce dish I like?” Yes I do forgive you, his smile said. He punched Short Round on the shoulder, “Let’s get on the course now before anyone comes and we have to share it.”
They spent the bulk of the afternoon at the skate park. Neither of the other boys said anything about Michael not being on his skateboard, nor did they mention the helmet. By unspoken consent, the accident was to be treated as if it never had happened. Short Round had invited Michael to his birthday party and the Band of Brothers were together again.
Renewing their friendship provided a relief that nothing else could. When they took breaks, their conversations seemed continuations of what they had been before the rift. Short Round didn’t need to say “I missed you,” any more than Michael did. They just allowed their friendship to take up where it left off.