The Unusual Proposition
Abraham Foellinger and I are not friends. Never have been, never will be. We don't go fishing together, and we don't go clubbing together, and he's told me what he does for a living at least a dozen times now but it must not be anything exciting because I honestly can't remember what it was.
Don't get me wrong, I like Abraham, and I care about how he's doing. Not what he's doing – I'm sure it's something really science-y and achievement-y that won't interest me at all – but how he's doing. I would guess he feels the same about me. I mean, I can see him sitting in some martini-slinging jazz club thinking 'God, I bet Tyler's doing something really normal right now, that jerk!' even though if I texted him the words 'four fingers' right now he'd set down his martini and get his ass over here. And honestly, we'd probably find it pretty hard to have to do without one another in the long run. That's why we've never wanted to risk becoming friends.
Not that I'm against having friends – having friends is awesome! I've had a shit ton of friends in my life, whole generations of them. I owe at least half of them a Christmas card and the other half money. But this story isn't about any of my lapsed and predictable friendships.
The relationship between Abraham Foellinger and myself is not a friendship in the same way that an AK-47 is not a crossbow.
You'll have to excuse me if I don't tell this story with complete accuracy. My memory's starting to wither up as I age; the awesome bits jump out at me like boxes falling off the top shelf of a long-shut closet, demanding to be given full dramatic due. But given the choice between trivializing the only great series of events I may ever have to tell, and exaggerating it, I'd rather err on the side of epic.
It all started in the fifth grade when Abraham approached me at lunchtime with an unusual proposition. Back then lunchtime wasn't a desirable social break you waited all morning for so much as the half-period immediately preceding recess. A parking lot tailgate outside the stadium, if you will. We didn't even stress about who to sit with because the teachers had crammed us all into three long tables, and it wouldn't have occurred to us to segregate the ends by anything but gender.
At the hour in question, I was just about as bored as a kid could get without the help of a teacher or an institution of high finance. My friends, Tim, Ross, and Nathan were going on about some trading card game with mages in it. I wasn't sure what mages were, but apparently they didn't wave their arms and shout, 'MAAAAGE!', because Nathan got very snippy with me when I tried this particular role playing technique, then went back to telling Tim about his big shiny enchanted bough.
"Seriously though, the plant class is really useful," said Nathan. "It's like having all your regular cards twice!"
"Really?" said Ross, my most easily impressed friend. "That sounds great!"
Tim shook his head knowledgeably. "Plants are a joke. They can't even attack. They're like ... the pit crew of Dalemark. I'll hook you up with some 'tackers, Ross; they're all you really need."
"No way, fool!" Nathan protested. "I could take your whole 'tack line with one roan magid and a stack of oaks."
And you know, I honestly believe Nathan thought he sounded really cool delivering lines like these. You could practically see his mind drifting off behind his eyes as he fantasized himself into some faraway battle in which, perched on a majestic red horsey thing, he led a charge of sentient trees screaming across the gumdrop meadow and straight through Tim's army of pointy shoe dudes.
Ignoring him, Tim turned back to Ross. "Just give me two enchanters and a bounder. I'm doing you a favor because you're new at this."
Now, like you, I didn't care in the slightest about Dalemark. Sometime in the recent past, board games had become cool again, but my hyperactive pubescent brain was still trying to wrap itself around why. In the back of my mind I knew Nathan would end up ripping Ross off, Tim would own both of them, and maybe we could finally go play basketball. But with my luck, I feared they could keep this up all recess long.
I sat back and allowed my attention to wander to other parts of the cafeteria. It was an energetic place, despite all the faded paint and floor detritus. Next to us, the girls were playing that girly game with the linked pinkies and the chanting. Across the room, some little kids were trying to build a plastic spoon tower. They didn't have any glue or anything, just vanilla pudding, so their tower fell over a lot, but every time it did, they just giggled harder.
"No!" a little girl kept saying. "You're going to crush the ballroom!"
"It's fine," said her friend. "The bees haven't moved in yet. We'll just wait until we're done and get a hairdryer and dry it like in art class and then they can move in."
"You can't dry pudding," the girl insisted. "It's too floppy."
But the other girl was pretty sure you could dry anything if it got hot enough. Her dad said so.
I continued to watch the girls with a healthy amount of mean amusement, because clearly they still had a lot to learn about the world, but also no small amount of envy, because, well, they still had a lot to learn about the world. Why didn't my friends and I ever do anything fun like that anymore? Yes, we were in the double digits now, but couldn't we occasionally set aside our dignity and build something out of pudding? Presently, I got up and went to go get a drink of water, very tired of life.
Right as I passed the garbage can, I felt a tap on the shoulder. My surprised brain placed the tapper as Abraham Foellinger. This was not to say I knew Abraham on any sort of personal level, because I didn't; we just went to that kind of school. For instance, I don't think I ever spoke two words in my life to Katie French, but if forty-seven years from now, in the muddled twilight of my life, you were to place a 2006 Dunmore Elementary yearbook in front of me, open it to Mrs. Santucci's fifth grade class, and point to a particular fuzzy-haired headshot, I would involuntarily say, "Katie French!" Sometimes I wish I could put those previously allocated memory cells to a more useful use, but there you go.
I had no idea what Abraham might want with me. When you think about it, most taps on the shoulder from strangers end with either a request for a favor (e.g. 'Please pass the mustard'), or an embarrassing revelation about your deficiencies in personal hygiene (e.g. 'You've got mustard on your shirt') . But Abraham just motioned for me to follow him, no obvious mustard bottles in sight – and I did.
Let's be honest, the day we met, Abraham was about as poised as a hummingbird. I wish I could say this adventure began with some memorable and badass catchphrase, like 'I have an idea that's going to change your life forever, and you're going to LIKE it.' But the kid walked like a coast guard and spoke like a train conductor, so I'll just tell you how it really went down.
"Hello, Tyler Freimann," he said when we'd reached a reasonably quiet corner.
"Hi," I replied, curious. "Abraham, right?"
"Yes," he said, playing with a button on his pocket. After a long pause, he added, with a hint of hope, "Maybe you've heard of me."
I nodded. Abraham was the kind of kid everyone in our small class knew by reputation – and the color of that reputation was a mixed one. He was what I like to call 'kid-brilliant': he came out with schemes that made kids sigh in awe and adults chuckle in appreciation of the sheer creativity involved. They tended to require at least two random leaps of logic that you couldn't possibly make unless Abraham was holding your hand the whole time, dragging you along with him. And afterward, you'd swear the idea made sense when he'd explained it to you.
In fourth grade, he convinced half the school to wear red socks on the same day in a show of solidarity against the dress code. In third grade, he led his side of Cambridge Lane against mine in the most epic snowball battle I've ever seen. Knocked me right down with a powdery projectile from his homemade trebuchet. We all thought he was kind of a neat kid when we were really little, but I guess one day we woke up and realized memorizing an eight-page symbol code for passing notes in class just wasn't the thing anymore.
Abraham's lips kept opening and closing, as if he didn't know how to do this.
"So what's up?" I asked.
Abraham looked around for a long time before answering. Finally, he seemed to remember I was there."I've been thinking," he said. "Remember in social studies today when we learned about allies?"
Obviously I didn't; I'd spent the whole period drawing stylized bubble letters on my folder like any self-respecting ten-year-old. "No."
"What? But you were present in social studies."
I shrugged. "Let's say I forgot."
"But it was only an hour ago!"
"Are you going to tell me what allies are or not?"
Abraham sighed. "Well they're like ... teams for fighting. Countries have them. Like ... in the Middle Ages, England and France fought all the time. So then England made America and they were allies and they kicked France out of the New World. But then America got mad at England and was allies with France and they kicked England out of the New World. And then a lot later England, France and America were all allies and they beat Germany and Japan forever!"
He cleared his throat. "So," he said. "We should be allies."
I wrinkled my brow. "What? Why?"
"Think about it. You never know when you'll need an ally, because you never know when you're going to get in a fight. The archduke didn't know he was going to get in a fight. Maybe if he'd had an ally he'd be alive today!"
Still confused. "But who would we fight?"
"Well no one yet."
"Hey, let's fight Joey Hull and them!"
"Uh ... no," he said. "It's not like, you fight people on purpose or anything. But if we ever ended up in a fight, we'd promise to be allies."
"Do you get in a lot of fights?" I asked, because he didn't seem the rough-and-tumble type to me.
"No! But wouldn't you feel better knowing you had an ally anyway? It's just smart! You wouldn't have to be afraid of losing a fight."
"I guess it couldn't hurt," I said, seeing the sense in this arrangement but fervently hoping I wouldn't end up in any big wars before middle school. "Like actual fights with our bodies, or does teasing count?"
He pursed his lips. "Any time we're really in trouble. Maybe we can make up a secret signal."
He'd said the magic words. What life couldn't be made 59% more badass with the addition of secret signals? It would be like playing comic book heroes, but all the time. "Like a bird call!"
Abraham laughed. "Probably something that's not so obvious."
"Oh, right ... maybe a flashlight? I know how to make lots of shadows with flashlights."
"Maybe," said Abraham carefully. "So are you in?"
Something about the way he said this told me he wasn't going to go away until I agreed.
"Okay," I said. "We can be allies."
"Great. Sign this," said Abraham, holding out a new sheet of loose leaf printed in childishly careful script.
"I don't have a pencil."
Sighing at how unprepared I was for this completely unexpected event, Abraham handed me a pencil. Now that I think about it, you're supposed to sign a contract in ink. I could've wimped out whenever I wanted. But by the time I'd realized, leaving my alliance with Abraham wasn't really an option anymore.
With that, I returned to my friends, and we left to pursue our normal recess activities.
"What did Foellinger want?" asked Nathan, lazily bouncing his basketball.
"It's a secret," I said.
Nathan looked at Tim, who looked back. "Did he ask you to be allies?" asked Tim, as if he already knew the answer.
"Yeah! Did he ask you, too? Are we all allies now?"
Nathan caught the basketball and shook his head. "You must be in Tyler Land today," he said. "He's asked half the class already. You didn't actually say yes, did you?"
I tried to look innocent.
Tim smacked his head. "Bats in hats, Tyler! Don't you remember the pond race?"
Ah, yes, I did vaguely remember the pond race, an ill-fated venture of Abraham's in which he had tried, and failed, to swim across a pond faster than Connor Rowland could paddle his older brother's kayak. But that had been nearly a year ago. Could one silly shenanigan really mark a kid for life? Perhaps the contract had some sort of magical powers, because I found myself wanting to defend Abraham.
"He doesn't even speak English," Nathan added. "He speaks some weird alphabet language. Why would you say yes?"
"He just spoke English to me," I said uncertainly.
"Well then, he'll understand you when you say you changed your mind," said Nathan.
"I can't. I signed a contract," I said. "Maybe it'll be fine. It didn't sound too hard."
"Why does he want allies?" asked Ross.
Nathan laughed. "He probably knows someone who wants to beat him up."
I swallowed. "Really?"
"He's a smart kid," said Tim. "He probably knows it's only a matter of time."
"Yeah," said Nathan. "And now they'll have to beat up Tyler, too."
I glanced at Abraham a few times during the afternoon, to make sure he wasn't in any fights. He wasn't. He seemed to be trying to start a conversation with various classmates using long sentences of complete gibberish. All of them responded with a cryptic "A-X-D!" before walking away.
I was in trouble.