It promised to be a long summer. Murray Bozinsky looked glumly down the tree-lined street. Melba was away at camp, leaving him at a loose end - an ill-timed attack of conjunctivitis had kept him home. Not that he minded missing out on camp - his parents never sent him anywhere cool like the science or archaeology camps some of his friends in the extended class got to take - but a summer home alone without his sister, in a brand new neighborhood, would probably be worse.
Especially since his mom had gotten the idea he was skinny and pale from studying too hard, and forbidden him from touching any of his projects before three o'clock in the afternoon.
Murray scuffed his shoes as he wandered down the sidewalk. What he needed was a map and a bus timetable. He still wasn't sure how to get downtown, but once he figured it out, and figured out how to get at Melba's stash of quarters, he'd be able to sneak away to the library. As long as he didn't bring books home his mom would never be the wiser.
"Psst! Hey! Hey, kid!"
Murray started at the sharp whisper, reflexively crossing his arms over his chest. He turned to face the speaker, poised to run.
But the boy hailing him didn't look belligerent. Nor was he wearing the fake friendly smile Murray was still learning to recognize. He had black hair and olive skin, and was about a year older than Murray. And the expression on his face was one of focused anxiety.
"Are-are you talking to me?"
"Yeah." The older boy coughed and emerged from the bush where he'd been partly concealed, glancing around him as he did so as though fearful of being observed. "You live around here?"
"Sure." Murray pointed behind him to the white house on the corner, the big new one his dad wouldn't stop bragging about. "There."
"Would your mom give you a band aid if you asked? Without wanting to see the cut, I mean."
"Are you hurt?" Murray was thoroughly bewildered, but found the older boy's air of anxiety communicating itself to him. "I can get band aids, sure. Mom wont even notice."
"Not me." The dark boy jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "My friend. I don't live around here and we can't go to his place - can you get me two? Quick?"
"Sure." Murray sped down the street to his house and ran to the back door. His mom was out, and his dad was busy on the phone. 'Working the markets,' his dad called it. 'The shout job,' Murray and Melba called it, because since their father had stopped going to the city every day, shout was all he did.
There was a stool in the bathroom to help Melba reach the sink. Murray lined it up carefully, climbed up and opened the cabinet on the wall where the medicines were kept. He selected a box of band aids, then hesitated, thinking of the anxiety in the dark haired boy's voice.
Murray ran to the kitchen and found one of the used paper sacks his mom saved. Back in the bathroom, he loaded it with antiseptic, gauze, the bandaids and a package of aspirin for good measure. Then he carefully closed the cabinet, restored the stool to its place, and ran back down the street to help.
There was no-one was beside the bush when Murray returned. He looked around cautiously then called out in a low voice. "I'm back!"
There was a moment's silence and Murray wondered if it was all an elaborate joke. Then the vegetation rustled, and the boy reappeared, his face flushed, frowning. Wordlessly, he held out his hand, and Murray passed him the sack. "I brought everything I could think of," he said lamely.
"Thanks, little guy." With a sudden warm smile, the other boy looked much less forbidding. Murray risked a smile back.
But the olive-skinned boy hardly seemed to notice. He turned and pushed his way back into the shrubbery. Murray hesitated, then wriggled through the leaves in his wake.
The bush gave way to garden and more dense greenery, then the high wooden fence between two properties. Murray followed uncertainly beside the tall wooden palings.
The other boy skirted a large clump of flowers then dropped to his knees. Murray sped up, and found him kneeling beside a blond boy, seated on the dirt with his knees drawn up.
There were tears on the blond's face, and blood oozed sluggishly from a scrape on his knee.
"Are you all right?" Murray exclaimed.
The blond looked at him, then at the dark boy. "Who's he?"
"Just a kid." The olive skinned boy put his arm around the blond, fishing in the bag with his other hand. Murray took it from him. He soaked a wad of gauze in antiseptic then passed it over.
The dark-haired boy pressed the gauze to the blond's knee. The blond's lip quivered, but he didn't make a sound as the graze was cleaned and then safely covered with band aids.
"Thanks, kid," the dark-haired boy said dismissively, giving Murray a fleeting smile.
"Nick, wait." The blond scrambled to his feet and gave Murray a real smile. "Thank you. I'm Cody Allen and this is Nick Ryder. What's your name?"
"Murray Bozinsky." Murray tried a tentative smile back. No-one punched him, so he risked a grin. "Does it hurt?"
"It's okay now." Cody grinned, grabbed Nick's arm, and said something in a low voice that Murray didn't catch. Whatever it was, it produced a real, wide smile on Nick's face.
"Sure, Cody. Say, Murray, do you want to hang with us? You seem like kind of a cool guy."
Murray turned scarlet. In all his nine years, he'd been called a lot of things by other kids, but 'kind of a cool guy' had never been one of them. Especially not by big boys like Nick and Cody. "You-you want me to hang out with you guys? Really?"
A shadow crossed Nick's face. "Well, sure. If you're allowed, that is? I, uh, um-"
Cody nudged him and Nick fell silent. "If your mom needs to call my parents, she can," Cody said smoothly. "Nick's folks are, uh, kinda hard to get ahold of."
"Mom doesn't - " Murray shook his head. "If-if you want me to come along, I'd really like it."
When Cody got to choose the game, the treehouse was a pirate galleon. Cody was the captain and Nick and Murray were by turns his trusty shipmates, his prisoners or his adversaries, hunting the ship across the seven seas. When it was Murray's turn, the treehouse was a spaceship or a submarine, or on one exciting occasion a pyramid. Nick got to be the mummy, and they were so engrossed in their game they were an hour late home. Cody didn't come to play the next day.
The day after, he turned up with dark circles under his eyes and bruises on his arms. "I had nightmares about the mummy," he explained, looking carefully at the ground.
Nick put his arm around Cody. "We're not playing mummies today," he said firmly. "We're gonna play school, and Murray, you're gonna be the teacher."
Murray had a great time. At home, he'd been working on a project about the solar system, and explaining the makeup of Saturn's rings to a captive, rapt audience was really boss.
Even if one half of the captive audience was leaning on the other; Cody's blond head on Nick's shoulder, Nick's arm tight around him. From time to time, Nick lowered his head and said something under his breath into Cody's ear.
After that, Nick policed their time-keeping carefully. He was their leader; Cody and Murray both followed him unquestioningly. Although they all had turns to choose their games, Nick had power of veto, and if the rules showed signs of coming unstuck, it was Nick who stepped in and laid them out again.
When it was Nick's turn, the treehouse was sometimes a helicopter in a warzone, under attack. Or sometimes it was a castle with dragons trying to break in, or a mountain stronghold threatened by trolls.
"They're after the princess," Nick shouted. "To arms, men!"
First they held off the attack, shooting arrows from the treehouse at a nearby camellia bush. Then on the ground, retrieving the toy arrows from Murray's new bow-and-arrow set, Nick pounced on Cody. "I'm a troll! I've stolen the princess!"
Amid giggles, Cody cried out for rescue. Murray ambushed from a large, decorative fern and suddenly he was a troll with Nick on the attack. He rolled breathlessly in the dirt as Nick jumped up on a treestump, brandishing his wooden dagger. "I have saved the Princess Rosebriar Cody from the evil Trollinsky!"
"Have not!" Murray leaped to his feet, grabbed Cody's arm, and ran.
They made it back to the treehouse first and barred the door, giggling. Unperturbed, Nick climbed through the window. "Hold, foul troll! The princess is mine!"
There was a brief melee, and the three boys ended on the floor, laughing. Cody was half-lying across Nick's lap.
"That was a good game. But how come I always have to be the princess? Murray should be the princess."
Nick grinned and winked at Murray. Murray felt his heart swell. No-one except Melba had ever winked at him before.
"Nah, man. Murray can't be the princess. Princesses are always blond, you know?" Nick ran a hand through Cody's hair.
"Snow White's not," Cody said, frowning. "She has black hair."
"But we don't play Snow White," Nick said reasonably. "That'd be a boring game. And anyway, Murray doesn't want to be a dwarf."
Murray stuck out his tongue in pretend annoyance, then leaned back against the treehouse wall. "I wish this summer would go on forever," he said dreamily.
"Nothing lasts forever," Nick said firmly. Murray looked at him. Nick was still playing with Cody's hair, and Cody was looking up at him, his expression slightly worried. "Nothing lasts forever, and that's a good thing. Because we're gonna grow up and things are going to get better and better, you know? We'll be able to do this kind of stuff for real!"
"What, save princesses?"
"Sure, Murray, why not? Save regular people, anyhow. Fly helicopters, an' sail ships, an' go to outer space."
Murray bit his lip. "I like hanging out with you guys."
"We'll still hang out, Murray." Cody sat up and leaned his shoulder against Nick. "All three of us. We'll get a great big boat, and live there together. We're gonna be like Batman and Robin. We'll fight crime and hang out, and no-one will know who we really are."
Nick was nodding, grinning at both of them. Murray wondered if it was possible to die from pure happiness. "Do you-do you think my little sister could live with us too?"
Nick and Cody looked at one another. "She can visit whenever she wants," Nick said at last. "But we wont let girls live aboard out boat. That'd spoil everything."
"There won't be anyone to tell us what to do," Cody continued. "We'll stay up late whenever we want, and go swimming, and drink milkshakes. And we'll never eat vegetables except the ones we like."
"Who'll do the cooking?" Murray was struck by concern. "I know how to make scrambled eggs, but that's all. Will we have a-a campfire?" He was kind of hazy about the facilities boats came with.
"I know how," Nick said, "and I'll teach you guys when we get our boat."
"It'll have a big kitchen," Cody said dreamily. "And a big salon, which is like a den, and bedrooms for all of us, and a bathroom. It'll be just like my grandad's boat."
"Bedrooms for all of us? You mean we get our own rooms?" Murray had shared with Melba all his life. He liked sharing with his sister, but the idea of his own space, where he could do all the experiments he wanted- - "Guys, can I bring my chemistry set?"
"You sure can. And you can have your own room, but Cody's gonna sleep in my room. He gets scared of the dark."
"Oh yeah? You want a room by yourself after all, big guy?" Nick's gentle tease laid Cody's bristles immediately.
"No," Cody said sulkily. "But why'd you have to tell Murray?"
Nick broke out into a huge, warm grin. "Because Murray's our best friend, Cody. He's not gonna tell anyone, right, Murray?"
Murray shook his head slowly, gazing at Nick in wide eyed amazement. No-one had ever wanted to be friends with him before, and now Nick was saying he was their best friend. "I'll never tell," he blurted. "Never. You guys are my best friends too."
"We wont tell anyone about our boat either," Cody said. "Not now, and not even when we live there. No-one will be able to find us, and if they do, we'll just sail off."
A few minutes later, Nick called time on the day. Nick and Cody set off toward the back door of Cody's house - Nick always walked Cody home, every day, before disappearing down the street. Murray had never found out where Nick lived. Murray waved goodbye to his friends then walked home with his head in the clouds.
"Did you have fun with your little friends today, Murraykins?"
"Yes, mom." He submitted to being kissed then ran upstairs and sat on his bed, staring about the room. The Cubs pennants his uncle had given him-he'd bring those. His chemistry set and his calculator-that'd come in handy. And maybe Melba wouldn't mind if he took her new beach towel, the one she said she didn't like. He lay down slowly, staring up at the ceiling, a dreamy smile on his face.
"It's going to be so boss!"