Zack and Melissa walked out of the Trashcandroid’s Dungeon, Zack’s wallet feeling a solid $300.00 lighter. They walked over to the nearest escalator and made their way up to the sixth floor. The food court was at opposite end of the mall from the Trashcandroid’s Dungeon. They walked from one end of the mall to the other, stopping occasionally to browse, although neither of them bought anything else. The food court was packed was shoppers trying to avoid going out in the bad weather. They picked their way through the crowd to the Slushy Dawg counter. They ordered, got their trays, paid and began looking for a free table.
They were still looking for a table five minutes later when Zack saw someone standing up, head and shoulder over the crowd and waving at them. “Hey, I think I see Milo’s parents.”
“Where?” asked Melissa.
Zack pointed and waved. Balancing their trays and their shopping, Zack and Melissa picked their way through the crowded food court to where Martin and Brigitte Murphy were eating lunch. There were several bags under the table.
“Hi kids,” said Martin between mouthfuls of his hamburger.He eyed their bags from Safety Barn and the Trashcandroid’s Dungeon. “Shopping for Milo’s birthday?”
Zack and Melissa both nodded. Melissa eyed the large bag under Martin’s chair. “Looks like I missed you at Safety Barn,” said Melissa. “What did you buy?”
“Milo’s been hinting at a new pair of steel toed boots,” replied Brigitte.
“For weeks,” added Martin wryly. “He wasn’t exactly subtle.”
“What about you Zack,” asked Brigitte, “what did you pick up for Milo’s birthday.”
“Well, I had some help from Melissa,” answered Zack. “We went to the Trashcandroid’s Dungeon and picked up some swag and comic books and stuff.”
Martin smiled at Zack and Melissa. “Kind of hard to go wrong with swag from Milo’s favourite store. Sounds like you two did well.”
Awhile later, after lunch and a long discussion about Milo’s birthday, Zack walked back across the mall parking lot back to the bus stop. It had stopped raining, but there was still a damp chill in the air and he pulled his hat more closely around his ears to ward against the damp cold of the late afternoon. The sun was slowly sinking behind the tall buildings of downtown Danville, casting long shadows over everything. Car headlights were starting to come on in the falling darkness. The puddles in the road caught the light, casting weird reflections on the sidewalk and the walls of the surrounding buildings.
It had actually been a nice afternoon, Zack reflected as he got on the bus, going to Danville Comic Con with Milo, Sara, and Neal probably would have been fun, but Zack had enjoyed a quite afternoon with Melissa, without the stress of constantly being on watch for Murphy’s Law. As much as he liked and admired Milo, Zack hadn’t had too many quite afternoons since they had become friends and he had appreciated the breather from the unmitigated chaos that followed Milo everywhere he went. Melissa unexpectedly drifted into his thoughts. She had looked nice today he thought. Wait, had she? She had been wearing her usual white jacket, black tank top and pink skirt, which is what she wore practically every day. And yet she had looked nice. Perhaps she had always looked nice and Zack had just never noticed before. He wondered if he should notice things like that more often.
Milo and Amanda met again in the library after school the following Monday. They found Zack and Melissa already hard at work surrounded by a pile of open books.
“Hi guys” said Milo, with his usual friendly wave.
“Hey Milo,” said Zack. “How was Danville Comic Com?”
Milo practically went into transports of delight at the question, as he usually did at anything Doctor Zone-related. “Oh, it was super” he said excitedly. “I was supposed to have my picture taken with Orton and all of the Time Wardens, until Hall Three was flooded when the sprinkler system went off and the photo ops had to be cancelled, but I still got to meet them all and I got all of their autographs.”
Zack and Melissa both chuckled at Milo’s unbounded enthusiasm. “Sounds like you and Sara and Neal had a fun day on Saturday,” said Melissa.
“Oh yeah,” said Milo, “we had a great day. So what did you guys do on the weekend?”
Zack and Melissa traded conspiratorial looks. Zack gave a causal shrug. “Oh, you know not very much,” he said, “mostly just getting caught up on homework.”
Milo gave his two best friends a searching look. Sometimes Zack could almost swear that Milo could read minds. “Well….OK,” he said at last. He squared his backpack more securely on his shoulders and walked off with Amanda to look for books for their history project.
On the morning of Milo’s birthday, the weather was damp and chilly. It had rained the night before and the pavement was slick with moisture. Milo slipped and fell twice walking to the bus stop at the end of his street and had to stop and rummage through his backpack for his elbow brace and to tape his left ankle. The school bus came on time for once and the ride to school was uneventful, which had given him time to peruse the new issue of Doctor Zone Insider that had been waiting for him at his usual place at the kitchen table as his mother had fixed his favourite breakfast, chocolate chip pancakes. He was also sporting a slip lip because he had fallen out of bed at 5:30 in the morning trying to reach his phone when it had started ringing. Milo had left underneath, on his desk to charge the night before.
“Hi Milo,” Uncle Joey had left him a message in his voice mail. “Happy birthday. Hope you have a great day today.” Grandpa and Grandma Murphy had also left him a birthday message, which of course, was mostly unintelligible. Grandpa and Grandma Murphy had a habit of talking over each other. He had also gotten a succession of texts from Zack, Melissa, Amanda, Chad and Mort.
“Hi buddy, happy birthday.”
“Happy birthday, Milo.”
“Have a great birthday, Milo.”
The day seemed to drag by with almost interminable slowness. At times it seemed to Milo that the clock hands on the classroom wall were barely moving. After morning exercises they had grammar with Mrs. White, who set them to work parsing sentences. After their morning grammar lesson was geography with Mrs. Baxter, who launched into a long and boring lecture about the human biome and its effects on the natural environment. After the morning break, they had Spanish with Mr. Garcia followed by music with Mrs. Whipple. Milo’s knowledge of Spanish was excellent, having taken a number of conversational Spanish classes at Danville Community College and he allowed his attention to drift during Mr. Garcia’s vocabulary lesson. He was slightly late for Mrs.Whipple’s music class. Milo had had to run, upstairs to his locker between classes to get his accordion and he hobbled into class, ten minutes late, having slipped going downstairs and badly sprained his ankle. The upside, Milo reflected, as he limped out of the cafeteria after lunch for computer science class with Doof, was that he would have to sit out gym class, which today suited him just fine.
Computer class turned out to be an exercise in frustration. Doof had paired Milo and Zack together for the semester long robotics project he had assigned the class in the second week of September. They were supposed to be designing, building and programming a robot to traverse a simulated moonscape. The goal was to reach a series of designated stations and perform a series of increasingly complex tasks within a set time frame. They were supposed to start programming their robot today, that is if they could get it to turn on in the first place.
Milo and Zack examined their robot for the third time. “Why won’t it turn on?” asked Zack, in confusion. “Murphy’s Law?”
Milo shrugged. “Maybe,” he checked the battery indicator again. “It says we have a fully charged battery.”
Zack frowned. “Hmmmm , maybe there’s a lose connection somewhere?”
Milo picked their robot and a screwdriver and began tightening all of the electrical connections. It fell apart in his hands almost immediately. Milo looked sheepish. “Sorry, Zack.”
Zack waved away Milo’s apology. “It’s OK,” he said, as the bell rang. “Don’t worry about it.”
Milo sat out gym class on account of his elbow brace and his two wrapped ankles, which was just as well as far as Milo was concerned. Coach Mitchell was teaching them to play football. Milo had always found that Murphy’s Law and contact sports didn’t really mix. As Coach Mitchell put the other kids through their paces, Milo settled down for a thorough read of his new copy of Doctor Zone Insider. The last class of the day was art. Mr. Sanders was teaching them art history today. Ordinarily Milo would have found this mildly interesting, but by the time the bell rang, he was practically bursting go home. He tore out of the class room as fast as the press of bodies and his wrapped ankles would allow. Milo went upstairs to his locker, grabbed his things and immediately went back downstairs to find Zack, Melissa and Amanda.
Milo found his three friends just outside, waiting for him at the bottom of the steps into the school, next to the school parking lot. The morning’s rain had lifted and the late afternoon sky was a clear blue. They decided to walk back to Milo’s house from school. The walk from Milo’s house to the school ordinarily took about fifteen minutes, but today took closer to twenty five after the ground collapsed beneath them and they had to search for a manhole cover in order to extricate themselves. By the time the four of them got to Milo’s house they all smelled and Milo gave them clothes to change into. After they had all changed into Milo’s clothes, they all trooped back downstairs into the kitchen. As they entered the kitchen, Sara waylaid her brother with an affectionate hug.
“Happy birthday, little bro,” she said.
Martin clapped a friendly hand on his son’s shoulder. “Happy birthday, Milo,” he said. “We’re very, very proud of you today.”
Milo gave his father a hug. “Thanks Dad,” he said.
As Milo was extricating himself from Martin and Sara, the door bell rang. Milo went to answer the door and found Cavendish and Dakota standing on the door mat.
“Cavendish, Dakota,” said Milo, clearly delighted, “Hi, c’mon in.”
“Hello, Milo,” said Cavendish warmly.
“Milo!” exclaimed Dakota, “Happy birthday!” He handed Milo a small, thin package.
Milo took it and examined it. It appeared to only slightly larger that a cell phone. “Thanks, guys,” he said. Milo turned and led the two former time agents into the kitchen, which in Milo’s absence had been bedecked with streamers and balloons with the number “14” on them. Milo googled at the site and turned to Amanda. “Did you do all this by yourself?”
Amanda smiled coyly at Milo, “well, I had some help,” she said, shooting a look at Martin, Brigitte and Sara, “but you’re worth it.”
Milo threw his arms around Amanda. “I really don’t know what to say.”
Sara hid a big grin behind her hand. “Well you could say thank you,” she suggested.
“I…uhhhhh…..yeah….thanks,” Milo spluttered. Out of the corner of his eye, Milo thought he saw Sara give her father a little nudge and the two of them seemed to trade a meaningful look.
As if to change the subject, Martin said, “I think dinner’s almost ready. Why don’t we sit down.”