On the second day of summer break 1997, Arvin Gupta’s best friend in the world, Tucky Sinkowa, showed Arvin his fabulous, sparkling magic.
The silence that followed Tucky’s illuminating pink display, which had lit the entire basement and the brightly colored borders of the yellow vintage movie posters Tucky’s father hung defiantly during the divorce proceedings, was a silence that came only after moments of great revelation. It was not unlike the time Tucky told Arvin in confidence of his first wet dream. Then they were huddled in mummy bags beneath the massive wooden entertainment center in Arvin’s living room. The credits of ‘Life of Brian’ rolled above them as Eric Idle sang, hung high above the desert sands, an ornament dangling in the idyllic blues of the television sky, his whistles filling the awkward spaces between the boys’ uncomfortable pre-teen breaths. Then, Arvin knew what to say.
But that was weeks ago. And this wasn’t a wet dream.
An itch crept up Arvin’s leg brace. He dug at it with a pencil, eager to return attentions to his magical friend. “So you’re like a fairy,” Arvin said finally.
“No, idiot,” Tucky said.
“Well, I don’t get it,” Arvin said. He thought for a moment. More scratching. “Just to confirm. You’re not gay?”
“I don’t know. You acted like you had this big secret. I just thought–”
“Just shut up, Arvin. This is serious,” Tucky said.
“Yeah, but I just want you to know it’s totally fine if you are. I mean my mom, she had a gay friend before–”
“Dude, really. Just shut up. This isn’t about you,” Tucky said. His sweaty palms ran through his greasy mop-top as he began to pace the room, bouncing from corner to corner like a trapped fly while Arvin sat motionless and watched.
“Sorry,” Tucky said. “I didn’t mean to cut you off. I know how hard it is for you to talk about her.” Smells of Fourth of July picnics wafted through the room. “But really, Arv, you can’t tell anyone.” His high-pitched voice was hushed and urgent, clearly sore. The ask was unnecessary because the boys both knew Arvin didn’t have anyone to tell.
“You’re a superhero,” Arvin said. “Can you imagine what Becky would do if she saw this? She might actually notice you.” She was all Tucky talked about lately, unattainable, pretty and popular.
“Cool it, okay? Becky can’t know. No one can. I know you think this is cool, but it isn’t. It hurts. My throat and eyes burn, my hands sting, and it, it just sucks, okay?” His voice cracked. He wiped his brow. Yellow sweat stains from generously applied anti-perspirant clung to his tee and resembled melted butter on rice. “I’m like Jubilee, the lamest X-Man ever. Who gives a damn about Jubilee? No, I’m even worse than her. I can’t even control this… this thing.”
“What do you mean?” Arvin asked as he tucked his bad leg beneath his blanket. His brace caught on its thick fibers.
“Like, sometimes, stuff just comes out,” Tucky said.
Before Arvin could ask from where ‘stuff comes out,’ the stairwell lit up. A shadow bent and crawled down the steps, finally resting on Tucky’s bony shoulder. “Boys,” Tucky’s father, Red Sinkowa, said from above.
“Lights out.” He paused. “What is that ungodly smell? Christ, are you two lighting firecrackers in the house again?”
“No, Dad,” Tucky said. He shuffled to the window and cracked it open. “Just burned some popcorn. We’ll be quiet.”
“Don’t be quiet. Go to bed.” Red had a woman over, Janelle. Janelle reeked of hairspray and cotton candy. Her nails were long and blue. Family dinners with her were strained conversations between bites of rubbery pizza and lukewarm breadsticks. She was not bookish and kind like Tucky’s mother, Alice, the elementary school librarian.
Alice would have let them stay up.
And so they went to bed. Arvin spread out on the floor in a tangle of patchwork blankets and old bed pillows beneath the lumpy couch that Tucky occupied. The putrid after smell from Tucky’s display had faded into something more pleasant. Something like jello. Arvin looked up at Tucky’s feet hanging over him, periscoping out from a moldy blue blanket, and he thought of his friend, the guy attached to those little feet. This magic, curse though Tucky thought it was, was the best thing that had ever happened to Tucky whether he knew it or not. It was a way out of dingy basements and torn families. A path to recognition.
Arvin’s heart pounded with excitement. Before Tucky’s powers, it had only been a matter of time before Tucky moved on to greener pastures rife with better friends, friends who could go out, run and play sports, friends who weren’t afraid of cars and had the shiny new learner’s permits to prove it. But now, overnight, Tucky had become a freak like Arvin, and Arvin felt a profound and moral obligation to help Tucky weather this crisis by honing his sudden and mysterious powers.
“Arv?” Tucky whispered.
“Yeah, Tuck?” Arvin said.
“Do you ever think about them?”
“Your mom and sister,” Tucky said.
“All the time,” Arvin said, scratching at his brace.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” Tucky said. “I want to make it go away before we go back to school.”
In sixth grade, Arvin learned to practice active listening in Ms. Gilroy’s social studies class. It was a few weeks after his mom and sister were buried, and he had only recently returned to school. None of his peers seemed to know how to act around him, so they reached some sort of unspoken consensus to ignore him. His tragedy followed him with every limping step, leaving silence in his creaking wake.
Arvin’s therapist had told him to open up, to put himself out there and show his friends that he was stronger than his bad leg, but he had no friends because they had abandoned him. And he was weak. So he stood in the back of the room and watched alone as rows of his classmates, pubescent pre-teens in tiny desks, partnered up to rephrase and regurgitate key terms from mindless conversations. He had given up on participating in the activity and had started a slow, shameful walk to the front of the room to notify Ms. Gilroy.
Then Tucky came over and asked to be his partner.
Now sensing the distress in his friend’s muffled voice, Arvin sat up and looked Tucky square in the eyes. “You want to make it go away before we go back to school?”
“That’s what I just said,” Tucky said.
“But why would you want that?”
Tucky didn’t answer.
Cool summer air crept in from the open window and filled their lungs with sleep.
The boys spent most of the summer together after that night. Arvin’s dad had to be away to attend the trial, and Red, who worked from home, offered to let Arvin stay with him and Tucky. Before Arvin’s dad left, he warned Arvin that Arvin may have to tell the court how the man sped away after the accident. The mere thought of a drive to the courthouse made Arvin’s head spin.
Meanwhile, Tucky wasn’t doing well. Like an unforgiving histamine rash, Tucky’s magic worsened as summer grew hotter. Calamine ointments failed to relieve his oversized, peroxide-doused pores that sparked when he got excited. As he had earlier attested to Arvin, symptoms and their appearances were totally random. The slightest sneeze would have Tucky spewing glamorous, charring streams of glittery mucus into his father’s kerchief, staining it with tie-dye randomness that appeared intentional and hip like a slap bracelet. As a result, by mid-summer, Tucky had developed a reputation as a sneezing and dashing wonder, a boy with an inexplicably sparkly mouth. To keep Tucky’s powers secret, Arvin instructed Tucky to tell inquirers that he habitually ingested pop rocks and coke, a daring act that every teen and pre-teen knew had potentially deadly ramifications.
Numerous backyard experiments proved that Tucky couldn’t control his powers, but Arvin was convinced that this was a result of a mental roadblock, a hang-up that Tucky could overcome if he simply stepped up and owned his gift. What they needed was a public display of Tucky’s powers, a way to let the world in on their secret, a high pressure moment that could give them a karate kid challenge, something to overcome.
Because Arvin’s nascent phobias prevented him from getting into cars except in cases of extreme emergency, the boys’ options for public appearances were practically limited to the grocery store, a small ice-cream shop, and the neighborhood pool. Tucky hesitantly opted for the pool, which was a few blocks away from his home and a bit more public than Arvin would have liked for Tucky’s first outing as a real wizard. But the risk was worth it. If Arvin’s plan worked, Tucky would become Tucky the Magical, Tucky the Incredible, Tucky the Stupendous. Maybe even Tucky the guy with a girlfriend.
“You know it’s 95 degrees out, right?” Tucky said to Arvin at the pool, interrupting day dreams.
“So you don’t have to wear jeans to the pool,” Tucky said.
“Oh yeah, I know.” Arvin said. He rubbed his brace and the scars on his leg that he wished to keep hidden. With each touch, memories of the last ride with his mom and sister coursed through him and left him tingling. “My swimsuit is in the wash,” he said. “Look, I was doing some research about your powers, and I was thinking. The more we know about how you got them, the more we can control them.”
“Reading comics doesn’t count as research,” Tucky said.
“It’s not like I have anything else to go off,” Arvin said. His nose crinkled. “I was thinking how people get their powers. They’re either born with them or they acquire them later in life by accident like Peter Parker. But you weren’t bitten by any spiders or anything, were you?”
“No,” Tucky said.
“Okay, so we can rule that out. My next guess is that you were born with them. Like a mutant. But something must have triggered it. Like how Magneto’s family being torn away from him triggered his abilities. What was your trigger?”
“This is weird, Arvin.”
“Tell me,” Arvin said.
“Dude, no. You’re being weird,” Tucky said.
“I just need to know. Was it your parents? Their divorce?”
“Arvin, let’s just get on with this, okay? You’re acting obsessive.”
“No, I’m not,” Arvin said. “I’m trying to help you.”
Tucky reached for a water bottle. “We came here to impress people,” he said. He took a long sip. “Not to talk about my parents splitting up.”
Arvin sighed. “You’re still going to do it, right?”
“I don’t know, man. The whole thing seems like a bad idea,” Tucky said. He touched the crater of a freshly popped pimple on his chin.
“But you have to,” Arvin said.
“Because if you pull this off, you’re going to blow everyone’s mind. See Becky over there?” Arvin pointed to a brunette in a striped one-piece who looked twice their age.
“I’m not ready,” Tucky said. “I can’t control this.”
“You can. Just be positive. This will be good for you. Stop thinking so much,” Arvin said.
There was an uncomfortable squish when Tucky rose from his beach chair and wiped his hands on his shorts. A faint and familiar smell of BO trailed him. Then he tied his towel around his neck to make a cape and walked to the opposite end of the pool.
This was their moment. Arvin giggled in anticipation. Tucky cleared his throat and began to yell over White Town’s “I Could Never Be Your Woman,” which blared from speakers on the lifeguard’s stand. His voice was bold, confident, that of a trained thespian, totally void of the immaturity that otherwise plagued his rapidly fluctuating intonations. Rehearsal paid off, Arvin thought. This was a man’s voice.
“I am Tucky Sinkowa,” he said. “Gather round, and open your minds. You will be amazed.” He flung the cape aside and lifted his long arms toward the heavens nervously as if channeling a force so massive that his entire being risked emulsification.
A small crowd congregated in front of the lifeguard station, and swimmers clung to the hot metal pool gutters. Hidden in the shade across the pool, Arvin sat on the edge of his rickety lawn chair and nodded to Tucky when he looked to him for support.
“Okay,” Tucky said. “Here goes.” He exhaled and threw his arms to the sky and began to dance. Suddenly, blinding pink flashes shot from his every orifice. Silence followed. Then screams.
After the pool, Tucky’s mom and dad, in a rare show of teamsmanship, called Tucky up from the basement to have family dinner. Tucky trudged up the stairs, a dead man walking in front of Arvin. “This is your fault,” he said. “I never should have listened to you.”
“I was just trying to help,” Arvin said. “They’re your powers.” The boys continued their upward movement. “Look, for what it’s worth, I think we’re onto something. We’ll get it, Tuck. I know we will. We just need to work a bit more before we do that again.”
Tucky huffed. “There won’t be an ‘again,’” he said. He turned and opened the door to the kitchen where his parents had taken seats at opposite ends of the dining table.
As usual, Red’s father had set a place for both boys.
Alice had only recently arrived at her old home on Grant Street. Her cheeks were red, swollen, no doubt irritated by the wool sleeves that covered her hands and repeatedly rubbed at her tear-streaked face.
“Hey guys,” Red said. “Arv, I just got off the phone with your dad. He says he’s doing fine. Still with the lawyers. He’ll probably need to stay in Topeka for another few nights, so I checked, and he said you can stay with us for the weekend.”
“Okay, great. Thanks, Mr. S,” Arvin said. Red smiled.
“Tucky,” Alice said between sniffles. “We need to talk about something personal.” She looked at Red.
“Oh come out with it, Al,” Red said.
“Well, Tuck, Becky’s mother called us today,” Alice said.
“About the pool?” Tucky said, staring at his plate.
“Yes, about the pool,” Red said. He pressed his hands together beneath his nose and covered his pursed mouth.
“Well,” Alice said. “She was there. And she saw what you…what you…” she struggled to find the word.
“What you produced.” Tucky blushed. His off-white skin turned milky-red and pink drops began to seep and fizzle from his tear ducts.
“See there he goes,” Red said. “I can’t believe you did something like that, Tucky. What the hell were you thinking?” Arvin wanted to be Tucky’s shield, but he didn’t want to upset Red, so he bit his tongue. “Do you have any idea how disgusting…?” Red thrust an accusatory finger at Alice. “This abomination is on you. If you had told me what you–”
“You stop it right now,” Alice said. “I’m not the issue here. I had no idea Tucky would be like this. Or that he would do such horrible things.” She focused on Tucky. “Becky’s mom said that you may have blinded the lifeguard with your… display.”
“People thought it was funny,” Arvin blurted out. “It really was hilarious. You should’ve seen it.”
“Arv, please don’t take this the wrong way, but you need to stay out of this for a minute,” Red said.
“Let’s take a few steps back,” Alice said. “We can all calm down a bit. You know, count to ten or something,” she said. Arvin counted to ten in his head. “Tucky,” she said, placing her hands on Tucky’s long fingers. “We always knew you were a special, special boy. And, lately, we’ve had suspicions that maybe you were different. Maybe you were feeling like you didn’t fit in.” She stifled tears. “Maybe your father and I weren’t paying enough attention to you. We didn’t see the warning signs.” She began to cry. “Oh, Red, it’s all our fault.”
“If it’s anyone’s fault it’s yours, Al. He gets this from you, you know.”
“Oh, would you give it rest? I’m not the one bringing home women from downtown for dinner, Red. He’s acting out! He needs his mother.” She fiddled with the glasses that hung from a string on her neck.
“No, he needs anything but you. You caused this. And if you had just told me your little secret earlier, I would have known. I would have seen this whole damn thing coming a mile away. This is why I left you. You, your family, a whole bunch of freaks and liars, you know that?”
“No, you left me because you’re scared and weak. And besides that, it’s not too late for Tucky. We caught it early,” she said.
Ten more seconds passed in silence.
“Wait, what?” Tucky said. “You mean you know what this is? You knew this was going to happen to me?”
“We didn’t know that you would be able to dazzle,” Alice said. “Some of my family, your uncle, your grandpa, they can do it, too. But they had great careers as magicians.”
“Oh god,” Tucky said. “This is permanent?”
Arvin’s chest fluttered with hope.
“Not exactly,” Red said. “Becky’s mom says that Becky was like you, too. She said she sent Becky to a camp for young boys and girls to… fix it.”
“She said it made her better,” Alice added. “You want to be better, don’t you? You want to get rid of this stuff inside you, whatever it is.”
“Yeah, I do,” Tucky said. Arvin’s heart cried out.
“Okay, Tuck,” his mother said. “You leave on Monday, and we’ll have you back just before school. Does that sound good?”
“It does,” Tucky said in the voice he makes when he’s trying to sound brave. “It really does.”
Arvin stayed at Tucky’s every night that final weekend. Red let them have their run of the house as they shirked the outdoors and stayed in to play the latest edition of Magic the Gathering. Arvin hated that they played at magic when the real thing was a mere sneeze or irritable bowel movement away. But Tucky refused to perform.
When Tucky left for camp, Arvin felt like he did when movies end. Soon Arvin’s dad came and escorted him home to a dusty, lifeless house. Their freezer was overflowing with frozen casseroles, which Arvin dutifully defrosted for meals consumed in silence.
A week later, Arvin and his dad took a trip to Topeka for Arvin’s testimony. Arvin wore a blindfold and tried to sleep in the back of the car, trembling the whole way there. At the trial, he was unable to verbalize what happened, so the prosecutor had Arvin read the statement he made immediately after the accident when he was in the hospital having his leg mended. It was difficult, reading the statement, seeing the man’s face, recounting the impact and coming to in the destruction with his leg pinioned between the console and backseat, how he cried out to his mom and sister who, upfront, had stopped breathing. How the broken car that hit them drove away and left them to rot in the road like dead animals.
After the trial, Arvin spent the remainder of the hot, dry months alone, counting the days until Tucky’s return and biding his time with the dialup. Tucky had gone MIA on messenger and AWOL from battle.net. Without means to connect, Arvin feared the worst. He prayed every night that Tucky would return unchanged.
Interrupting the pixelated monotony of Arvin’s solo diablo runs and endless cans of pringles that his weeks had become, Red came by and delivered a letter to the Guptas. The address block was smudged, and the envelope’s edges were crumpled due to the hasty folding of the letter inside. Arvin unfolded it and found a brief note from Tucky. Camp was great, he said. He was making a lot of friends and was excited about the new school year.
Beneath the hollow words, a goodbye lurked. Arvin didn’t eat for two days after that. Only threats of a forced return to therapy could get him seated at the table again.
On the first day of school, Arvin pushed through the double doors and shambled to first period. His brace dragged and scraped on the teal linoleum. It left black scuffs on the freshly polished floors. The noise drew his classmates’ ire, but Arvin was undeterred by the negative attention. Maybe Tucky would be the same, maybe they would still be friends.
Minutes before the bell, Tucky burst into their first period science class donning a new haircut and tan. He looked like he’d spent his absent days rowing on a pristine lake. Tucky grinned as he looked around the room and made his way to the back for roll call. His braces were gone, and his shoulders were broader. When the teacher reached his name, he said, “It’s Tucker now, Ms. Metzler,” in a voice that had dropped at least two octaves.
Second period was uneventful until Tucky sneezed before lunch.
Arvin whipped his head around, anxious to see Tucky’s notorious, mucusy spectacle unfold. He prayed for sparkles. But Tucky hardly flinched. He wiped his nose with a tissue and catapulted the refuse across the room. The snot-filled wad, free of the pinkish phlegm Arvin had anticipated, spiraled and landed with a deafening splash in the trashcan beside him, un-singed.
When class ended, Arvin packed his books and pushed through the small crowd clamoring around Tucky. In his haste, Arvin’s shoulder brushed Tucky’s. A static shock punched through him, and Arvin spun out into the open hallway, dizzy from the collision, his books scattering like pieces of broken fenders.
Tucky glided over to his new group of friends who festooned the short blue hallway lockers. One boy pulled out his velcro wallet triumphantly to show proof of his learner’s permit, giving rise to cheers and celebratory handshakes, fast and full of intricate movements. Arvin collected himself and began to put books his books away.
Soon Tucky crossed the hall and approached him. “Hey, Arv,” he said.
“Hey, Tuck,” Arvin said.
Tucky looked over his shoulder. A sense of urgency befell the conversation. “So I heard about the trial. You okay?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Arvin said.
“My dad says that the guy can’t hurt anyone now that he’s locked up. So that’s good… Also, hey, I didn’t tell you. I’m saving up for a car now. Dad thought it would be a good idea. I even sold off my Magic cards for some extra cash. I didn’t know they’d be worth anything.”
“Oh, yeah, man, that’s like totally cool. I get it.”
“Alright, well, see you later,” Tucky said.
“Yeah,” Arvin said.
Tucky walked on with his new friends. Their perfect silhouettes were blinding beneath the bright fluorescent lights. Soon they faded into the walls, disappeared like shooting stars. Arvin shut his locker and hobbled to the bathroom, a struck deer with a flushed face and burning cheeks. Beneath the smoky mirror, cool water ran over his splayed fingers from the automatic wash. His tingling hands felt different, warmer and getting hotter. His shoulder throbbed beneath what felt like repetitive stabs with a dull knife. Then, without warning, sparkles of day-glo pink began to trickle from his ducts and cast a strange neon aura around his throbbing head. Arvin wept shining tears like fireworks.
The feeling was magical.