VI. 17 years ago…
The next few days after Cooper recovered from his illness he felt different. He couldn’t explain why but he noticed his world differently. Colors seemed more vibrant and sharp. Conversations he overheard between his parents he seemed to understand. Maybe he just never paid attention before and maybe that was the difference – he paid attention to everything now. Almost like he couldn’t shut his brain off. His brain’s computer was on and running all the time. He couldn’t explain any of this to anyone because he was still processing it. Was this normal and he just never noticed before? His mom noticed something was different but she wasn’t sure how to explain it either. Suddenly, her boy that liked to keep his hair trimmed in a crew cut style now hated getting his hair cut. He refused to let her cut his hair. That wasn’t a battle worth fighting so she let him grow it out. One other thing that was obvious to everyone was he no longer needed his inhaler. When his mom questioned the doctor, she was told that sometimes “children outgrow asthma.” She also mentioned to the doctor that he started coming home with stories of winning races at school. His energy level seemed to spike. The doctor’s response was to give him some meds which she declined. It wasn’t an uncontrollable energy; it was more of an intense, albeit focused, energy. At the first parent-teacher conference after his fever she was told that he was exceling in every subject. His teacher commented on his outstanding performance. Even the PE teacher remarked on his ability. At the previous conference, the PE teacher couldn’t remember who exactly Cooper was. Up until then, Cooper blended in with the background. Not anymore. He was getting noticed, remarked on, and remembered.
So it was that that during the second half of the school year Cooper became the teacher’s pet. He was the teacher’s go-to to answer questions and help out in class. The other person that noticed this change was Malone Winn. When Cooper was able to be more competitive with the other students he started earning respect. With respect he was making more friends. Malone, however, was still the same awkward kid and his only friend was Cooper. He didn’t have alternate playground buddies. If Cooper was off running a race, Malone was cheering him on from the sideline. He didn’t stray too far from his best friend because he had nowhere else to go.
One day he decided he needed to get Cooper’s attention back. He missed the days of when it was just the two of them playing together during recess. Largely ignored by other classmates. The good old days.
Malone’s dad was out of town on a business trip so he took the opportunity to sneak into the chest where his dad kept his keepsakes. He took out a Han Solo action figure that his dad said was a collectible. His dad introduced Star Wars to him and Cooper and they were fans ever since. He was confident this little action figure would get his friend’s attention again.
While they were supposed to be working on an assignment during class he took it out of his pocket and showed his friend. Cooper’s reaction didn’t disappoint. His eyes lit up and he reached for it. Malone knew the figurine was important to his dad and hesitated handing it over. His dad had told him more than once how he had saved up enough money to buy it for himself when he was a young boy and how he resisted the temptation to play with it to keep it in good condition. This was not a toy but a collectible. Not even his dad had taken it out of the packaging. Here Malone was, ready to serve Han Solo up just to get his friend back.
He knew he shouldn’t do it. But what harm could come from Cooper holding it? He could let Cooper handle it and then he’d put it back in the package and back in his dad’s box. His dad would never know.
Malone handed Cooper the toy and smiled. His offering was much better than anything anyone else in the playground could offer.
“Mr. Baldwin,” the teacher said loud enough to make Malone jump. “What do you have there?”
Out of nowhere, the teacher was suddenly between their desks.
Cooper looked up at the teacher. “I’m sorry, I was just looking at it.”
“Hmm,” the teacher snorted and held out his hand. “You know the rules, hand it over.”
Malone’s throat became dry. This was not part of the plan.
Cooper looked at Malone and handed the toy to the teacher. The teacher walked back to his desk and looked at the figurine. “Star Wars really?” he opened the top drawer in his desk and threw it in.
Malone’s face registered the amount right of horror for someone who felt their life expectancy just shortened considerably. What was he going to tell his dad?
Cooper whispered an apology before the teacher told everyone to get back to work.
During recess Cooper did his best to console his misguided friend. “Don’t worry, Han went into the drawer, not the garbage. That’s a good sign. I will ask for it back after school. I bet if I promise not to do it again he will let me have it.”
Cooper’s words helped comfort Malone and gave him a small glimmer of hope. If anyone could get his dad’s collectible back it would be Cooper. Malone trusted his friend.
After school, Malone waited out in the hallway while Cooper went and spoke with their teacher. He came out of the classroom looking down. “I’m sorry, Mal, I couldn’t get it back.”
They walked home together. Cooper did his best to cheer up his friend but Malone wouldn’t let his spirit lift. He was a dead man walking. He knew it. Now he could see so many things wrong with his plan. But it was too late.
When they arrived at his house and he saw that his dad’s car was in the driveway his countenance fell even further if that was possible. “My dad’s home,” he whispered.
“Hey, you’re dad’s pretty cool,” Cooper said lightly. “It will be okay.”
Malone shook his head. “No, no it won’t.”
Cooper put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Do you want me to come in and explain? It was my fault.” His newfound confidence surprised Malone.
“No, that will actually make it worse.”
Cooper shrugged and started to walk away but stopped. He looked back at his friend and suddenly felt a knot in his stomach. Malone hadn’t moved a muscle but continued to look at the house.
“What are you waiting for?” Cooper asked.
“I’m thinking of running away.”
Cooper dropped his head and walked back to his friend. He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the Han Solo action figure. “Here,” he said.
Malone looked down at the collectible. “But…”
“I wanted it. Sorry.”
Malone took Han out of Cooper’s hand. He was too relieved to express his anger at the moment. It took a couple of weeks of groveling on Cooper’s part before Malone forgave him. But Malone did because it was never in him to hold a grudge. That was part of his personality that appealed to Cooper. It was a miserable two weeks for Cooper. Even though he had made new friends at school he realized how much he relied on Malone as a home base. No matter what Cooper was able to do he needed Malone as his compass. It was Malone that kept him grounded and helped him feel normal. Never again would he do anything to jeopardize that relationship. Cooper needed Malone in his life just as much as Malone needed Cooper.
While Cooper was having his friend epiphany, Al was miserable being alone in the orphanage. She was not fortunate to have a friend like Malone. At the tender age of 10, she decided it was time that she plan her escape from the orphanage.