Action Figures - Issue One: Secret Origins (24 page)

TWENTY-TWO

“Hello?”

“Happy birthday! From your loving daughter who totally didn’t forget your birthday but screwed up anyway and is really sorry and feels like ten tons of crap about iiiiiiitt...”

Dad laughs. “Thank you, sweetheart.”

“I am sorry, Daddy,” I say. “I meant to call you before bed and...yesterday was such a mess.”

“Why, what happened?”

“Let’s just say that everything else was a cool breeze compared to the blowout I had with Mom last night.”

“Uh-oh,” Dad says with an extra serving of sympathy. He and Mom did not fight often, but when they did? Big rubbery Japanese movie monsters would be like,
Whoa, take it down a notch
. “What did you fight about?”

I switch the phone to my other hand so I can pour myself some coffee—coffee I made, I must point out, which means it’s regular human strength and not the paint-peeling acid Mom makes.

“Mom didn’t call you after what happened at
school?”

There’s a pause. “Your mom and I haven’t spoken since you left,” he says. Stupid Carrie is stupid. Of course they haven’t spoken.

“Did you see the news?” No on that count too, but Dad never did pay much attention to current events. I give him a seriously toned-down version of the great Hero Squad/Archimedes throw-down, minus any critical details his not-a-super-hero daughter could possibly know. “After everything that’s happened she’s wigged out to the nth degree and she’s talking about leaving town.”

“Leaving town? And going where?”

“I don’t know, we never got that far. Daddy, I don’t want to move again,” I say miserably. “I like it here. I have friends here and I don’t want to have to say goodbye to everyone and start all over again.”

“Do you want me to talk to your mother?”

I almost say yes. It’s so tempting. Dad always went to bat for me whenever I was on the outs with Mom (sometimes when he shouldn’t have, truth be told), and I want to ask him to come to my rescue again, but I’m already ruining his birthday phone call (his
late
birthday phone call) by dumping my baggage on him.

“No,” I say. “This isn’t your problem, I don’t want you getting involved.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure. It’s my thing to deal with. But thank you.”

“Anytime.”

“So,” I say, switching emotional gears, “did you do anything special yesterday?”

He grunts softly, a verbal shrug. “Not really. Everyone at the office got me a cake,” he says, and my completely fake good cheer swerves right back toward sincere misery. “Oh, your package from Amazon arrived—thank you. I watched some of it last night after dinner.”

(I bought him the first season of the original
Mission: Impossible
on DVD. I offer a tip of the hat to Matt for suggesting it for my spy thriller-loving father.)

“If the next words out of your mouth are ‘And then I went to bed early,’ I will call you an old man.”

“I stayed up all night drinking beer and playing video games.”

“Good call.” Oh, doesn’t it figure? The conversation is finally getting non-melancholy and that’s when the doorbell rings. “Nuts, I think my ride’s here already,” I say, but as I cross into the living room Mom trots down the stairs and intercepts the play. I flash Sara the
one minute
finger.

“Okay, I’ll let you go then. It was good talking to you, sweetheart.”

“You too, Daddy.” And you deserve better than a late phone call and a night alone with my present-by-mail. “I love you.”

“Love you too.”

Sara gives me a sad smile from the doorway. “You spaced on calling him last night, huh?”

“The cherry on the triple-scoop crap sundae that was yesterday,” I say. “Coffee to go? It’s fit for human consumption.”

“I’m good. Ready to roll?”

Not really. I’m dreading what today might bring. I’m tempted to call in dead, but I doubt that
would fly with Mom, and I’m in no mood to mix it up with her again.

“Carrie,” Mom says.

“Usual routine after school,” I say, skirting by her, “Coffee Experience, home for dinner, homework night, don’t know where yet, I’ll call, see you tonight.” I punctuate my sentence by shutting the door with slightly less force than a full-blown slam.

“What happened?” Sara says.

“That’s what I like about having a psychic friend,” I say. “It makes conversation more efficient.”

“Didn’t need my powers to feel the tension between you two. What’s going on?”

“Mom wants to move out of town.”

“What?!”

“She thinks it’s too dangerous around here and wants to leave town before I get killed.”

Sara chuckles. “Right concern, wrong reason.”

“Seriously.”

“You’ll have to tell her you can’t go. I forbid it.”

“Oh, you do, do you?”

“I do.” She throws an arm around my shoulders. “You belong to me now.”

“Is that so?”

“That’s so. She wants to take you away? She’s going to have to fight me for it.”

Man, here I was, ready to spend my day all moody and sullen and she has to go and ruin it.

And then I get my math test back and it has to go and ruin my fragile borderline good mood. As predicted, a C. Insert profanity here.

“If I said a C was better than a D or an F would
that make you feel better because you didn’t get a D or an F or would it make you grumpy because it reminds you you got a C?” Missy says.

I crumple up the test and toss it in my locker. “I’ll get back to you on that one,” I say. At least the day is over and I can move on to the serious business of chugging unhealthy amounts of reasonably priced coffee-based beverages. Unless another super-powered crazy shows up and starts tearing up the center of town, in which case I might as well go home now and start packing.

Yeah, right, like that’s not in my immediate future anyway.

“I say don’t sweat it. Grades are bogus,” Stuart says. “I know they’re supposed to tell you how good you’re doing, but there’s no, whatchacallit, consistency.”

“How is there no consistency?” I say. “Everything gets scored on a point system, the points translate to a letter grade. You do great in a class you get an A, you do okay you get a C, you suck and you get an F. Sounds consistent to me.”

“Yeah, but teachers look at junk that has nothing to do with learning. There’re teachers here who knock off points for dumb crap like not raising your hand in class a lot. Who cares? If I suck out loud on tests, okay, fail me, but don’t knock me down from a B to a C because I didn’t show my work or something lame like that.”

“All right, I’ll give you that, but that’s the game we’re stuck playing. We can’t make or change the rules, so we either have to suck it up and play by the rules, or suffer the consequences for doing things our way.”

Not that I’m speaking from recent experience or anything. And not that Stuart is listening to me anymore. He’s focused on something across the hall from us, and that something is Angus Parr, that jockiest of high school jocks, who is looming large before (oh my God, this is
low
) a developmentally disabled student. I can’t make out what Angus is saying, but the other kid looks like he’s about to wet himself.

“Yo, Angus,” Stuart says, inserting himself into the situation. “Leave the kid alone, huh?”

“Why don’t you mind your own business, Lumley?” Angus says.

Stuart, as cool as the other side of the pillow, says to Angus, “I’m making it my business,” and then to the kid, “I got it covered, dude. You roll on out.”

The kid dashes off, schoolbooks clutched to his chest.

“Giving one of the special needs kids a hard time? That’s beyond sad,” Stuart says.

Angus throws out that old classic, “He was looking at me.”

“I’m looking at you too. You going to give me a hard time?”

Angus bears his nicotine-stained teeth. “One of these days, man,” he says, “we’re throwing down.”

“Yeah, so you keep saying, but it ain’t happened yet—and I don’t think it’s going to, not as long as you want to stay on the football team.”

Checked and mated, Angus sneers and stalks off, issuing as he makes his strategic withdrawal the time-honored battle cry of the soundly defeated: “
Pft
. What
ever
, man.”

“You, sir, are my hero,” I say.

Stuart modestly shrugs off the accolade. “I hate bullies,” is all he says.

At lunch, Matt passes me an envelope. It contains a hand-written note that reads IOU 1 CHEESECAKE.

“It’s been brought to my attention I might have been a little out of line yesterday,” he says.

“There’s no
might
about it,” Sara says.

“Or
little
,” Stuart adds.

“Or
out of line
,” Missy says.

“You were a jackass,” I say.

“Blame accepted. Hence, apology extended.”

“You could simply say ‘I’m sorry.’ ”

“Okay. I’m sorry. Give me the coupon back.”

“You’re funny.”

But, because I am magnanimous in victory, I share my bounty with everyone, and we pass the night at Coffee E devouring yummy empty calories and washing it down with turbo-charged coffee drinks, and it isn’t until Jill gives us a friendly boot in the butt that we pack it up.

About halfway into my hike home, it occurs to me I should call Mom. I pull out my phone and, lo and behold, four voice mail messages from her. Four.

She picks up before the first ring ends. “Carrie?”

“Hi Mom,” I say in my breeziest, most nonchalant, my-what-an-ordinary-day-I’ve-had tone while rolling my eyes at Sara.

“Where have you been? I’ve been trying to call you for hours.”

“I know, I just saw your messages. I’m sorry, I forgot to turn my phone back on after school,” I say.

“We’ve been at Coffee E all night, I’m on my way home now.”

Mom sighs wearily. “Carrie, you can’t keep doing this.”

“What
keep doing this?
This is, what, the second time this has happened?” No comeback. “We went for coffee, we started doing our homework, time got away from us. I’m sorry.”

“Come right home, okay?”

“I said I’m on my way. I’ll be home in, like, fifteen minutes,” I say, hanging up on her. Childish thing to do, I know, but “I am so not in the mood for this crap.”

“Hang tough,” Sara says. “Halloween is tomorrow and then it’s the weekend, so you’ll have plenty of away time. Maybe that’s all you two need is a coolingdown period.”

Maybe.

Mercifully, when I get home Mom doesn’t start in again, and instead forces some mundane chitchat. “How was your day?”

“Uneventful,” I say pointedly. “Got my math test back, felt inadequate, drowned my sorrows in a mixture of espresso and steamed milk, moved on.”

Mom nods, then she invites me to sit with her on the couch. Oh, I do not like where this is going.

“I’ve been thinking about
our...conversation
last night,” she says. Way to sugarcoat it, Mom. I feel the diabetes setting in as we speak.

There’s a pause, like she’s waiting for me to apologize, but I’m not taking anything back, not yet.

“I’m not convinced this town is the best place for you. For us,” she amends. “I haven’t made up my mind
about anything, but I promise you that when it comes time to make a decision, I will include you in it.”

She’s reaching out, trying to make a concession. I know this, but instead of accepting the olive branch, I say, “Will my opinion even matter?”

“You don’t get veto power, if that’s what you’re asking,” Mom says without actually answering me. “If I say we’re leaving and you say you want to stay, we’re leaving. I’m not doing this to be mean, Carrie. I’m trying to do what’s best for you. Maybe you don’t see that, but it’s the truth.”

There’s the problem: I do see it, very clearly, but I don’t care. I don’t want her to keep me safe, not if it means completely uprooting me again, not if it means leaving behind the only friends I have in the world.

“Why don’t you go to bed? You look exhausted,” Mom says, leaving the debate where it is, while it’s still within the realm of civility.

I go, but I don’t sleep. I’m too wired. I lay in bed for hours, letting the sugar and caffeine work its way out of my system, letting my frustration drop from a high boil to a simmer.

Sometime after midnight, I fade out.

TWENTY-THREE

Technically speaking, Archimedes has been ferried about by limousines on several occasions, in that the body he now wears has been in limos before. With no first-hand experience to call upon, Archimedes the artificial life form can only theorize that limo rides are not normally so ominous.

“The tinted windows,” Archimedes says, tapping the impenetrably black glass. “Are they supposed to make the vehicle appear more impressive, or keep me from knowing where I am?”

“Little of both,” says his “lawyer,” a man calling himself John Nemo, a man who is much less talkative than he was during their first meeting.

“Then asking where we’re going would be—”

“Discouraged,” John Nemo says. “All will be revealed, soon enough.”

All
? Archimedes muses.
Not bloody likely
.

The two men make their mysterious trip in silence from that point on.

Untold minutes (hours?) later, the steady hum of the limousine’s wheels upon the asphalt softens to a faint drone. Nemo offers no explanation as the vehicle
stops for several minutes. When it rolls again, it is for perhaps a few feet.

“We’re here,” Nemo says, sliding out of the car.

Here
could be an underground parking garage in any mall in America, Archimedes thinks, and a full garage at that. Cars of every make and model, all of them new, fill the level.

“This way.” Nemo leads Archimedes across the level to an elevator and says to no one, “Command.”

The doors slide open silently. The men enter. Archimedes senses no movement up or down, left or right, but the doors open to a brand new environment: what appears to be a perfectly normal foyer dressed in a palette of bland, inoffensive non-colors in a perfectly normal office building for a perfectly normal corporation. All this normal, Archimedes thinks, is highly unusual, as though someone put extraordinary effort to make the place appear as commonplace as possible and overplayed his hand.

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