Authors: Michael Bailey
“I’ll keep it in mind,” I lie.
By the time I force myself into a vacant seat at a table of students who do not once speak to me or acknowledge my presence, my lunch is cool to the touch. And yet, as I choke it down, I cannot imagine how heat would have improved it.
The rest of the day is neither uphill nor down. I drift half-aware through French and US history before I catch a second wind heading into my web design class. Figure it can’t hurt to know that stuff. I’ve heard a lot of jobs like their people to be web-savvy, but I’m not interested in becoming a web designer. I can’t really say what I’m interested in becoming, but no big whoop. I’m only sixteen (practically); I’m supposed to be aimless.
The less said about math the better. We are and shall ever remain the bitterest of enemies.
The final bell rings and I’m giddy with a sense of
relief at the end of another school day, a reaction that is ingrained in every American teenager. Final analysis: I’ve had better days, but I’ve sure had worse days too.
Although I may have to amend that, because guess who slides up next to me as I stand out in front of the school, scanning the main driveway for my bus home?
“Hey,” Matt says. It’s not officially fall yet, the leaves are still a healthy green and the weather remains on the warm side, but he’s wearing a black trench coat, which does absolutely nothing to make him less creepy. “It’s been brought to my attention that my overtures might have come off as stalkery. Do you think I’m being stalkery?”
“Huh.” He shrugs. “Anyway, I’m going to meet up with my friends at the Carnivore’s Cave for burgers, and you should come with. You’ll like them. My friends, not the burgers. No, that’s not true, you’ll like the burgers.”
“If they’re anything like you, I doubt it. Your friends, not the burgers,” I say, the last of my patience slipping away. “You know, at first I thought you were just totally lacking in any social skills, but now I think you’re flat-out obnoxious and I would love it if you’d leave me alone.”
“I prefer to think of myself as direct and refreshingly honest.”
“You’re not. You’re annoying, so please, go away and let me find my bus in peace.”
“You mean that bus?” I whip around as the last of the big yellow convoy rolls out. “So, burgers?”
“You jerk! Look what—you just—
GGNNNNGGH!” I can’t think straight. I can’t speak. Urge to kill rising. Don’t incinerate him. Don’t incinerate him. Don’t incinerate him. I finally manage to blurt out, “Now I have to walk home thanks to you!”
And in the middle of my dramatic storm-off, Matt the grinning idiot says something that stops me dead.
“You could just fly home.”
Matt is giving me this very neutral look, like he hasn’t said anything shocking or scandalous, but there was something in his voice...
Fear surges up my throat like bile. I push it down, force my voice to stay level. “Yeah, I’ll just whip out my jetpack and off I go.”
“You don’t need a jetpack, Rocketeer.” He takes a step toward me. I fight the urge to run. He draws closer, close enough to speak into my ear without anyone else hearing. “Word of advice: a lot of kids use the woods behind the school as a shortcut or to grab a smoke before class. I’m not a smoker.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I know it’s a lame dodge as I say it. So does Matt; he rolls his eyes at me. “What do you want? What? What? You want to, you going to, what, blackmail me?”
Matt’s jaw drops. “Blackmail—what? No!” he says, utterly scandalized. “No, I’m not—” He looks around, leans in again. “I’m like you.”
“A super-hero,” he says in a near whisper.
He’s crazy. He has to be.
“I’m not a super-hero.”
“Okay, superhuman. Point is, I have powers too.”
“Yeah? What can you do?”
He grins, like he’s been waiting for me to ask. “Follow me.”
He trots off. I follow. I have to.
We circle wide around the school, cutting across a vast lawn that has no sports-related purpose, and stop at a thicket of trees edging the property. We’re far enough away that no one can see what we’re doing and I think, foolishly, that he could stab me right here and no one would be able to tell who did what to whom.
“Ready to see something cool?” he says, reaching into his coat pockets. My hands tingle and itch. It’s not from nerves. He pulls out two white gloves. They’re puffy and have only three fingers plus the thumb—they’re Mickey Mouse gloves. He slides them on and wiggles his three fingers at me and I’m sure I’ve been set up for some kind of sick joke.
“What’s your favorite soda?” he asks.
I’ve gone this far. “Cream soda. The good stuff that comes in a glass bottle.”
Matt reaches into his coat, like he’s reaching for a knife tucked in his belt, or a gun under his arm. My hands are burning up. He shows me a bottle filled with a caramel-brown liquid, dots of condensation rolling down the glass. I take it. It’s ice-cold.
“Favorite candy bar?”
“Uhh...don’t really have a favorite. Anything with dark chocolate?”
His hand ducks behind the flap of his coat and
comes out with one of those little chocolate squares wrapped in colorful foil. The wrapper proclaims 70 percent cacao content.
“So,” I say, looking at the items, “you’re, what, the Amazing Vending Machine Man?”
Matt winces. Obviously, this display has not impressed me like he’d hoped. “Um…you like sports at all?”
My answer amuses him. “Not what I expected. You have layers. I like that,” he says as he pulls a hockey stick out of his coat.
My mouth falls open. The soda and the chocolate—the chances he’d have exactly what I asked for pocketed somewhere on him are astronomical, but at least they would fit in his coat. A hockey stick, however...
“How did you...?”
“Walk with me.”
And I do, because dammit, now I’m curious.
It takes us twenty minutes before we reach the edge of the center of town. Main Street begins (or ends, depending on which way you’re traveling) at a town green, a wedge-shaped patch of grass with a towering flagpole in the center, and eases into your standard quaint New England street lined with buildings with businesses on the ground floors and apartments above. Traffic crawls along at reasonable speeds. People my age normally find towns like this boring and can’t wait to leave. Me, I find it comforting. I could live here.
That I can think that, that I could so easily consider somewhere else my home, ignites a flash of anger.
It must show, because Matt asks me if I’m okay.
“Yeah. Fine,” I say. “You were saying about your granddad?”
“Yeah, right,” he says, jumping right back into his story. “He died maybe a year and a half ago, and we went to his house to go through all his stuff. I went up to the attic, mostly because I couldn’t stand to see Mom crying again, started rooting around, and I found a lockbox that had the gloves in it, along with an old diary. Turns out, Granddad was a super-hero back in the day.”
“They had super-heroes way back then?”
“Apparently, but I think back then they were called ‘mystery men’ or something like that. Sounds old-timey, doesn’t it?
Who are these amazing crimebusting mystery men?
” he says in a nasal voice, in imitation of an old newsreel voiceover.
I finally crack a smile. Okay, maybe Matt’s not a jerk. Maybe.
“Anyway, Pops used to run around in a pinstripe suit and a cloak and a fedora and a mask calling himself Joe Mysterio. The diary, it was, like, his journal of all his adventures.” Matt wrinkles his nose. “Mm, maybe
is too strong a word. He busted some hold-up men, nabbed a car thief once, helped take down a loan shark who got off on having people’s legs broken.”
“That was probably a big deal at that time,” I say encouragingly, even though it does sound tame. “Does he say where the gloves came from?”
“No. I think the journal I found was volume two because it began halfway through a story. I didn’t find another one, so, no idea where they came from.”
“Or how they work?”
“Nope. I know my hands can’t be visible when I think of whatever it is I want to create. It’s like when Bugs Bunny reaches off-screen to grab a mallet to bash Elmer Fudd over the head.” He says this with a barely concealed giddiness that tells me he thoroughly enjoys being a living cartoon character. “But I can’t tell you where the stuff comes from or why my hands have to be hidden. It’s a mystery for the ages.”
I’m a little afraid to ask the next question. “You said you’re a super-hero?”
His face scrunches. “That was a small exaggeration,” he admits. “It’s more accurate to say I’m an
super-hero. But I’m off to a good start. The robot that trashed the coffee shop a couple of weeks back?” He points to himself.
“You stopped it?” I say. Color me doubtful, but Matt doesn’t look like he could stop a charging schnauzer.
“I did, and pretty easily. Nailed it with a Super-Soaker.”
“Seriously. On a hunch I hosed the thing down and sure enough, it sparked up a storm, spewed black smoke, and then,” he makes an explodey gesture. “Finito.”
“Umm...do you think that trick might work twice?”
“I don’t know. The one I took down might have been a raw prototype. A finished model would have been better insulated. Why do you ask?”
The answer trundles by. It looks like a Humvee mated with a Volkswagen Beetle, and that baby cross
bred with one of those big mechanical arms that assembles cars. People on the sidewalk race off as soon as the thing rear-ends a pick-up and shoves it into the cars parked along the curb. Matt grabs my arm and pulls me into an alley. Running away. Running away is good.
“Time to spring into action,” he says, slipping on his gloves.
“Spring into—what? Us?” He cannot be serious.
“Yeah, us. Robot on a rampage, lives and property threatened, two super-heroes in the immediate vicinity.” He reaches into his coat twice, first to produce a BMX mask with attached goggles, which he pulls down over his face, hiding it completely; then a Super-Soaker. He pumps it furiously, priming his oddball weapon for battle. “It’s us or no one.”
It’s not the most convincing argument I’ve ever heard, but I hear another crash of steel on steel and a woman’s scream, and I can’t think of a single decent reason to stand by and do nothing.
Matt squints as I power up. The anxiety is making me glow way brighter than usual. “That is so cool,” he says.
We chase after the tankbot or whatever it is, which hasn’t gotten very far because of all the traffic, but that’s sure not discouraging it any. It’s smacking into an SUV repeatedly, like a spiteful kid in a bumper car. There are people inside, trapped and seriously freaking because they’re too afraid to bail out. No one is helping them.
It’s us or no one.
Matt shouts at the tankbot, and surprisingly it responds: it stops ramming the SUV and the turretmounted arm swings around in our direction. What looks like a camera lens is mounted above the arm. Is it an eye for the robot? Or is its operator watching us?
You know how in movies and TV shows people experiencing incredible moments see things in slow motion? I always thought that was nothing more than artistic license, that stuff like that didn’t happen to people in real life, but no, it’s a real phenomenon, and I get my first taste of it when the tankbot hurls a motorcycle at us.
Matt soaks the ‘bot. I wait for the sparks and the smoke and the explodey. What I get instead is Matt cursing under his breath. It looks at us like,
What gives, people?
and then the arm pivots, twists, and grabs off the ground a motorcycle whose owner has beat a hasty exit. The arm jerks like a catapult and that’s when the world downshifts into super-low gear. I can actually read the words Harley Davidson on the gas tank as it reaches the peak of its arc. That’s when I grab Matt by the arms, taking two fistfuls of his coat, and take off. The weird time-warp thing, I think it saves our lives.
Or maybe it’ll just prolong the agony, because I’m not airborne very long. Instead of going up like a smart girl I go backwards and we smack into an abandoned FedEx truck. I don’t know how fast I’m going but it’s enough to knock the wind out of me and Matt both. We fall to the street, wheezing like a couple of asthmatic old men. We gawk stupidly as the tankbot comes rolling at us, its mechanical arm outstretched. Will it tear our heads off or turn us into street pizza?
Do something, Carrie. Shoot it. Blast it to bits. Come on.
My arm finally obeys my brain and I take aim. There’s a boom like a thunderclap and the thing rocks back on its treads. The chassis craters like it got punched by a giant fist. A second boom. The turret crumples. A spray of sparks goes up as if from an erupting volcano and it goes still. Harmless. Dead.
I wish I could claim credit for this nick-of-time saving of our bacon, but that wasn’t me. Our actual savior touches down next to us. It’s a man in a silverygray bodysuit that leaves too little to the imagination. A high-pitched whining noise comes from a pair of heavy black gauntlets and matching boots. His head is encased in a black helmet that makes me think of a jet pilot. His voice sounds like he’s on the other end of a fastfood drive-through.
“Are you two all right?” he says, and his posture changes as he catches sight of Matt. I practically see his eyes rolling behind the opaque visor. “Oh, for God’s sake.”
“Hi, Concorde,” Matt says casually, and sure, I totally believe he’s not in pain. He stands up with a grunt and, after a moment of self-debate, offers me a hand up.
I feel like a dummy for not recognizing him right away, since he’s only on TV every week for some reason or another: Concorde, one of the country’s premiere super-heroes and co-founder of the Protectorate, rated by several leading national news magazines as America’s greatest super-team. Their headquarters is at the outskirts of town, so it’s not a wild coincidence he showed up when he did.
“What are you doing here? What did I tell you the last time?” Concorde says. They obviously know each other somehow, but I get the distinct feeling Concorde would rather they didn’t. “And who’re you?” he says to me, but before either of us can answer, he waves the question away. “No, you know what? I don’t care. Just get out of here. Both of you. Now.”