Action Figures - Issue One: Secret Origins (6 page)

“I’d call myself Psyche,” Sara says as she scrapes the bottom of the ice cream container. “It sounds cool. Kind of mysterious, you know? Do you have a superhero name?”

I don’t, I say, and I’ve never actually thought about getting one, since I never thought about becoming a super-hero.

“We should think of one for you,” Matt says. “And we should think of a decent team name. Something catchy and dynamic.”

“And not lame like Captain Trenchcoat,” Stuart says.

“I’m not seeing any biting of me.”

“What’s the point?” Sara says. “We haven’t actually done anything as super-heroes, and we never will as long as the Protectorate is around. Why call a bunch of kids for help when you can call a real superhero team?”

“You’re looking at this all wrong,” Matt says. “First of all, the Protectorate’s going to get old someday, and someone’s going to have to step up to replace them, and why can’t that someone be us? Second, they’re, like, the SWAT team of super-heroes, and you don’t always need a SWAT team, do you? Sometimes you only need a few cops. We can be the ones who handle the smaller stuff while they’re off saving the whole world.”

“So we’d be the like the minor league team,” Stuart says distastefully. I have to agree. Being the second choice for anything is never fun.

“At first. You have to walk before you can run, right? We can’t dive head first into saving the world. That’s nuts. I mean, come on. Realism here.”

“Yeah, right, let’s be realistic about our pipe dreams of becoming super-heroes.”

“Right here,” Matt says, gesturing at the TV. “This thing with the robots. Concorde shows up to save the day, fine, but what is he doing to stop it from happening?”

“Aren’t the police investigating?” Missy says.

“They have nothing to investigate. No one’s actually committed a crime.”

“If the cops have nothing to investigate, then
we
have nothing to investigate,” Sara says, and that kills Matt’s momentum. He talked himself into a corner against his own argument.

And yet...

“My dad has a favorite quote,” I say. “It’s from
Goldfinger
, one of the real old James Bond movies. ‘Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.’”

“Do you exshpect me to talk, Goldfingah?” Matt says in an exaggerated Scottish brogue.

“No, Mister Bond, I expect you to die!” Stuart says. The boys laugh. The girls smile politely but they don’t get the joke. I do, because I used to watch James Bond with Dad all the time. The moment is simultaneously comforting and depressing.

“I don’t get it,” Missy says.

“It’s a scene from the movie,” Stuart says.

“Duh! I got that. I mean the ‘three times is enemy action’ thing.”

“It means the exact same thing can happen only so many times by accident,” I say. “One robot busts out of the ARC lab and goes haywire, okay, it’s weird but weird stuff happens. The same thing happens a second time, it’s harder to say it’s nothing but an accident, but it’s still possible. If it happens a third time...”

“Then chances of it being the exact same accident are practically nil,” Matt says, finishing my thought. He sits back, pondering this, while the rest of us remember we have textbooks in our laps and homework that’s due tomorrow.

“Okay,” Sara sighs. “Who wants to help me figure out the value of X?”

Nine o’clock rolls around and we call it a night, despite the fact some of us are leaving with more completed homework assignments than others (yes, I was the first to finish everything, and no, I don’t know if that earned or cost me friend points). Matt, Stuart, and Missy take off, but there’s a mess to deal with and I don’t want Sara to get saddled with it all.

“You don’t have to,” she insists.

“It’s not fair to stick you with the clean-up.”

“That’s usually how it works.”

“I see. So super-heroes are great when it comes to fighting crime but make poor houseguests is what you’re saying?”

Sara snorts, a restrained snicker. “Yeah. Pretty much. At least as far as Matt goes,” she says, plucking one of his discarded candy bar wrappers off the coffee table. The boy’s going to be diabetic by the time he’s old enough to vote if he keeps inhaling Milky Ways like he does.

“I have to ask: what’s his deal? This whole super-hero thing.”

“He’s a little mental about it, isn’t he?”

“A little.”

“I’ve known Matt since second grade,” Sara says, “and he’s always been like this. Most little kids, they talk about becoming cops or firefighters or astronauts when they grow up—Matt wanted to be a superhero.”

“Because...?”

Sara thinks for a moment, then shrugs. “Usual
reasons. Helping people, making the world safer. Stuff like that.”

“What about you?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “Never thought about it, honestly, but what else am I going to do with my powers? It’s not like you ever hear about superhumans with boring normal day jobs. ‘Hi, I’m Carl, I’ll be cleaning your teeth today and, oh, I can teleport.’ ”

“You could go to Vegas and do a mind-reading act,” I suggest jokingly. “Or, crazy idea here, you could be whatever you want to be and just happen to have super-powers that have nothing to do with your job. I mean, you don’t think Concorde spends his day sitting around in his costume waiting for stuff to happen, do you? Super-heroes have bills to pay too.”

“I guess.”

“Come on, when you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?”

Sara chews on her bottom lip, like she’s trying to decide whether to trust me with a juicy secret she’s dying to share but afraid to spill. “I wanted to be a dancer.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she says with a smile I’d have to call wistful. “My mom’s a classic musical junkie, so we were always watching stuff like
Singing in the Rain
and
Oklahoma
, and I used to sing and dance along. I still know all of Deborah Kerr’s songs and choreography from
The King and I
. I used to take all kinds of dance classes, took a few vocal lessons...”

Used to. Took. Past tenses.

“Why’d you stop?”

Again I get a thoughtful pause and a shrug. “My
brain went weird and I started hearing people’s thoughts.”

“You ever think about taking it up again?”

“Thought about it.”

“But?”

Pause, shrug.

“I think you should get back into it. When you’re ready,” I add so I don’t come off as pushy, even though I want to be. Sara’s latching on to Matt’s dream because she’s lost faith in her own. Been there, done that, got the souvenir T-shirt...have yet to follow my own advice...

“Maybe,” she says, then makes a point of showing how dedicated she is to cleaning up the living room. Okay, point taken, conversation over. For now.

It doesn’t take long with the two of us, maybe ten minutes, but my God, the girl looks exhausted from the effort.

“I get tired easy,” she says, then she scowls. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—my control goes to crap when I get tired. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s nice of you to say, but I know my power scares people. It scares everyone. Even my parents are scared of me.”

“I’m not scared of you,” I say, and I mean it. It’s definitely strange, being around someone who can overhear your thoughts, but I don’t believe she’s doing it on purpose. To her it’s like overhearing a conversation that’s going on right next to her.

Sara gives me a thin smile. “You will be.”

My house is dark except for a single light in the
living room. Mom is on the couch with a nearly empty glass of wine in her hand. She’s not reading, she’s not watching TV, Granddad is nowhere to be seen.

“Hi, honey,” she says. She doesn’t sound drunk, so that’s good, but I’ve always heard it’s never good news when people drink alone. “How was the homework session?”

“Homework happened,” I say. “The lasagna was a huge hit. Especially with Stuart.”

“Stuart?”

I join her on the couch. “One of the guys who was there. He eats a lot. I mean, like, constantly.” Mom nods her best non-judgmental nod. Oh God, she’s wondering if I have a crush on him. Wonder not, mother, Stuart is
so
not my type. Matt, truth be told, is physically more my thing, but aside from the fact he is a strange, strange boy, he definitely has serious eyes for Sara. The way he talks to her, the way he looks at her, all the signs are there, and one thing I do not do is poach another girl’s man. Not cool.

“Who else was there?”

Real subtle, Mom. “Let’s see, there was the crack dealer, and the pimp, and the one who organizes dogfights,” I say, and she punches me in the thigh. “It was me, Stuart, Sara, obviously, Matt, and Missy the Muppet.”

“Missy the Muppet?”

“When you meet her, you’ll understand.”

“Am I going to meet them?”

Sigh
. “Yes, mother, I will gladly invite them over so you can see with your own eyes that I am consorting with a better class of people.”

Mom stops short of gulping down the last of her
wine, and I feel like top prize winner in the Least Grateful Daughter of the Year competition. The constant questioning, yeah, it’s annoying, but she has every right to be worried about me and every right to interrogate me. If ever there was a time for me to really go off the rails life-wise it would be now, and it’s not like I’ve done much to re-earn all the trust I’ve lost.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Like, for the last two years I’m sorry. I know I’ve been a big pain in the butt. I know I’ve disappointed you.”

Once, a line like that coming from me would have sounded like the biggest line of crap.
I know I’ve disappointed you
, old me would have said, knowing in the back of my head Mom would have given me that
aww, sweetheart
look and told me I wasn’t a disappointment, I was just making some poor choices, I could never disappoint her. And me, the naïve idiot who thought she was so smart, I never would have realized she was lying through her teeth.

This time, I mean it. And the slack she cuts me is as real.

“This hasn’t been the best summer for you,” she says. “It’s been harder on you than it’s been on me. I knew the divorce was coming, but you...I wish there was a way I could have made it easier on you.”

There wasn’t, and I say so. “Do you miss Daddy?”

She looks at the last sip of wine, then sets the glass on the coffee table. “In a way. I miss what I once had with him.” She swallows hard. “I miss when we were all together and happy. But I know that time’s gone and we’re never getting it back, so what we both need to do is be thankful for what the three of us had
and try to find some new happiness. All of us.”

“Okay,” I say.

“Okay. For now, bedtime for you and bedtime for me.”

We head upstairs. My mom’s arm is around my shoulders and she’s holding me tight, and she fools me into thinking everything is normal.

SEVEN

I am pleased to report that here, on only my second day as a sophomore at Kingsport High School, I did not get lost in the Twilight Zone and found my homeroom without incident. I wish I could claim this was entirely intentional, but truth is I made a lucky guess. I’ll take it.

Matt gives me a hello nod as I enter the classroom. “My mom doesn’t trust you,” I say.

“Your mom’s never even met me.”

“Precisely my point. She wants to meet you and the others to make sure I’m not hanging out with unsavory characters again.”

“Hmm. Don’t know if meeting me will help there.”

“Maybe not, but you’d get dinner out of it.”

This catches his attention. “More of that awesome lasagna?”

“Better. My mom makes this killer pasta sauce from scratch,” I say, by which I mean she doesn’t use anything out of a jar or can, and she loads it up with ground beef, chicken, sausage…I swear if she could raise and slaughter and butcher her own farm animals
for the meat, she would. She’s that kind of crazy-obsessive about her cooking.

Matt is practically drooling on his desk. I’ll take that as a confirmation.

I’m on my way to English when a girl from my homeroom catches up to me. And I remember her from the lunchroom yesterday, sitting with the jocks.

“Hey,” she says, and it’s not coming across as a friendly greeting.

I hold off on responding in kind. “Hello.”

“Why are you talking to that freak Steiger?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

She
tsk
s and rolls her eyes at me. “The kid’s a weirdo loser, that’s why. He’s got no friends, his emo girlfriend’s a total psycho...”

“You mean Sara?”


Shyeah
. She had some kind of epic nervous breakdown last year. All she does anymore is stare at people with this pissed-off look on her face.” What the girl says next doesn’t merely cross the line: it crosses the line, levels a forest, and sets up a luxury summer home by the lakeside. “If there was a category for, like, the students most likely to go Columbine on the school, it’d be them.”

Honey, if that’s what you honestly think of Sara, I can’t blame her for giving you the evil eye.

It’s hard not to despise her, this narrow-minded, judgmental, thoughtless girl who reminds me uncomfortably of the Carrie Hauser of not too long ago. I can’t help but wonder how many chances for real friendships I blew off because I was so wrapped up in being pretty and popular and hanging out with the “right” people who turned out to be so wrong.

“I see,” I say. “Then it’s probably a good thing for me I’m making friends with them.”

“Huh?” she says, her brow knit in confusion, and thus does my brilliant parting line fall flat. Jeez. Knock-knock jokes would be too highbrow for this twit. She gives me the
tsk
- eye-roll combo again and says, “What
ever
. Talk to whoever you want. I don’t care.”

And with that she flounces off, no doubt to slander my good name to her friends because I had the audacity to befriend the “weird kid.” That’s how high school works: half the time it’s not who you are, it’s who you associate with that can make or break your reputation.

It’s a relief to find I don’t care.

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