Thursday, June 9, 2011

Chapter 3: Back To School Special: Buy Two, Get the Third One Free!

Fan Fiction below the fold. I assume that the good-guy mentalists of the Champions Universe try to keep anything they need kept secret away from Menton's attention rather than relying on their own abilities. That guy is scary.

Smoke, or, at least this smoke, was not that hard to get out of carpet. Fortunately, because It was looking like that was going to be John’s job for the whole morning. On the other hand, as he cleaned step after step (three already!), the feel of the smoke began to tickle in his brain. Could he get it out that way? John reached out with his brain, felt the little bits of smoke –molecules, probably. They were different enough, smoky-tasting, although not quite as smelly as the dog hairs. He formed the muscle into a rake, pulled it through the short-napped carpet.  The smoke came up into a tiny, smudgy spot in the air that he grabbed in his hand and put into his bucket.

Now if only it didn’t leave him feeling like he’d just run a mile. Amy, two steps up above him, interrupted. “Two more steps and we can go help Jason upstairs!”

Halfway done already? That made it really hard to stay upset, but John tried. “Shh. I’m trying not to throw up here.”

Amy put her hands on the next step and leaned down. “What are you doing? Was that telekinesis?”

“Telekinesis?” It probably was, and the word seemed almost familiar to John, as though he’d heard it in another life. Was that those awful, lost memories coming back, or just something half-remembered?

“Yeah, like moving stuff with your mind or whatever.”

“Sounds like I was doing telekinesis. Better word for it than ‘world-pushing brain-muscle.’”

She was excited, now. “Awesome! Oops. Gotta stop saying that. I have telekinesis, too. It’s how I change the direction of my gravity and stuff.”

“Why would you want smoke grenades? You can already turn invisible!”

She straightened up and waved her hands in front of her face in circles, talking in a spooky voice. “This is not the girl-who’s-not-here that you’re looking for.... Nah. Doesn’t work on people with strong mental shields, like you, or when people already know you’re there. So Anita thought I could carry grenades. Boom! Smoke everywhere. No-one can see me, I run up the wall or across the ceiling or whatever, scoot out in an unexpected direction. Extraction is the most important part of the op, Mr. Piccolo says.”

“So, what, you were practicing pushing the smoke clouds around? I think I could do that. Just like I could eat bacon, which I would be doing right now if I’d just finked you guys out to your Mom!”

Amy smiled. “If you didn’t leak through your shields, you’d be finding out what happens when you cross the Rugrats.”

John had guessed that Amy was a telepath, but that was still scary. “You can read my mind?”

“Not so much. You only project happy thoughts. And seriously scary ones, like your dream last night. Man, I’d heard about Uncle Kwan, but, wow. Anyway, I’ll tell you when you leak, so you can tighten up, but, seriously, ninety percent of what you get from reading minds you can get from people’s faces. Unless you really drill down, but that’s only secret mind-reading because the subject doesn’t want to remember it.”

“How come everyone knows about the old guy in my dream but me?”

“Because he was all up in the you-losing-your-memory-business. I don’t want you to suddenly turn into a glowing-eyes-gotta-destroy-the-Earth supervillain, John! I’m starting to like you.” And then she blushed and ducked her head, and  John looked down, too.

“I don’t want to be a supervillain! I’m only fifteen!” Oh, yeah, like that makes any sense, he thought. Somehow, John felt very familiar with making sarcastic comments to himself, and he deserved the sarcasm for being so flustered right now.
Amy’s answer was so quiet he could barely hear . “Maybe you’re not really fifteen. Anyway, my brother, Dave, says you’re not.”

“What? And, also, ‘what,’ some more?”

She looked up now. Her face was awfully close to his. Something. There was something he could do now. But that would be crazy. Instead, he watched as she talked. It was such a nice face. “It’s, like, my second favourite babysitter is a clone, and she and my other babysitter went on a time travel adventure with my sister two weeks ago, and then a cross-dimensional one the week after. I have a friend who’s an alien, a student billeting in my house that’s from another dimension. I tutor a younger kid that’s a “living robot,” and another who was born in the 1500s. My mother was born in 642. My grandmother got married when she was 10.”

“She got married when she was ten?”

“Uh hunh. Great-Grams had plans. Mostly for my Auntie, but still. Even with Uncle Kwan, I prefer my Dad’s side of the family.”

“And what did you say your brother said?”

Ah hah! She’d been trying to distract him. He could tell it in her expression. “Dave reamed you out at the airport, yesterday and he says there’s nothing down there.”

“Nothing, hunh?” John held a straight face long enough to see Amy blush again, before he smiled. It was funny. “So why all this secrecy if there’s nothing down there?”

“Because there’s magic and super-science, all kinds of crazy stuff. Like, one of this year’s Seniors is from the 31st Century, and he turned out to have an AI implanted in his body in a nanodisc. Oh, boy, was that a mess. And David’s only 27. The Mechanic wants to bring in a pro, but on the down low, because if Menton hears-“

A boy’s voice interrupted from the top of the stairs. “Are you two going to take all day down there? Because I’m finished! Superspeed and strength for the win!” It sounded like Jason, only much more quiet. John took his eyes off Amy, more sure than ever that there was some kind of unfinished business there, and looked up. It was Jason. He had his bucket and brush in one hand, and was resting his other hand on the rung much less casually than he wanted to suggest. His face was pale and drawn. Not to judge or anything, given how much work this telekinesis thing was.

Below them, Mrs. Wong poked her head around the bottom of the stairs. “Okay, good enough. Get down here before your breakfast gets cold!”

It turned out to be gloopy, salty oatmeal. Rafaella took a long, long time to finish her breakfast as she watched them eat, slowly chasing the last drops of purple syrup around her plate with a fork absolutely loaded with pancake, bacon, and egg. 

While she scraped the plate, Mr. Wong rustled his super-rustly paper and sipped his coffee and told a story about how his grandmother’s recipe came down to his wife from an old family friend that was long and almost completely pointless except for the bit about how kids who played with smoke grenades inside didn’t get to enjoy it, and had to eat oatmeal instead. Although, to be honest, it wasn’t half bad served with chai, “Altai style.”

Mrs. Wong wasn’t entirely unused to playing with grenades inside, either. Because suddenly breakfast was over and they were all in motion. “Come on, you’ve only got three days left before school, and no-one’s done their back-to-school shopping!”

Jason was completely unfazed, and loud enough to be heard over the instant din of the sink running, plates and dishes being gathered up, pages being folded, and a dog’s toenails clicking on linoleum as The Captain appeared out of nowhere to lick plates. “Mom, we’ve done our back-to-school shopping, and, hey, crazy coincidence, we also bought some new video games for when we might have some spare time. Such as when we’re not being rushed off to the mall.”

His mother looked over her shoulder from loading the dishwasher. “I’m not leaving you here alone without a babysitter. May’s at her first day of work, and Jamie does have to do her shopping today.”

“What about Rebecca?” Jason looked at Amy, imploring her for support, but it looked like the twins’ solidarity was going to split on the gender line.

“She has to be with her Aunt, today.”

“Mrs. Crudup is dying,” Amy whispered.
John whispered, “that’s terrible!”

“She’s been dying ever since I can remember. Rebecca says she didn’t, but I think she did her back-to-school shopping in Babylon.”


“The City of Man. The coolest dimension ever,” Amy’s eyes went wide as she said it.

“Ahem?” Mrs. Wong was now standing up and looking over at them rather than Jason. “You’re all coming. X-Men: First Class is playing at 6 at the mall, and Jamie has a Bronco today. We’ll pick up May after she gets off work at 2:30, then Henry and I will leave you with Jamie and money for dinner and the arcade. Curfew is 9:30, because it’s a weekend. Now: John, washing up; Jason, drying; Amy, putting things away.”

Mr. Wong, on his way out the door into the mud room with The Captain trotting behind him, turned around. “And, Jason? We’ll be getting laptops for Rafaella, John, and your Mom today.”

“Henry!” Mrs Wong turned to her husband, wiping her reddened hands on her apron.

“No more excuses, dear. It’s about time that you had a laptop that could handle an email attachment.”

John, Jason, and Amy lined up at the huge double sink. As John reached into the hot, soapy water looking for sponges and scrubbers, Jason jostled in the middle, almost shouting, “I should be next in line for washing after May!”

“Mom thinks that you’re too fast for proper washing up, Jas’, and I’m the only one who knows where all of this stuff goes.” Amy waved her hands across the ominous pile of pots, griddles, and utensils.

Washing up, cleaning up, showering, changing and getting everybody into the Mazda5 seemed to take a flash, although 

John noticed Mr. Wong checking his watch ever more frequently as it got closer to 10. And then, they were on their way. The mall wasn’t too far, just on the other side of the Interstate expressway and seemingly tucked into its side. It was a cozy but cheerless place, concrete and a feeble garden in planters baking in the August heat, except for a deep ravine on one side all gloriously overgrown, out across a part of the parking lot where no-one was parked, nor, apparently, had parked for a very long time. There was a Shop Rite at one end, a new Target at the other, a cinema and  chain stores on two levels in the middle. 

It was not, however, as big as it could be. The escalator down inside the entrance was shut down, with massive amounts of peeling construction tape closing it off at the top, and a sign that read, “Lower Concourse Closed For Renovations.” From the look on the sign, the renovations had been going on for as long as John had been alive.

And there were people, including two girls with long, straight, blond hair in semi-matching tank-top-and-shorts outfits, the bright orange that John had been seeing around above, something a little darker than he normally thought of as “real” green for the shorts. The younger girl was his age, and was wearing a bizarre amount of costume jewelry, while the older girl, about 17, carried an especially large bag over her shoulder. Jason and Amy broke away, hurrying towards the blondes, colliding with the younger girl. John and Rafaella followed as Jason and Amy rounded to do introductions. “John, Rafaella, this is Emily Neilsen. Her sister over there is Jamie.” So that was the babysitter. Her gaze fell across John, and John noticed that Jamie was systematically scanning the entire mall. She reminded him very much of Rafaella, and, unlike Rafaella, who was obviously hugely uncomfortable at having to leave her sword behind, Jamie seemed just too comfortable.

“Have you got a gun in there?” He asked as Jamie came up to them.

“Two, actually. Smart boy. Now, shh. We’ll never get our shopping done if we attract the gun nuts.”

Mrs. Wong spoke from behind them. “Or if we keep the Rugrats together. Jamie, if you’d like to go on the clock now, you can you take Rafaella, Amy and your sister. Here are debit cards for Jamie, and Rafaella. Henry will email you a shopping list.”

Mrs. Wong took Jason and John. To her credit, the dragon lady seemed to understand that the boys weren’t having much fun, and while it took hours to fill out John’s list, the only insufferable part came towards the end, when Mrs. Wong ran into a re-headed woman with a surprisingly cool stroller just outside the food court. “Tara McNeery! I haven’t seen you in years! And is that the little one?”

“Mindy! I was meaning to look you up next, but we’ve been so busy since we moved back to Earth! On top of all the things and furniture we brought back, there’s all of the things and furniture that we don’t have. And my grandparents haven’t been able to keep the garden up very much lately. My little goldfish are two bricks away from running down into the Wissahickon. Is May still doing gardening?”

Mrs. Wong smiled in a very friendly way, although John got just a hint of more complicated feelings. “I’m afraid that May is going to be very busy this year, with school and patrolling and her new job at Shop Rite. Amy takes after her, though, so maybe we can see about that. Now, may I please see the little one?”

“Of course. And these are your new boarders? They’re coming to my grandfather’s garden party, I hope.” And then they were talking about kids and kid’s clothing and people that John didn’t know, and Jason couldn’t remember. After a few moments, John realised that Jason had manoeuvred him between the two women and himself, and was texting silently. He pulled out his new phone, and there was a message on it: “Fo1w m3 Sgn1.” Presumably, “follow me at the signal.” What signal? Well, he’d figure it out.

It came as they were threading their way through the crowds near the checkstands in the Shop Rite, just about every old person in Northwest Philadelphia was lurching through the checkstands in their own unique ways. An appalling number of them were getting help to carry their groceries to their cars. John only hoped that none of them could fly! Then Jason dogged right, and they were in the aisles, screened by stacks of paper towel with an “In Store Special” sign taped to the raggedly-cut boxes. “Come on, or they’ll know we gave them the slip!” He headed down the aisle towards the back of the store.

“Where are we going?”

“The Shop Rite Garden Centre is next floor down. We can get into the lower concourse through their loading dock, then back up through the old fire exit stairs to the UWRW office, back onto the concourse and into the crowd in front of Customer Service at Shop Rite. If we hustle. Come on!”

“And the point of this would be?” John huffed as we ran down the escalator, dodging customers.

“May has a shopping list from Mom’s contraband list. Some of it we stash on the lower concourse with our skateboards. Some of it we’re going to need if we’re going to go to a party at Mr. McNeery’s.”

Jason led them through a door marked “Authorized Personnel Only,” and onto a huge concrete platform half-filled with junk, with two doors open to a parking lot facing onto the embankment on which the expressway pylons stood. A delivery truck was backing up towards one of the doors, and a knot of Shop Rite employees were standing at the other side, talking volubly, completely oblivious as Jason and John ran across the space, through an exit door, and onto the dimly-lit flooring of an eerily-empty mall, with vacant shops facing them from both sides, and a dry fountain. The dust on the floor was thickly scored by skateboard tracks and there were more than a few footprints leading towards an “Exit” sign with half the letters burnt out.

It led to a corridor, where May, Amy, and Emily, now wearing a jean jacket over her top, were waiting. May was in one of the ugly, greenish Shop Rite shirts, although Jason noticed that her hair matched her black apron, and for a moment he even thought that it had somehow grown out before he realised that she was wearing her apron strap doubled across her shoulder. May greeted them with a grimace, holding out a Shop Rite bag. “Here’s your stuff.” Then it was her turn to dash off, across the concourse and through the door back into the supermarket.

“Shouldn’t we move, too?” John asked.

Amy shook her head. “No: Rafaella just texted. The grownups are still lined up, and it’s a gong show up there. We can pull the whole, ‘I thought they were with you’ thing, but we need to be there when they actually finish. We’re screwed if they even think we might be pulling something.....”

“And is that guy supposed to be over there?”

“Who?” Jason started and turned.  And then, realising that John had made him, the guy slipping out of the Shop Rite with a slim metal-and-glass thing turned and launched at them, and John realised that he wasn’t a guy at all, but some kind of oversized, hairy, beast thing. A wolf man, to be precise. “Go, split right, left, by alternates, Jason yelled, but he didn’t do anything of the sort, instead launching himself at the wolf man himself. Jason glimmered as they came together, and they wrestled for a moment before the wolf man snagged Jason with the metal claws on his hands and threw him aside. Jason slammed against the angle where the exit corridor met the wall of a dusty old Orange Julius stand. Amy had disappeared, of course, and the wolf man turned on Emily and John, choosing the taller John as the bigger threat. As if. Emily at least seemed to have a plan, from the way she was fingering her costume jewelry, pulling a watch on a chain out of her pocket. 

What am I going to do? John hadn’t figured out a way to use his powers this way, but how was the moment. The leaping wolf man, he distantly noticed, had metal claws on his hands. Was that a costume?

Somehow, knowing that he wasn’t fighting a werewolf, but some freak in a costume who was evidently stealing the small change spilling out of the metal container that he’d dropped on the floor inspired John. He reached out with his telekinesis and slammed the wolf man as hard as he could. In an instant he knew that he’d hit him harder than he’d intended, because John was suddenly so tired that he just wanted to go to sleep right there; but the wolf man took an invisible tackle to one shoulder and spun, his feet coming up almost to head height as he slammed into the concrete paving of the concourse floor. Too bad that hardly phased him, or the bomb that Emily’s pocket watch had turned into. They were both so dead, until Amy suddenly flickered into existence, standing upside down on the concourse ceiling and holding what looked like a blade made of light. She stabbed it down through the wolf man’s head, with little effect. Now his only problem seemed to be which target to go after first: the girl standing upside down above him, one of the two boys slumped on the floor, or the girl hunched in a corner, tying a knot in a metal chain. This crap was dangerous, John realised. A bit late for that, he also thought.

Then, the door off the concourse burst open, and a tall man with a short, military haircut and huge shoulders came through, low and fast. This time, it was a real tackle that took the wolf man, a solid impact that threw him across the mall, through the boarded up windows of a Dalton’s. The big man moved to follow, but the wolf man was too fast, rushing down the concourse and then swarming up the railing of an escalator to the main floor.

The big man turned back to them. “Well, as I live and breathe. It’s Wongs and Neilsens. Is this a Rugrats operation? Because if you’re tangling with killer furries, I shall have to tell your parents. Whereas if this is some youthful shenanigans, I might be persuaded to leave your part in this little encounter out of any conversation I might have with the Liberty League. In return for a weekend of your time next month.”

“Thanks, Mr. Stone!” Amy, Emily, and Jason chorused. “Can we cut through your office? We need to get back to the Shop Rite right away!”

He nodded gravely, but with the urgency of action gone, he was too slow for the twins and Emily, who bolted up the stairway inside the exit corridor, with John right behind. On the other side of the door was a closet, and then a small mallfront office space. A motherly woman waved as they bolted by her desk. John looked back and saw that “UWRW” was short for “Union of Warehouse and Retail Workers, Local 2519. The plan worked out, but from the suspicious looks they got, John had a feeling that they weren’t fooling anyone. 

That didn’t mean that he wasn’t looking forward to whatever was going to go down at the McNeery party.

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