Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chapter 13: Red Tee, Jean Jacket

Mars, Planet of mystery!

Chapter 13: Red Tee, Jean Jacket

Wednesday morning after Halloween was cold, dark and far too early for John. After the second four-day weekend in two weeks, school was a strange and distant idea.  And he was so tired that even the excitement of finding a folded set of brand-new All-Weather Fatigue Tights in Tatammy black-and-white on the little table beside his door soon vanished. It might be an acknowledgement of everything that had happened over the weekend, but it didn’t change the fact that he just wanted to go back to bed.
 Everyone was tired. Mr. Wong had to go in to the office early, but was so sore from the fight the night before that Mrs. Wong had to drive him to work. Though not before she had one more fight with May about wearing an off-the-shoulder outfit to school. John would have been perfectly happy to stay home again, or, in fact, anywhere well clear of May. Even through the soundproofing, John had heard her arguing with Rashindar late last night. May had been loud and passionate, yelling about Theera and a boy named Vijay. Rashindar’s replies were coolly inaudible until the end, when he yelled something in Sanskrit loud and long enough to shake the house. It was weird to be able to pick out the paradigms that John had learned in school and still have no idea what he was actually saying, but May apparently had, probably because Rashindar cast a comprehension spell on her. It seemed like a pretty jerky way to use his magic, and May was quiet and puffy-eyed in the morning even before her fight with her Mom.
 Jason, Amy, Rafaella and John sat down to breakfast together just as the car pulled out. Everyone spooned at their bowls in glum silence. John thought about starting conversation, but his brain seemed out of sync with time, and if he said anything, he was sure that it would come out long and clumsy and slow. He kept sneaking peaks at Amy, almost sure that somehow he would forget her face if he didn’t. No; that was an excuse. He did it because he liked doing it, and she didn’t seem to notice. Was she really upset with him about having that picture on his phone? Well, obviously, because she wasn’t talking to him. He wasn’t sure why that mattered so much to him, and a tiny part of his brain kept saying that since she obviously liked him, it couldn’t be that big a deal. But that part of his brain was crazy, like the part that tells a person that they can probably solve this kind of problem, and so they shouldn’t bother wasting time studying them before the math exam. Which was how John had lost half the bonus marks on his last math exam. Those epsilon-delta proofs were harder than they looked!
May came downstairs again as they finished breakfast. The Captain wasn’t following her, for once, and she was wearing the grey/white-off-the-shoulder blouse again, with tight black pants and low-heeled black boots. A black bra strap showed on her shoulder. John stared at that for a long second, feeling himself blushing, than pulled his eyes away and down. As they travelled, Rafaella caught his glance and smirked. John could feel himself flush even brighter.
Amy looked at her sister. “Mom said…”
May cut her off. “I don’t care what Mom said. And you’re just going to steal this top, anyway.”
“I would never do that,” Amy said. She didn’t sound particularly sincere. Then May’s phone started playing “Walk This Way.” May looked at it. “Jamie’s picking us up. Early. Rugrats scramble. You’ve got to be ready by 7:30. “
Jason said, “That’s not fair. I still have to finish my homework!”
“You can finish it at school,” May said over her shoulder as she turned to go back upstairs. Amy stood up. “I’ve changed my mind about what I’m wearing. John, can I go into your room and look through Jenny’s stuff?” She sounded almost like she was trying to say more. Did she think that John had taken some of it?
“I don’t know why. You’re two inches taller than Jenny used to be already.” It came out a little defensive, and no wonder. Amy frowned, and followed her sister upstairs. A long time after she went up, it occurred to John that he ought to have mentioned that Amy already looked great in her red tee and jean jacket. He almost followed her to say so, but wouldn’t that be stupid?
A blue Ford SUV pulled up at the back fence just before 7:20, only fifteen minutes after Jason finally buckled down to his homework at the kitchen table. Emily was waiting on the porch when John and the kids poured out to surround her and catch-up with events from the night before. Jamie stayed in the vehicle, so of course May went down to it. A moment later, John heard the familiar sound of May being upset, followed a second later by squeals of excitement. Moments later, May hurried up onto the porch and through the kitchen door. “What are you waiting for? Get in the truck!” Which they did, all in a pile of coats and packs and kids and Amy’s new handbag and Rafaella’s older golf umbrella. And then they waited, because May was taking her time. “What’s going on?” Jason asked.
Jamie turned to look back over the seat rest, a huge smile on her face. “Nothing much. Only that I told May we’re going to Babylon this weekend, after we get back from the game.”
John turned back to the foldout seats. The Captain had appeared out of nowhere in the back of the truck. John whispered to Jason, “Are we allowed to talk about that?”
Jason shrugged. “They ask their Mum to clean the bugs out sometimes, so that they can have one that they can talk in. They just can’t do it all the time.”
Amy was loud with excitement, drowning out the whispers. “Us, too?”
“Nah. You kids need to get caught up on your homework. And your quick-change rings will have to be sized. Just May, Becky and me. And Tony, Tara and Meg’s dad.”
“Ka-ching!” Amy made the “gimmeh” wave with her hands. “It’s all about the babysitting Benjamins.”
“Why can’t they take Meg and Damien?” Emily asked.
Amy turned to her friend, and since Emily was sitting between John and Amy, he could see her eyes flaring. “Hey! Hey! Best friends forever, Em? Remember that? And I was going to cut you in.”
“Because they’ll be out partying. In Babylon. Duh.” Rafaella said.
“What’s the big deal? You’re there every week.” John said. And he wasn’t sure what the big deal about the partying was. The shopping, though, was another matter. The books and comics and figs and games that people brought back from Babylon. He’d seen them, and he lusted.
“In one ugly meeting room at the back of some sucky bar or other so I can listen to people strike committees and argue about who gets to be what after the coup. That hasn’t even happened yet.” John read Rafaella as trying to avoid getting pegged as a princess-type. Even if she was a princess. She was actually pretty cool that way.
Jason wasn’t going to cut her any slack. “Are they seedy? Classy? We don’t even get to go into bars!”
Rafe shook her head. “They’re in between. Book says that anything that stands out, makes us conspicuous. My uncle has people in Babylon.”
Jamie interrupted. “We can’t take Meg and Damien because we’re staying at Booker Crudup’s place, and there’s only so much room.” Jamie said Book’s name like it was the most special thing in the world, and she had to carry it on a pillow to put it on a pedestal under a dome. John wondered what it would be like to have a girl like him that much. The idea was scary. How would he ever live up to it? Fortunately, it was also a crazy idea. Even if part of his brain kept bringing up Amy and putting it forward for consideration that it wouldn’t be scary so much as very, very nice.
“Oh. Oh. The D. L. strikes again!” Rafaella said, making it sound like she’d figured out the villain’s masterplan.
“What you talking about…” Jason started.
“And don’t call me Willis,”Rafealla came back, before he even finished. “Don’t you see? Your Mom knew that May would be all up in herself after this weekend, that she’d act out. So your Mom set this up. Now that there’s a trip to Babylon in the mix, May can’t afford to be grounded. She’s going to come back dressed like Hester freaking Prynne. You watch.” John caught a glance at Jamie’s face in the rearview mirror.  She was frowning. John resolved not to mention anything about Rafe’s theory if May showed up in a something Prynneish.
Which is exactly what happened. May wasn’t quite as bubbly as Jamie, but it was still as though all the troubles of the previous night were forgotten. Babylon! Booker! Booker! Babylon! And the Rugrats would be stuck at home, doing homework and looking after a crying baby and a preschooler. John couldn’t wait for the truck to get to school. Jason was supposed to finish his homework (it was all regular stuff) in the library, and John was supposed to make sure he did –though how that was supposed to work, John did not know. More importantly than “supposed tos” was the fact that the geeks tended to hang around the library, and this would be the first chance everyone would have to talk about the full release of Minecraft1.8.
As expected, Cory was at the library, and a dozen regular kids. And Don, too, but he just wanted to show everyone a picture book about the suffering of the Christian martyrs. It had some very colourful suffering in it. More colourful than John was really interested in, and he soon wandered away from the table to where Jason was at least managing to look like he was trying to work. John stood over his shoulder for a moment and watched Jason sketch Theera’s face. Then he asked, “So, what’s the deal with Booker Crudup?”
Jason’s neck blushed. He put his hand over the sketch and turned around in his chair. “He’s a completely normal kid. He was born in 1961. His Mom is Mr. Washington’s sister, even though he’s only 48. She was living with Miss Hirsch at the time, and don’t ask me about Mr. Crudup. Booker turned 15 in 2004, enrolled at Tatammy High in 2005, graduated in 2009. He went to work in the alternate dimension –technically, it’s a Parterre— of Babylon, the City of Art and Man. And he’s 25 now, or 55, depending on who you ask. Math, time machines and other dimensions. Three great things that go great together.”
So Jamie knew this guy in her first year of high school. In fact, he was the older brother of one of her best friends, just like Juanita Guzman and Henry Wong. And now suddenly he was either 9 years older than her, or 39. Clear as mud. “How do you keep all this weirdness straight?”
“Says the mind-wiped clone of the master supervillain.”
“Hey. Maybe in my real family that counts as normal.” Contradict me, John thought. Please. Just so I know whether there’s someone out there. Like you have.
But Jason didn’t say anything to that, just winced. After a long pause, he came back. “Are you sure that you want to know about your real family? Bossy sisters, manipulative Moms, bossy sisters, evil homicidal undead uncles, endless homework, bossy sisters… They can be a drag.”
“Honestly? I’m not seeing the downside here. Except the homework.”
“Oh, good.” Jason turned his page over and began writing in the upper left corner of the blank sheet, reading as he did so, although he quickly ran ahead of his dictation. “Dear Uncle Kwan:  I know how busy you are working for Takofanes, and how much you like keeping your hobby-related atrocities to your immediate family, but could you make an exception for my friend, John? He doesn’t have an evil uncle that he knows about. No-one has ever promised to kill him slowly after making him watch his girlfriend die in front of him. He feels left out. Could you include him, too? Kay, thanks, bye. Signed, your great-great nephew, Jason.”
Somehow, the thought of an explicit promise to kill his girlfriend made it more real, like this monster had a plan. John had to ask. “He promised? Like, called you on the phone, said, hey, Jason, this year you’re going to get a girlfriend, and just to celebrate, I’m going to make her a star. In Saw 3D: The Sawening?”
“Is that even a real word?”
“No,” John admitted. “It’d be ‘sawyering,’ I guess. But that wouldn’t sound as funny.”
“You keep trying, John. I’m sure you’ll get it one of these days. And, yes, he did promise. We all got hand-delivered cards just before you arrived. May got her hair cut the afternoon they came. I honestly thought …then The Captain showed up.” Jason stood up.
“Where are you going, Jas?”
“To check out Cory’s laptop. You can see his Minecraft captures from here.”
“Yeah. But no. Homework. Remember, dude?”
“So you’re going to go check out the captures.”
And that was how John ended up glued to a chair in the library for the next forty-five minutes, drilling pre-,and postpositional case endings in three languages and trying to prove the limit of a function of two variables. Mr. Guzman had promised to show him how to do integrations across a surface once he could show that proof. Wouldn’t that mean calculating the volume of a four-dimensional space? Math was so cool! By the time the 10 minute buzzer warning sounded, he was so engrossed in the proof that he missed the moment when the blonde girl slipped the note under his laptop. He would never even have known it was her if he hadn’t looked up in time to see her leaving library, and caught her looking back at him. As his eyes swept over the note and he picked it out from under the book, she smiled and winked at him.
It said, “Meet me at 12:30 behind the big elm tree, and I’ll tell you your secret. Sabine.” And he wondered, briefly, where he’d heard that name before; but mainly what his secret was. Had she figured out his secret identity? Because that would put the whole school in danger. Liam’s brother was in VIPER, and you did not mess around with VIPER. Well, the Neilsens did, but they knew what they were doing. He guessed.
They only had one special class that morning, and it was Tactics, with El Professore. They were to wear their tights for the class, for the first time. John was so excited that it seemed like he would never get the catches done. The tights were tight, of course, and incredibly thin, but so warm that he had to open the little clasps at the side. They were also the first clothes that John had ever had that were tight over his arms and shoulders. He must be growing! And when he walked into class, he learned that he wasn’t the only member of the class who was growing.
It was bizarre. A moment ago, he was proud of his new Black-and-Whites and the mask cowl, just like the one that he would wear as a grown-up superhero. And the girls were his friends. Sure, they were pretty, and he got embarrassed when he made eye contact for too long, but didn’t everyone? Now, it was more than just eyes. Sure, John had noticed these things, looked at pictures, even joked about it with Jason, but this was different. He wanted nothing more than to just stare. Except that he also wanted to hide in the corner with his eyes on the table. He also knew that that just wasn’t on. No staring; no hiding. This was going to be hard.
Which was what he was thinking, more-or-less, when Amy came up beside him and said, “You’ve got the neck catch crooked, John.” And he looked at her square on and all that tension took on a new form, a weirdly happy form. Because this was Amy, and he could be next to her all day. He reached out and touched her catch, just behind her shoulder blade, and she got all weird and still until he let go. Then she adjusted his catch, and when she had finished and went back to sit down, he wanted to call her back.
When he sat down at the boy’s table, Jason greeted him with a muttered, “’Get a room, fun boys.’” John pretended not to dignify that with an answer, but the truth was that he just didn’t know what to think. Then El Professore came in, walking stiffly and wearing his cape over his torso.
“Good Morning, Class. I’m afraid that I overstrained myself last night, so we will not be having a Danger Room session today. Instead, I will be familiarising you with some of the less obvious features of your All Weather Fatigue Tights, and going over best-case survival practices. In case you meet, say, someone who can project you into an alternate dimension.”
Emily sniffed. She said that that wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was doing it past any magical ward more powerful than your lucky underwear. (She also said that a rabbit’s foot keychain was usually more than enough, but she might have been exaggerating.) You pretty much had to be inside the wards already for that sort of thing. On the other hand, it had worked for them. And so it was time to learn about what to do if you found yourself falling froma great height, or drowning, or in a creepy jungle, or appearing in the midst of a zombie horde.  John suspected that, at least for him, the answer was usually, “fly,” but that wouldn’t help his team-mates any. Besides, it was a cool class. There were a lot of ways of using your powers to make an ice floe in the ocean, or scare up some heat and shelter in a snowstorm. And then there were things that wouldn’t work. El Professore mentioned a crazy book that advocated going to sleep in a pile in the middle of a snowbank. The author claimed that their bodies would give off enough heat to keep them alive. Of course, the author then went on to describe an army survival school graduation exercise where the students were dropped off naked in a Canadian Rockies winter and made to walk back to civilisation. “If that guy had been in one of my classes, he really would have graduated when he was dead,” said El Professore. “But it wouldn’t have been of hypothermia.”
And then there was math class, where John listened with half-an-ear to Mr. Guzman (who was wearing a bulky jacket and for once never stirred from his desk) talk about solving equations with trigonometry functions in them while trying to prove some postulates with the fundamental axioms of algebra. It was a lot harder and less satisfying than doing geometry that way! The final class of the morning was history: blah blah Election of 1800 blah. People sure liked to pretend they knew a lot about what was going on two hundred years ago when they couldn’t even figure out whether it was Takofanes or the Demonologist who was behind a zombie outbreak two nights ago!
Three weeks ago, it would have been hard for John to get away at lunch. Nowadays, lunch was when Jason read the message boards where he and Theera hung out and wrote replies that were supposed to have cunning double meanings, but usually didn’t. John was sure that Rashindar would never figure that out. John was practicing his sarcasm!
That meant that John was free to go out to the ancient elm tree that stood on the far side of the playing field from the old school to find out what Sabine wanted. Fortunately, it wasn’t raining. For some reason, John thought that he might have difficulty explaining what he was doing. It was strange. He was just going to see a girl about a note, but he felt guilty about it, like it was something that he shouldn’t be doing. Sabine was waiting underneath the giant tree. Liam and her other friends were nowhere around, which was good, but John wasn’t going to take any chances. “Hi. Are you Sabine? Where’s Liam?”
Sabine’s eyes flashed. “I am. You’re John. And Liam’s a clod. Off moping somewhere. Heard his brother just got killed in action. That’s what you’ve got to expect when you fight supers.”
John didn’t think that he’d ever heard anyone say “clod” before. He’d certainly never imagined Liam having feelings, so you definitely learned something new every day. He was also not going to let that slag against superheroes go. “Superheroes are a helluva lot more careful with VIPER goons than the goons are with them!”
“Whatevs,” Sabine shrugged. “Say. You’re probably wondering what my note was about.”
John was a little baffled. Sabine hung with Liam’s crowd, which was all about the gang life and how VIPER got respect. He wasn’t done his argument yet, but the girl was moving on already. “Duh. I’m here.” That didn’t come out right, he thought to himself. He was angry at some opinions that Sabine might have. Not Sabine. He should try to remember that, he told himself.
“So come here,” she said. She waved her phone at him. John stepped closer so that he could read it. “I work at the food court at the mall. And I’m a foster kid, so I’ve been wondering about you. I mean, why are you with the Wongs. Not your typical FUs, gotta say.”
“FUs? And what is it?” John asked.
“Foster Units. And they’re pictures of the EFTs from the cards you guys used to pay for your lunches. Kid farmers get cash cards to cover expenses these days. With private adoptions, sometimes they’re careless, you can trace them back with the bank info.”
Now John was excited. “And you traced mine back? To who?”
“To what.” She said.
“What?” John asked.
“NASA. The Ares Oversight Office is paying your living expenses, John.”
“The Mars Base?”
“Yeah. Wanna find out more? All you need to do is go out with me on Saturday.”

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