What's a superhero universe without some mad scientists? I'm going to be accused of stereotyping if I suggest that mad scientists might need to relax a bit; the point is that everyone does, especially when they're young enough to remember how. (Sad face now.)
Chapter 2, 4: Introductions
The black sedan-truck with the Mercedes hood ornament pulled into the parking space under the elm tree. “That’s your car pool,” Mrs. Wong said. “Quick. You’ll be late for school!” Jamming the two brown bags with their lunches into Chris’s hands, she half-pushed, half-prodded Chris with her other. Chris started towards the end of the alley, quickly enough to not get into trouble. It was barely past 8. He had a feeling that they were going to be on time. There was a rustling behind him. He knew that Eve was behind him, and was careful not to look. Staring was impolite, and it made Chris feel weak when she caught his eye.
Charlotte was faster, almost running to the truck, hardly breaking as the front door opened, and a tall girl with long, straight, hair, white as an old woman’s, but thick and lustrous as a girl’s, got out. “Are you the new Wong kids?”
Chris stopped in front of her. He wasn’t getting a read on her age, for some reason, but the way things worked around here, she’d be a Grade 12. Senior, the Americans would say. It would pay to be polite. “Hi, I’m Chris, this is Charlotte.”
The Grade 12 nodded her head. “Pleased to meet you, Chris, Charlotte. I’m Anne Fay. And this,” she said, gesturing through the open door at someone just barely visible, “Is Graydon McNeely. We’re your car pool slash body guards this morning.”
Chris went around the truck to get in on the driver’s while Charlotte got in on the passenger’s side. There was a tall boy sitting in the middle seat. “And I’m Dino Jurassich,” he said to Chris, with a strange snort, as Chris got into the truck and fastened his seatbelt. Eve opted for the back bench behind him.
“Why do we need bodyguards?” Charlotte asked, as she fastened her belt and took her lunchbag from Chris, handed in front of Dino.
“Everyone in the programme gets babysitters or bodyguards ‘till they’re in Grade 11. Then they take over being babysitters and bodyguards. Our parents made way too many enemies,” Anne Fay explained, turning around in her seat, her elbow poised with strange elegance across the back of the seat.
“Because without egg clutches, you mammals don’t know when to let go,” Dino said.
Chris scooted up to Dino with his thighs one more time to be sure. To look at, he was a regular kid, if a little big, but he felt cool and scaly. “Seriously, your name is Dino Jurassic?”
“Show a little respect, you homeostatic punk,” Dino answered. “I’m 75 million years old.”
“Technically.” Graydon bit out his first spoken word of the trip in a low, raspy voice.
Chris almost blew up before he realised that ‘homeostatic’ had to mean something like ‘furry,’ or ‘warm-blooded’ or something, but before he could say anything, Charlotte asked, “So this is like with Rafaella hiding her blue skin, Dino? You’re, like, a dinosaur under your disguise?”
Anne, meanwhile, pushed Graydon playfully. “Are you going to do your Christian Bale voice the whole trip, Gray?”
“I’m not doing Christian Bale. I’m doing Abed doing Christian Bale,” Graydon said, in the same raspy tone. Then, in a more normal voice, he continued “Cool. Cool cool cool.”
“Abed’s that kid on that TV show?” Chris could tell from Charlotte’s voice that she was guessing, but it was probably a safe guess.
“He’s the goof that Tatammy High deserves, not the one that it deserves,” Graydon said, in the raspy voice again.
Anne turned around again. “Graydon gets to be the Hobgoblin most of the time now.”
Chris whistled. Even he’d heard of the Hobgoblin. “That’s the guy that the Batman was modelled on, right?”
Graydon shook his head, not looking away from the traffic on the road. “One of a lot of guys, and women, that the Batman was modelled on.”
“But you have a mansion, and an expensive car. So your family is rich. Is there a Batcave?” Chris asked. “Please tell me that there’s a Batcave.”
Graydon nodded slightly as he pulled into an intersection and made a smooth left turn through the traffic. “Goblin Deep, please. Where else would we keep our toys?”
“’Our toys?’” Charlotte echoed. “You can’t be the first Hobgoblin.”
“No. That’d be my Grand-Dad, Tom McNeely. My cousin, John, took over as Hobgoblin II in 1985, and my brother Tony was Hobgoblin III from 1999 until last year, with my cousin, Paul, fitting in while Tony was out of town.”
Charlotte sounded skeptical. “Are you allowed to tell us that stuff?”
Graydon shrugged again. “If anyone important asks, I’ll just deny it. The McNeelys have been in the superhero business for over 70 years. People have figured us out before, and we’ve dealt. So, new girl. You’re being awfully quiet back there.”
“I’m Eve Hobson,” Eve said.
“What’s the last name mean?” Anne asked.
Chris looked back at Eve, and she shrugged elaborately, obviously embarrassed. “My tribe doesn’t have last names. If you want to get formal, I’d say, ‘Eve, Daughter of the Tiger. So, anyway, Hobbes is a famous tiger, and there you go.”
It was Anne’s turn again. “Is it true that you have a pet sabretooth tiger?”
“It’s not a pet!” Eve said.
“I’ll say,” Chris said. He was still happy that Fang had wanted to play with him on Sunday afternoon. Get in with the girl’s pet, Chris figured, and he’d have an in with her. But when he tried to make eye contact with her, she just stared at him, her mouth pulled thin, until he looked down and to the side. Charlotte’s crow poked it’s head out of the pocket of her new, long, white, outdoor jacked and flicked its head back and forth, its beak half open like it was laughing at him.
“And people shouldn’t mess with Fang,” Eve continued.
“Okay, here we are, Pemberton Elementary.” Graydon pulled off the road and into a parking lot in front of a small building that you would still know was an elementary school even if it didn’t have a fenced playground to the left with brightly coloured equipment on the opposite side of the building from the parking lot. To the right was a much less obvious building that looked like a mansion, complete with turrets and wings and a garden in front, but with the same hard-to-place official air as the school.
Graydon drove to the end of the parking lot and pulled into line after the very recognisable form of Tyrell’s convertible, this time with the hood up, which was dropping off a girl with thick, auburn hair, wearing jean coveralls over a green pullover, both apparently too large for her. An older man with thick, wavy black hair wearing a grey blazer over a button down blue shirt, black pants, and black loafers was taking her bag. Anne rolled down her window and poked her head out the window, “Hi, Mr. Piccolo,” with a warmth in her voice that Chris wasn’t used to hearing from Grade 12s talking to teachers.
Mr. Piccolo gave Anne a grin that was happy and wicked at the same time as he came over to the window and looked in. “Ms. Fay! Graydon! Dino! It really has been too long since I’ve seen you young punks. And you must be the new Wong. Just when I thought that I’d had my last PAC meeting with a certain Dragon Lady.” Charlotte nodded, evidently forgetting her words.
“She’s Charlotte, and she’s only Mrs. Wong’s niece,” Chris offered.
Mr. Piccolo turned to Chris and raised an eyebrow. “And I can tell from that brotherly intervention that this boy is Christopher. Living in the Yurt is going to broaden your horizons, too.” Chris flushed. He probably shouldn’t have spoken out of turn, and he didn’t like being called a boy. He also couldn’t help thinking about Mr. Piccolo’s comment, as though there were some hidden message in it. “Well, come along, Charlotte. You’re here for the last week of school because we want you to meet your classmates. Speaking of which,” he continued, turning his head and speaking a little more loudly, “Could you please come over here, Ms. Plex?”
Mr. Piccolo turned back to the vehicle as Charlotte got out. “I’ve been remiss in making introductions. This is our little community’s other new student. Charlotte, Chris, Anne, Graydon, Dino, I suspect that you haven’t met Rose Plex, yet.”
“Pleased to meet you all,” Rose said. “Now can we get on with this? I was told that I the library computer was linked to the university server, and that I could go on it if we got here early.”
Mr. Piccolo smiled. “So businesslike, Rose. No-one ever stops to appreciate how much time they have if they will just stop rushing their life’s story towards its ending, the young least of all.”
Rose shook herself as though just shaking her head wasn’t enough disagreement. “You wouldn’t say that if you’d seen the world after the Armageddon Plague was done with it!”
“No,” Mr. Piccolo said, “Perhaps I wouldn’t. But that wasn’t my point. Charlotte, if you would be so kind as to come with me, it seems that I’m showing you the computer that we share with our neighbours of the Institute of Advanced Studies.”
Charlotte pushed the door towards being shut, but some smoothly humming machine deep in the truck took over, like an overgrown automatic window opener on an expensive car. Graydon pulled out behind Tyrell’s Reliant, but it turned out that they weren’t going very far, just across the speed bump that separated the parking lot of Pemberton from the Institute. A short boy in a leather jacket, jeans, and scuffed motorcycle boots, wearing his hair up like the Fonz, came out of one of those revolving doors that Chris had only seen once in a department store in Vancouver. As they watched, he poked his head into the window of the Reliant. Graydon gunned the truck and began to pull out of the parking lot, but then pulled back in as the boy waved a “wait-up” signal, then ran to get into Charlotte’s spot in the SUV.
“Hey, Billy,” Graydon said, not even turning his head as the would-be greaser slid into the Mercedes. “Hanging with the squares today?”
“You said it, not me, dude,” Billy answered. He turned in his seat to take in everyone, and especially Eve. “Hey. I’m Billy Tatum, and I am the answer to your prayers.”
“How so?” Eve asked.
“Because you are an angel, and I am, uhm praying. I guess people pray for angels. What I mean is, ‘you’re the answer to my prayers.’”
“I do not think so,” Eve said, and Chris couldn’t resist looking to see if she smiled more at Billy than she did at him.
“And you’re Christopher Wong. The new guy. Hey! Is that your lunch? Can we trade? I swiped this from the Insitute kitchen.”
“What’s in it?” Chris asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, nano recombined quanto-sandwiches or something. The point is, there’s two Twinkies, and the D.L. doesn’t do Twinkies.”
Chris liked Twinkies, but he also knew when someone was trying to take him. “But the D. L. is a pretty good cook. What else you got?”
Billy crumpled dramatically –too dramatically, if you asked Chris. “Oh, come on, man. It’s been, like, four months since I ate at the Yurt. Okay, okay. There’s an End of Exams kegger at the Institute next Friday. I already promised to sneak Manny Guzman in. You can come too.”
Chris was tempted. Animal House was his favourite movie, but he thought he had a read on Billy’s style. “A Grade 10 at a university party? Could I even get out of the house?”
Anne interrupted. “Don’t bother: the Institute’s keggers are all graduate students. Institute grad students. Regular grad students have had all the fun drained out of them by being in school too long. Institute grad students get the fun replaced with crazy.”
“But you have to admit that any kegger that ends with the police and the Liberty Legion showing up is wilder than your average frat party.”
Anne frowned. “The police show up at frat parties because toga-wearing frosh are air-guitaring to Stairway to Heaven on the lawn at three in the morning. They show up at Institute parties because a Ph.D. candidate is out there shouting that he’ll show them all while a three-story Gila monster breathes radioactive flames on his advisor.”
“She.” Billy Tatum said.
“What?” Eve said.
“It was a girl. And it wasn’t her advisor. It was her external. And it wasn’t a lizard, either. It was an intelligent plant.”
“And the difference is?” Graydon asked, glancing away from the road long enough to worry Chris. Rush hour was well underway, and every other car on the road seemed to be trying to get into the entrance of a mall by cutting through at least three lanes of traffic.
“Nothing. She was tense coming off her defence. Didn’t like the revisions. Needed a bit of fun, didn’t get it, and all of a sudden it’s a five-alarm emergency. “
Billy stopped for a moment, for emphasis. “Maybe if some good-looking sixteen year-old boy toy had showed up in the kegger, she could have, you know, relaxed with him a bit. All for the price of a barbecued duck sandwich with some of Mrs. W.’s plum relish…”
“Okay, I’ll trade,” Chris said, not because he wanted the Twinkies, but because Billy was making the ride for him. “Do you live at the Institute, Billy?”
“Sure. I’m one of their main research projects.”
“I’m 134 years old. They want to know how that works.”
“You don’t look 134,” Eve said from behind.
“Yeah. I age slower than regular people.”
Chris thought about that for a moment. And then thought some more. “So you’ve been in high school since that look was fashionable?”
“Depends on what you mean,” Billy said. “I started Grade 8 in 1977, not 1957. But there was this show called Happy Days…” He trailed off, looking at Chris. “Hey! you probably watched Happy Days, like, last week for you. This is so cool! And you missed the 80s! ‘And if they don’t dance, then they’re no friends of mine.’”
Once again, the SUV pulled off the road, this time into a very large, long parking lot in front of a building that Chris could only guess was one of those American high schools that could eat Hope Secondary School for breakfast and have room left over for all the architecture in town that was as old as the main building. It was a school made out of stones and stuff! Chris realised that he was scared, but he was damned if he was going to show it. Especially in front of these kids. Especially Eve. He unbuckled his seatbelt.
“Hold on, there, Chris,” said Anne. “We were going to ease you in a bit.” Graydon kept on down to the end of the parking lot, still following the Reliant, then turned left between the high stone flank of the school and a chain-link fence separating the school from houses and a park. They drove past some faculty parking shaded by tall elm trees that stood by the side of the building. The stone walls actually had ivy growing on them from on this side. Once past the building, they were in another, smaller parking lot, and Chris could see another, much smaller building of wood, almost the size of a very big house, that seemed more accessibly old-fashioned than the huge building behind them.
“Here we go, the Old School Building,” Graydon said. Finally, Chris could get out of the car. Dino slid out ponderously after him, while Billy Tatum got out the other side. Chris looked down dubiously at his new lunch, uncrumpling the rolled top, although without looking inside. Was it radioactive or something? Ahead of him, Tyrell Washington slid out of the driver’s side of his car, and an older Mexican-looking boy, a little smaller than Chris, and dressed all in black, with an actual trench coat and one of those wedge-shaped hats like Andy Capp wore, got out of the passenger’s seat.
“Hey, Tyrell,” Chris said.
“Hey, Chris. Mannie Guzman, this is Chris Wong. And you must be,” Tyrell stumbled and started again, “I mean, you must be Eve…”
“Eve Hobson, Tyrell. Mrs. Wong told me about you. You’re the one that the other new girl is staying with.” Now it was Eve’s turn to pause for a very long time. “Rose.”
“Yeah….” Tyrell said, trailing off.
“Come on, dude,” Manny said. “Let’s get inside. If Babs isn’t with Graydon, she must have come earlier, with Mr. Brown.”
“Babs…,” said Tyrell. “Oh! Right! Yeah, let’s go!” He turned and headed towards the old school building. But instead of leading them up the front steps, he took them around the side of the building.
“Where are we going?” Eve asked.
“Into the school,” Graydon answered.
“Aren’t we allowed to go in the front door?” Chris asked.
“It doesn’t really lead into the school. I mean, it does, but it’s through the offices, and the connecting door is locked ‘till 8:45.”
“That sounds a little goofy.”
Anne sounded a little frustrated. “The whole building is a little goofy. It’s been renovated inside so many times that ..well, you’ll see. If it weren’t a heritage building, they’d probably have torn it down years ago.”
The side door led to a ramp, like for loading supplies or like a place where someone with a wheelchair lived. At the top, instead of hallway, Chris found himself in an almost empty class-room. Three kids, dressed in black, just like Manuel Guzman, were sitting in the corner, spinning ideas so fast that they didn’t even notice when the new group walked through the class room. A girl, with clothes almost as black as her sheek, shining black hair, sat crouched over a book, just near enough to them to indicate that she was with them, and just far enough away to say that she wasn’t part of their brainstorming.
“So there’s no way you can do Waiting for Godot the old way these days-“
“Because having Lucky on a leash-“
“You might as well do it all nude or something-“
“Instead he’ll be on a headset that’s plugged into Pozzo’s phone!”
“-Which will run out of charge at the end!”
“-And Vladimir and Estragon will be like, ‘Oh, no, if Godot doesn’t come soon, there won’t be any music.”
“And when The Boy shows up with his message, he’ll be dragging an extension cord. And when it’s unrolled, bam! This old dude in robes with a long white beard walks out of stage left with a charger!”
Graydon led them through the door of the classroom and out, finally into a hall. “Drama Class gets weirder every semester.” Then, because that wasn’t weird enough, he led them into a broom closet. Which turned out to have a door at the other end that opened up in another classroom.
Anne, behind Graydon, reached over and touched a poster on the wall. And the whole wall slid aside, revealing a secret stairway, and gesturing down it. “This is the other reason they can’t tear this building down. We’d need to hide the real school some other way. Ready to meet the rest of your classmates?”
“I don’t know,” Tyrell said. “I’m starting to-“ he coughed experimentally.
Anne shook her head. Chris looked at Eve, but she showed no expression to him, and then down at his lunch. Across the neatly wrapped sandwiches at the top of the bag there was, clearly visible under the white light, machine-institutional light of the metallic stairway, was a long black hair. Chris couldn’t help thinking that he was missing the point, somehow.