The river glowed with the light cast by the flames of the Double Blazers.
A green plastic soda bottle flew through the air only to be struck by the billowing flames. It fell to the mud, partially melted and deformed, along with many other bottles and cans. A deflated bicycle tire flew like a Frisbee before getting shot down. Then a crunched soda can met its fate. More bottles, cans, crumpled up wads of paper, paper coffee cups, milk jugs, wine bottles, tattered shoes and any other piece of trash left to rot on the banks of the river were flying through the warm air of early evening.
"Use short, consecutive blasts," H instructed. He moved like lightening despite the slippery mud, circling around the riverbank with as much control as he would have on asphalt. He stayed close to the ground, running from one clump of garbage to the next. With inhuman speed and precision, he plucked the bottles and cans from the mud and launched them at Mark. Then he would move on, continuing his path around his student.
Mark quickly took down two coffee cups. He smiled as his apprehension slipped away and his confidence grew. It was starting to become fun. Mark began doing more exaggerated and grander movements, swinging his full arm out as if he were punching someone. A broken wooden broom handle flew end-over-end before Mark sent it spiraling into the river. He began doing a grunt or battle-cry with every attack. It did not seem right without one.
"Faster," H instructed as he lobbed a shampoo bottle Mark's way.
Mark curled his arms back over his shoulders. He planted one foot behind him as he threw his arms down, aiming at H and taking the bottle out of the air. Mark's shots quickened. The blasts got shorter and shorter but quicker and quicker until the Double Blazers were like twin machine guns firing rapidly without stopping. H evaded the attack, and the Blazers struck the ground, throwing mud and smoke into the air. H ran around Mark, who never let up his attack as he spun around, chasing H with his attack from up on the roof of the abandoned car.
"Now swing your arm like you're cracking a whip," H shouted amidst the endless series of thuds and explosions. As he circled the car, he had collected eight wine bottles and now held them between his fingers. He threw them all at once towards Mark. The white-haired boy swung his arm out in an arc, firing the Blazer so that the beam struck all but two of the bottles. He held his other arm in front of his face to protect himself from the shattered green and clear glass that rained down around him. The sharp bits clattered on the metal car like hail in a storm. He could not help but grin from behind his forearm. Then a damp, brown burlap sack slapped Mark in the face.
"You know what Book would say if she were here," H said, standing near the front bumper with his arms crossed.
"I know. I know. Don't let your guard down," Mark said, pitching his voice up so that it resembled Book's. It was far from a believable impression. He pulled the sack off his head and jumped down off the car.
"Actually, you've been improving quite well. We haven't even been training for a full month and your endurance, speed and precision have advanced greatly. Well done." H said. He remained expressionless, but his features softened a little.
"Aw yeah!" Mark said, throwing his fists into the air. "I am the man! Wizards and villains beware. No one's gonna lay a finger on this guy." Mark threw back his head and laughed loudly.
"Confidence is good," H advised, "but make sure you don't become cocky. It could lead to careless errors."
Mark dropped to his knees. "Please forgive me, master. I promise I'll try harder. Thank you for teaching such a poor fool like me." Mark planted his hands on the ground and bowed so deeply that his forehead squished against the mud.
"There's no need to go that far either," H said, lowering his eyelids and looking disconcerted at his companion. "You're starting to remind me of your parents."
"What?" Mark sat up quickly. He had a big mud blotch on his forehead and the ends of his hair were dyed brown as well. "How could you say that? My parents are crazy. Not that I don't love my parents; they're wonderful people, but I'm nothing like them. Why would you even suggest such a horrible thing?" Mark waved his arms around frantically as he babbled.
"I think it's time for a break," H said. He wondered if Mark was going through these mood-swings just to bug him. "Get some water and clean yourself up."
"Sweet," Mark said with a smile as he got to his feet and walked over to the river. After the first few days of training, Mark began to get very meticulous about cleaning himself up before going home. Muddy clothes three days in a row made his mom and dad yell, laugh, sneer and cry all in a time span of four minutes.
"Hey H, check it out," Mark said. He rolled up his shirt sleeves and held up his arms. The Double Blazers were both pressed against his arms, tied onto his limbs by the thin chains. "Pretty cool, huh? Now I have easy access to them in an emergency." He went for the Blazers with both hands. One came off easily. The other did not. "Hold on, I got it." Mark tugged at the chain. The knot was pretty stuck. "Almost done," he said as he tugged at it with his teeth.
"That's something to work on," H said as his cell phone started ringing. He reached into his pocket and pulled it out. Tally was calling. Before he answered, H added, "And if you ever wore a short-sleeve or tight-fitting long-sleeve shirt, people would be able to see them."
"Jou tink sho?" Mark said through his teeth.
"Hey H, it's me!" Tally sang over the speaker phone.
"Hi Tally!" Mark yelled cheerily.
"Oh, you've got Mark there, too. I didn't know you guys liked to hang out. That's so awesome," Tally said happily. "We were just wondering if you guys were busy tomorrow night. If you're free, we were hoping you wouldn't mind going to the homecoming dance with us."
"Don't say things like 'us' and 'we,'" a familiar but distant voice in the background said, "This wasn't my idea. Who gave you the right to speak for me?" The feminine voice sounded angry.
"But you just said you wanted to go to a dance sometime," Tally said curiously. She pulled away from the phone and her voice became quieter.
"I said no such thing! Stop making things up!"
"Didn't you just say you had never been to a dance and would like to see what it was like?" Tally sounded confused. Book sounded annoyed. "I thought it would be fun for you to see a high school dance with your best friends."
"There's no way I'm going to any silly dance," Book said resolutely, "They're a waste of time and just plain stupid."
"Oh," Tally said, sounding disappointed. She brought the phone close again. "I'm sorry guys. I guess I misunderstood. Book says she's not interested in going to the dance after all. I wonder if she's just too embarrassed. I won't try to force her if she's that against it. Going to a high school dance with a bunch of strange older kids can be kind of scary, huh?"
"Hold on! When did I say I was scared or even embarrassed?" Book said angrily. "I just think dances are pointless, but if you want to go so badly, then fine. Let's go. I'm not afraid of a bunch of idiot teenagers."
Tally giggled. After agreeing to go along with them, H hung up the phone. He was starting to wonder if Tally had intended to trick Book like that. Behind that cheery façade, could Tally really be that manipulative? It seemed like Book had met her match.
"So we're going to a dance?" Mark asked as he scratched the back of his head. He was not entirely sure of how to feel about this. "I've never been to a dance before. Have you?"
"I've staked out a few that Tally attended. Can't say I ever really participated, though," H said as he stuffed his phone back in his pocket. He was never really invited to any of the dances he attended. He also could not dance with anyone because he had to keep his eyes on Tally at all times. It was always risky for her to be in large crowds.
Mark looked around. There was only a little orange smear across the sky as the sun set. He had seen dances in dozens of movies, but had never been invited to one either. Mark wondered what he had to do, what it would be like, what music they would play, what food they would serve, what everyone would be wearing. "Um, H," he said suddenly, "can you do me a favor?"
There were not as many clothing stores open after dark than H would have suspected. It was a small shop owned by a much larger company. A struggling video rental place and a laundromat bordered both sides of Brandis's Menswear. The young man in a white buttoned-up shirt and black bowtie, who rested his cheek in his palm as he watched over H and Mark, was presumably not Mr. Brandis. The easy jazz playing low over the speakers was the only noise in the shop. The only people hearing it were Mark, H and the clerk, who were the only ones present amongst the folded stacks of dress shirts, polished shoes, brown, beige and black slacks and matching belts.
The store clerk was not much help when it came to finding a suitable outfit for the dance, often giving opinions without looking up from his seat, but H managed to guide Mark in the right direction. After paying the dreadfully bored gentleman, Mark left the store with two white boxes under his arm and H at his side. He threw his free arm over H's shoulder and chuckled.
"Thanks for your help, man. I owe you one," Mark said happily.
"It's no big deal, but I'll remember you said that," H said.
Mark removed his arm from H's shoulder to adjust the packages. He suddenly remembered a part of Kenny's story. It had been a couple weeks ago, but Mark did recall one part that stood out to him. Kenny had also put his arm around H's shoulder and joked around with him. They had been best friends. Mark formed a modest smirk. Not too long ago, Mark had been afraid to touch H. He did not come off as someone who liked physical contact.
"Hey H, can I ask you something? You're going to think it's dumb, so don't laugh." Mark knew there was no danger of that, but felt inclined to say it anyway. "Do you…um…you know, like Tally? I mean, not just like, but you know, really like. You know, do you ever have romantic here-is-a-pink-teddy-bear-for-no-reason or let's-carve-our-initials-in-a-dead-tree kind of feelings?" As Mark mumbled, he made odd hand gestures as if they helped frame his question.
"No." H did not even look over at Mark to give his answer.
"Oh, okay," Mark sounded a little disappointed. He walked along silently for a moment, pondering whether it was better to drop the conversation there or not. "It's just weird, you know? Not just that you two are always together, but the fact that you've pretty much devoted your whole life to helping her. How can you work so hard for someone you have no special feelings for?"
H turned slightly towards Mark with a skeptical look on his face. "You've been talking to Kenneth, haven't you?"
"What? Me? Why would I talk to Kenny?" Mark chuckled nervously. He forced a smile, but his eyebrows gave him away. "That's crazy. You're crazy. I'm crazy. Hey, this whole thing's pretty crazy. Am I right?" He threw his head back and laughed loudly.
"It's okay if you did," H said beneath Mark's laughter.
"Oh, it is?" Mark immediately cut off his laughing and asked.
"Of course, it's fine," H said, closing his eyes. Mark had noticed several times how H was capable of walking with his eyes closed without bumping into something or stepping into the street. It no longer impressed him. "It's important to fully understand the people you are helping if you want to know all the good you're doing."
"Kenny said something like that," Mark mused, "And to be honest, all this waiting and training is making me kind of anxious. What good am I doing now?"
"Be patient. Believe me when I say that you should enjoy this downtime while you can. When things do go wrong, a series of troublesome events tend to follow. Breaks like this rarely occur." H opened his eyes and inhaled deeply through his nose. "As for your questions on my relationship with Tally, I see no reason why one cannot do everything he can to help his friend."
"Yeah, but no one really believes that," Mark said, unsure if H was joking or not. "Only in the movies do loved ones give their lives for each other. And even then, it's romantic, but no one thinks that that stuff happens in real life."
"Why Mark," H said, looking at his companion through the corner of his eye, "I had no idea you were so cynical."
"I'm the cynical one?" Mark pointed at himself with a laugh. "Now you're just messing with me." Mark rubbed the back of his head as the traffic on their left sped by, lighting them up with blazing headlights for a brief moment before leaving them in the dark again. "Okay, so Tally's a no-go. How about our little friend?"
"Book is hotheaded, argumentative, eternally grumpy and stubborn as a mule," H said quickly. "I hope she grows a few inches soon so we can be done with her short-man syndrome once and for all."
The resoluteness with which H spoke caught Mark off guard. He was stunned for a brief moment before breaking out into a toothy grin. "Tally thinks you two have a thing for each other," Mark snickered.
While H maintained his straight face as he glared at Mark, the white-haired boy did catch a glimpse of H's left eye doing the slightest of twitches. "Someone needs to set Tally straight."
"So there's no one that you like?"
"No one comes to mind."
"Well, that's disappointing."
"Why is that?"
Mark cupped his chin with his free hand and began lecturing like a professor. "Fans of a movie or television show naturally enjoy pairing up characters that they think have good chemistry. It's called 'shipping.' If someone says 'I ship these two characters,' it means they think these characters would make a good couple. It would be weird if the story ended, and then in the epilogue we jump twenty years into the future and find out the main characters all married people that we've never been introduced to. It's not unheard of, but it is a little awkward and kind of disappointing."
H had a curious expression, but did not turn to face Mark. "I didn't realize those action movies you like had all that much romance in them."
"Well, I occasionally cross genres," Mark said, feeling bashful all of the sudden.
"I see," H said. "Well, if that's the case, then if you ever start to have feelings for Tally or Book, I won't try to stop you. I would actually prefer it if Tally dated someone who knew about her powers. At least then I wouldn't worry as much about his safety."
Mark did not say anything right away. He looked up at the sky. The city lights only allowed the brightest of stars to reach his eyes. He again thought of Kenny's story. Kenny had been Tally's one and only boyfriend. He lost his mind thinking that Tally was cheating on him with H. Mark also thought of the crush he had had on Tally back when they first met. Their relationship had started off innocently enough and grew into a simple friendship, but Mark felt a hint of guilt all the same.
"Perhaps," Mark finally said with a sigh, "romance is something better left for after we cure Tally and the Artificials."
"I agree," H said softly with a single nod.
The two high school boys discussed several other topics before reaching the point where they would head their separate ways. Just before splitting up, Mark said, "You know, I have never seen you wear anything other than that jacket and jeans. I was wondering if you were planning to wear something different for the dance tomorrow."
"Oh, don't worry," H said as he gave a halfhearted wave, "You'll hardly recognize me."
Kenny ran down the sidewalk like an Olympic sprinter. He panted heavily, his messy blonde hair tossing in the wind and sweat dripping down his face. He had been running nonstop since he left his tiny apartment. This was an emergency.
"I've got to hurry! Gotta hurry!" he said to himself as he ran, ducked and weaved through the groups of people that traversed the city streets in the early evening. He skidded to a stop. He looked up at the building in disbelief and pounded the locked door with his fists. "No, I'm too late. How could they be closed already? It's not that late." He sank to his knees on the dirty concrete before the thrift shop. The sign on the big display window apologized to its would-be customers.
"And to think," he sniveled as he pulled a modest handful of coins from his pocket, "I even saved up all this money, too." Kenny jumped to his feet and began pacing back and forth. He placed one hand on his hip, while the other stroked his chin. "This isn't a matter to be taken lightly. After all, my old winter coat is so trashed I wouldn't even use it as a dishrag. They say this winter's going to be a long one. It's only November, and I'm turning into a Popsicle out here." Kenny rubbed his bare forearms.
Kenny plopped himself down in front of the glass door. He crossed his legs, leaned forward, placed his hands on his knees and held out his elbows. He looked serious. "I'll just have to wait until they open up," he said confidently. One particularly biting gust of wind cut its way through the tall buildings and dark streets, tossing Kenny's unkempt hair and chilling the skinny boy to the bone. Kenny walked away with his hands folded behind his head. "Well, that was dumb. Talk about bad ideas," he laughed.
"Talking to your imaginary friend, Kenny?" The one asking the question had a broad chest, free from any flammable coverings, and a bald head, despite his young age. Though he was shorter than Kenny, Pete had a much more impressive set of muscles. It was why he was so comfortable going around shirtless all the time. From Pete's side, Wally towered over both of them. Though he was also hairless, his white t-shirt was stretched to the breaking point due to his round belly. He stood with a jolly smile; always the agreeable fellow.
Kenny had not expected meeting them, but he had not been caught off his guard. "Of course, I was." He lowered his hands into his pockets and put on a cool smile. "Although Tabitha is not too fond of being called imaginary. You may want to ask her forgiveness, lest she takes to haunting you while you bathe," he said without skipping a beat. "And what are you guys up to tonight? I don't think I have to remind you how we disc-"
"It's night time, and you know it!" Pete cut him off, feigning anger. "You only like to nag us about that because you know it bugs me! Admit it!" Pete drew an accusatory finger and aimed it at his skinny friend.
"Fair enough, fair enough," Kenny said, dismissing the topic with a wave of his hand.
"Anyway, our big buddy here polished off all his Halloween candy in a week. So he was out looking for something to eat." Pete turned to his right. "That was sixty pounds of candy in a week, buddy. You can't eat it all at once. It was supposed to cover our meals for at least fifteen days."
"Heh, heh," Wally chuckled and patted his stomach proudly. "It was worth it."
"You guys…went trick-or-treating?" Kenny asked hesitantly.
"What, are you crazy? Who would miss the most glorious time of year? People are just handing out free food! Who cares if it's just fake sugar and fat?" Pete brought his hand over his eyes, grinning as he remembered. "Oh boy, we really got 'em good this year!"
"What a haul! What a haul!" Wally pumped a meaty arm up and down as he cheered.
"We were out from sunset to sunrise. We went all over the city. Brought in sixty pounds easily; maybe more. Had to knock on doors of people who went to sleep hours ago; said they were all out of candy. But we insisted, didn't we buddy?" Pete nudged Wally in the gut with his elbow as he bragged.
"That we did, Petey! That we did!" Wally nodded vigorously. The two of them laughed like a couple of sailors.
"You don't feel that you were taking candy that would have otherwise gone to little kids?" Kenny asked. He was not entirely sold on the prospect, but Kenny wished they had brought it to his attention a week ago. He had long since forbade himself from purchasing anything unnecessary like candy and was suddenly starting to miss his favorite sweets.
"Nah, what do these privileged little brats need with that stuff anyway? We're the ones living on the street," Pete said. He threw a thumb up at Wally and continued, "I was just going for a walk when I ran into this guy. I swear, I'm starting to get claustrophobic in that place. You couldn't have found me a better rat's nest to live in? Every time I take a step I'm afraid I'll fall through the floor. I wouldn't be surprised if the roof caved in the next time I sneeze."
Wally patted Pete on the shoulder, looking concerned. "Don't stay there if it's dangerous, Pete. You should stay at my place instead."
"Hello, I can't do that. Don't you remember, you walrus? If I did, Kenny would give us an annoying lecture about how it's dangerous for Artificials to mingle or whatever," Pete said.
"Oh yeah," Wally said, scratching his chin as the memory returned to him.
Pete had expected Kenny to reply with some kind of comment, hopefully something wry and funny or perhaps a continuation of the joke, but the blonde teenager remained quiet. He had his arms crossed and stared down at the sidewalk with a thoughtful expression. "What's with that look?"
"I was also feeling very anxious tonight," Kenny said. "I had planned to buy a new jacket tomorrow, but I ended up running out here even though I knew the store was probably closed."
"So what?" Pete asked. "Is this like when animals go to high ground because they sense a tsunami? Maybe it's a coincidence."
Kenny smiled. He no longer believed in coincidence. "Just to be on the safe side, I'm going to go check on the others," Kenny said as he walked passed Pete and Wally. "Be careful tonight, you two. And keep an eye on each other." Pete and Wally offered their goodbyes as Kenny walked briskly up the street. His goose bumps returned. It was getting colder, and there was an uneasy feeling welling up in Kenny's stomach.
"Are you kidding me? This is not what I meant!" Mark bellowed at H.
Though the sun was down, the sky was an empty black palette. The floodlights that stood high above them lit the football stadium as if it had been midday. The football team, built up with Rodney High School's largest and strongest junior and senior male students, ran up and down the field, doing jumping jacks and taking turns kicking footballs through one of the forked yellow goalposts that stood at the end of the field. On the other side of the fifty-yard-line the premier players from the opposing high school warmed up in much the same way, clad in their black- and silver-colored jerseys and helmets.
From the metal bleachers that ran perpendicular to the white-painted yard lines on the field, scores of students and nonstudents alike mingled and found seats for the most crowded football game of the season. The concession stands served hotdogs, nachos, popcorn and sodas to what seemed to be an endless line of buyers. The gathering spectators chatted and laughed as the cheerleaders preformed silly chants against the occasional chirps and static-ridden pop music that blasted out of the loudspeakers overhead. Once the home side filled up, people began claiming seats on the opposing team's side, which usually had much fewer people.
"And Tally, I don't even get it," Mark continued. Mark stood on the edge of the football field with H, Tally and Book right before the game started. He had on the black slacks, dress-shirt, belt and gold-colored necktie he purchased at the clothing store the previous night. He was most proud of the black fedora, which at first he did not care for but eventually talked himself into buying. He thought it worked well with his shoulder-length white hair. Actually, Mark was proud of how he looked overall. That was why he was so put off by the sight of his friends. "I understand if you want to coordinate your outfits, but shouldn't it be more like that?" He motioned to a group of boys in ties and girls in dresses, rubbing the cold off their exposed arms and shoulders.
"You're so funny, Mark," Tally giggled, "We have to wear these. It's our uniform." Tally held up her flute. She, H and the rest of Rodney High School's marching band all wore the same heavy, white and orange uniforms. They all wore matching white gloves, and the school's name showed clearly on everyone's torsos. All of Tally's wavy blonde hair, save for a tuft on the back of her neck, was collected in the bucket-like hat she wore. "We'll change after the game and then we can go to the dance."
Mark slowly turned his disconcerted expression on Book. "And what's your excuse?" Book looked annoyed, mostly because she found H was not the least bit embarrassed about playing the flute no matter how much she taunted him, and along with her usual expression, she also wore her usual purple collared-shirt and baggy beige pants. "Is that your band uniform?" he asked sarcastically.
"Don't worry, Mark," Tally jumped in before Book could respond. She held up one finger and a smile as she explained, "We went shopping after school today and picked out a really cute dress for her, didn't we Book?" Tally had originally thought that Book could borrow one of her dresses, but the fact that Book was substantially shorter than her did not occur to Tally until fifth period that afternoon. Tally had thought that Book was not interested in going shopping, but no matter how unhappy she looked, Book always agreed to tag along. Tally was beginning to think Book had a subtle girly side, but Book swore she only went with Tally out of obligation.
"Don't act like I had anything to do with that!" Book said quickly, "You practically forced that stupid thing on me!" She clenched her fists as she spoke, digging her nails into her palms. "Why can't I just wear this to the dance? It's not as emb-em…Dresses are stupid!"
Tally maintained a knowing smile as Book struggled with her pride. It was then that her fellow flute players called her and H over. The band was getting ready to play. "Sorry, guys, we've got to go. Come on, H," Tally said, waving to Mark and Book as she turned away, "We'll see you guys after the game." There was a touch of excitement mixed in with her standard cheeriness tonight. H said nothing and gave a half-hearted wave to Mark and Book before joining the band.
As Mark and Book made their way off the field, Tally ran up to Mark and stopped him. She reared up on her toes and whispered into his ear. "Book does look really cute in her dress. We have to make sure she dances with H at some point tonight." She gave Mark a flawless smile before running back to her bandmates. Despite Book barking at him to hurry up, Mark could not deny that having a beautiful girl whisper into his ear felt pretty good. In fact, he enjoyed it so much that he almost felt bad about it.
Now someone just had to tell Tally that H and Book were never going to become an item. Mark made a mental note to bring it up to her. If she looked at him the same way she just did, though, he doubted he would be able to say anything at all.
"Why are you making that stupid face?" Book asked, looking disgusted.
"Oh…uh, no reason," Mark blurted as he put his face back together.
By the time Book and Mark found some seats on the very top of the bleachers, the marching band was already preforming the national anthem. Mark stood with the rest of the audience, placing his hand over his heart as the song played, while Book looked around awkwardly, confused as to what people were doing. Once the band was cutoff, the audience roared and applauded at their performance. Mark had no idea if they sounded good for a high school band or not, but he yelled along with the people around him as he tried to spot Tally and H amongst the other players on the field. Book clapped twice before sitting back in her seat. As the band moved off the field, the announcer began talking and soon after, the football was kicked into the air.
Mark sat back in his seat as the game commenced below him. "You know," Mark spoke with a reflective tone, "normally, I wouldn't want to go to a football game. I mean, I don't really care about sports, and if you asked me to go to one in middle school, I would have immediately turned you down. Even with all the strange stuff that's happened to me lately, for the first time I feel like I'm enjoying stuff like a normal kid, and it doesn't bother me like it used to. Weird as it sounds, I'm actually having fun right now."
"You know," Book said. She had been trying to get some sleep, despite the constant noise of cheers and the old announcer's stupid voice. She opened one eye to look at Mark. "I'd appreciate it if you kept pointless comments like that to yourself."
Mark sneered. "Can't you at least try to be happy for once? Excuse me if my good mood is ruining your aura of grumpiness."
"You are not excused," Book sat up abruptly. "While you're going on about your stupid life while we waste time at some stupid game, the S. Organization is plotting something. The longer we wait, the closer we are to dooms day. In all this time, we've made no preparations and have no plans. And if you think that H or the supposed 'unspoken will of the Community' will save us, you're crazy!" Book spoke right up in Mark's face, whispering intensely.
Mark turned his head away from Book and looked over the dozens of people in the stands around him. Children, students, grown men and women and those old enough to be his great grandparents; and on the other side of the field there were even more people. Far passed dozens, there could be hundreds of people in the stadium. They were here, enjoying the football game while countless injustices took place at that very moment. It did not change the fact that Book was right, though. Mark looked unhappy.
"You know, Book," he said sourly, "I'd appreciate it if you kept pointless comments like that to yourself." It was noisy so he could not be sure, but Mark thought he heard a little growl come from Book's throat just then. He hoped she took some offense at his words, since she just successfully took a bite out of his good mood.
Amongst the cries and cheers and conversations, it happened suddenly.
As tradition dictates, the marching band stood on the field in an arch formation during halftime. One by one, the old announcer up in the booth at the top of the bleachers would read off the name and significant accomplishments of each boy and girl that had been nominated for homecoming queen and king. It was an agonizingly boring experience that the members of the marching band groaned at every year.
"Next up is Nina Kazumi. Nina is the daughter of…" A Japanese teenage girl in a blue dress and her hair in a fancy bun, walked forward with some guy, who the audience was sure to learn all about once Nina's long list of credentials was completed.
As H stood on the field with his flute in hand, he briefly examined Nina's broad shoulders, possibly why she was such a star on the swim team, before his attention was suddenly stolen by a strange sight on the far end of the field. Climbing the fence, coming out of the darkness, looked to be a large, hairless gorilla. The people walking by that end of the field were frightened by the sudden appearance and stumbled to get out of the way. The beast was not a gorilla. It was Wally Mikkelsen, but at that moment, he looked every bit the savage animal.
H quickly turned to his left, where Tally was standing at attention nearby. At least, a second ago she had been standing at attention. Now her flute lay on the grass at her feet. Her arms hung limply at her side. The other members of the flute section had noticed this, but decided not to break attention to ask what was wrong. They whispered concerned questions to her, but Tally gazed up at the audience in front of her without responding. It was night, but the lights of the stadium and the brim of Tally's shako cast a shadow over her emerald eyes.
The hundreds in the audience had applauded grandly for Nina Kazumi, as she was one of the first candidates introduced. It was typical for the first candidates to be more impressively recognized than those announced later on. But boredom had yet to set in as Nina's male counterpart received significantly less fanfare than she had. It was not that James McGraw was not as likeable as the next guy. His spotlight just happened to be stolen by a musclebound giant storming the field with others not far behind.
As Wally ran across the grass, a silver-colored tube struck him in the forehead, making him lose his already-impaired balance and fall backwards.
"Nice shot!" The female flute players nearby cheered.
H stood with his uniform hat in one hand and his other arm extended in the direction it had been when his instrument had left his fingers. He had one eye closed, allowing him perfect aim. He turned around abruptly and swept his leg in a half circle, knocking Tally off her feet. H caught her before her unconscious body hit the ground. He was once again thankful that she was light as he held one hand behind her back and the other under her legs.
H turned towards the Artificials fearlessly. It was not just Wally. Pete and Kenneth were also rapidly making their way onto the football field. Other Artificials were following. This kind of swarm should not have been possible. Too many things did not add up.
"H, you're going the wrong way!" one of his section-mates yelled as he took Tally in his arms and ran towards his friends-turned-rivals.
"Are you recording this?" a teenage girl sitting in front of Mark asked excitedly.
"No, my phone's not working. Try yours."
Mark had gaped with an open mouth for a moment after jumping out of his seat. Most of the audience was now standing or on the edge of their seats. They looked confused, asking each other if they knew what was happening. They seemed as stumped as the band members and homecoming candidates that still stood awkwardly on the field. No alarms went off and the announcers were not saying anything was wrong. Was this part of the halftime show?
Mark knew better.
"Book, we-" Mark looked over to where the unhappy girl had been trying to sleep a moment ago. Now her spot on the bleachers was empty save for her shoes and socks. The shaking fence behind him made Mark turn his head so quickly that he hurt his neck in the process.
Book ran quickly, her toes hugging the metal pole at the top of the fence. To her left was a sheer drop that would be hard to fall down without getting injured, but she was unmoved by its threatening presence. She moved with ease, never once losing balance as she darted across the back of the bleachers and then down the railing to the field. As she leapt from the stands, she pulled the tiny, gold cone from the chain around her neck. It grew to its true form in her hand until she was gripping the end of the pole opposite the traffic-cone-sized blunt end.
She did not stop moving once she touched down on the field. Book ran in a wide turn, twirling her long weapon overhead as she moved in on the Artificials. With a fierce battle cry, she swung her Pike like a baseball bat, slamming the solid cone into Kenneth's solar plexus. Book stood triumphantly with her Pike in one hand as the audience roared wildly for her.
Book looked deadly serious as she glanced over at H and gave a single nod.
Kenneth had flown through the air, bouncing off the padded bottom-end of the goal post before hitting his face against the wire fence at the end of the field. He growled angrily, teeth clenched and veins popping, as he got to his feet. The people near the fence dropped their jaws as Kenneth tensed his hands. His fingers lit up with bluish lightening. He ran towards Book, lobbing his electrical projectiles her way.
Once the sparks started flying, the marching band and the homecoming candidates took this as a signal to get off the field. They hurried to the sidelines and up into the stands, blending into the crowd of spectators, thinking themselves safe amongst the audience. The stands became more packed than ever. Even the stairs were cluttered with people. There was no move to leave the stadium just yet, though. After all, the display was confusing and sublime, but it was unclear that they were in danger.
"Oh my gosh! That was so awesome!" Mark gushed with his hands on his temples, forgetting that he had previously been mad at Book. He had a huge smile on his face as he said, "Wait a minute. What am I doing? I have to get out there!"
He grabbed the brim of his fedora and threw the hat away. Then with the other hand he pulled on the end of his tie and undid it with one tug. Both hands dove into the sleeve of the opposite arm. One Blazer came out flawlessly and the other got stuck on the knot Mark had tied around his forearm earlier in the afternoon.
"You've gotta be kidding me!" Mark shouted before he began tugging on the chain with his teeth. "S'cuse me. S'cuse me," he said through clenched teeth as he struggled to make his way down the crowded stands.
"What are you just standing around here for?" An angry man with a grey mustache and red baseball cap yelled at a taller African American man in a black and yellow jacket that had "Security" written on the back. "Get out there and put a stop to this!"
"I'm sorry, Coach, but we have just been told not to get involved," the security guard said, scowling at the older man, but keeping his tone under control. He held a walkie-talkie in his hand.
"What?" the football coach spat at the security guard. "Who said that? What do you think you're here for? Get out there and do your job!" the old man yelled as he jabbed his finger into the taller man's chest.
One of the students, a tall male with white hair long enough to brush his shoulders, jumped down from the stands and onto the field.
"Hey kid, what do you think you're doing?" the coach yelled. He was about to go over and physically pull the boy off the field, but the security guard stopped him.
"Coach, no," he said seriously. He was following orders, but it still pained him to stand idly by. He wanted answers just as much as anyone else there did.
"We're just supposed to let some kid run out there? What's going on? We're gonna have a riot if we just sit around on our butts!" the coach exploded. "Where's Douglass? I ought to wring his flabby neck!"
Staying out of the spotlight, Principal Douglass stood leaning against the back wall of the announcer's booth. His arms were crossed and his expression was neutral. The old announcer and a couple others stood with their faces pressed against the front window, staring down at the field with mouth's gaping. The bald, wrinkly announcer went to the microphone and tried turning it off and on, but none of his tests had come out over the loudspeakers for the last several minutes.
"Sir?" Ms. Noah said as she swung the door open. The math teacher had been patrolling the stands for unruly students earlier, but now she came to the principal, urgently asking for instructions.
"Tell the other faculty members to make sure no other students go on the field," Principal Douglass said seriously. As an afterthought, he added "And stay on your guard."
"Sir," she nodded once and then departed hastily.
"Douglass," the old announcer said breathily as he looked back over his shoulder, "Do you have any idea what on earth is going on?"
The principal, though deep in thought, took the few steps to the front of the announcer's booth and laid a comforting hand on his old friend's shoulder. "Never fear, gentlemen. This little show will be over shortly. No need to worry." He spoke as surely as he could, but there was a hint of doubt on his tired face. The lights shut off in the booth. "Never fear," he said again, though more of a murmur this time.
The stadium lights flickered, encouraging more chattering from the restless crowd. Other students wanted to get in on the action and tried jumping onto the field, but the teachers stopped them. Everyone was standing now, struggling to see what was going on behind the heads of the people in front of them.
Mark ran across the grass. He had finally loosened the stuck chain from his arm. His sleeves were rolled up above his elbows. This was it. No more training. No more practice or lectures. The fight Mark had always imagined had finally come to him. Sure, he was not a giant bodybuilder. He had no cool catchphrase or any one-liners that would make sense right now. Nonetheless, it was the adrenaline pumping, time to battle that no movie or videogame could truly recreate. Mark grinned confidently as he swung his arms out in front of him.
Then his smile faded and his stomach twisted.
Kenny's svelte body was rolled and bounced across the field. The boy got to his hands and knees, panting heavily through his open mouth. He shook his collection of mud and grass off his head like a soaked dog. He clumsily got to his feet. Kenny's usually calm eyes were wide and enraged by some unconscious anger. Electricity began dancing at his hands before he threw one flittering spark after another at Book.
His tranquil, friendly self was overcome by a monster. Two weeks ago, Mark had listened to Kenny recall his past. Mark watched as his troubled eyes reflected guilt and regret. Admitting his inability to take responsibility for his carelessness, how he had injured his younger sister and how he hurt H and Tally all while his mind was breaking down must have been hard. But he smiled. He was always smiling. It was the cold smile of a boy masking his pain for the sake of others. It was a suffering brought on by chance. Kenny had made mistakes, but it all stemmed from his innocent desire to save his friend.
A part of Mark wished he had never spoken to Kenny that night. The weight the blonde boy had strung to Mark's chest was starting to ache again. It was now stronger than ever before.
For what it's worth, you have my apologies in advance.
Mark lowered his arms, a pained expression on his face.
With Tally in his arms, H made it across the field. He had to jump and dodge all fifteen of the remaining Artificials in the process, which was not easy with Tally, the precious cargo that occupied his hands while simultaneously attracting all of their pursuers. With Book covering him with her Pike, he made it to the far fence and leapt over it with the ease of an Olympic high-jumper. Then he and Tally escaped to safety in the darkness.
Why? Why this? No eye-patch. No scary tattoos or diabolical plans. These aren't some intrinsically evil villains from some B movie. These are real people. Real people who have suffered like Kenny has, losing their loved ones, any direction they had in their lives and now even the control of their own actions. This is wrong. It's so messed up. How can I fight them? What's with this universe and its sick sense of adding-insult-to-injury? Mark shook his head violently. He closed his eyes tightly.
Book ducked under the jab of a female Artificial, whose finger nails seemed to have extended into sharp blades and covered her forearms like gloves. The short girl swung her weapon up, slamming the golden cone into the Artificial's chin. Her opponent reeling backwards, Book yelled, "Do something, Mark! Stop being such an idiot!" Book quickly returned to her own fight, leaping back from her rival before Kenny showered them both with electrical projectiles.
Do something? What do you want me to do? There are a million people in the world that deserve a good beating. Maybe more! But not these people. The Artificials did nothing but end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that gives me the right to smack them around? But I have to. This is the right thing to do. It's for their safety and Tally's, too. That doesn't mean I have to like it. Why do I have to be the one to make this choice?
Mark's eyes widened as he came to realize the truth.
But I always wanted this, didn't I? Defeat the bad guy, save the world, get the girl. That's what heroes do. I spent three years acting like a stuck-up jerk just for this moment. Sorry, Mary Johnson, you're too boring for me to talk to. Who cares about after-school clubs? I'm going to be the hero! I was such a loser. And despite all my pomp and circumstance, I ended up friendless, depressed and more boring than anyone.
That was middle school, though. What about now? Arguing with Book in the stands; going shopping with H; doing homework with Tally. Wasn't I having fun just now? Is that what it means to have a normal life? Am I happy with just that; no giant robots, alien invasions or ninja battles?
Mark scoffed. Look at me. I finally get the exciting life I always wanted and I'm still not happy. Book's right. I am an idiot.
Pete, his skin boiling red with a psychotic look on his face, ran up behind the troubled teenager. He created steam with every step he took on the damp grass. Pete growled as he closed in. Mark kept his back to him, lost in thought, a sitting duck, helpless.
I don't want to play the hero if it means this. Book lives in constant fear of people aiming to kill her from the shadows. H gave up any semblance of a normal high school life in order to focus on Tally. And then there's me. I was so overjoyed by all this without ever considering what it meant for anyone else. Living out my own fantasy at the expense of others; how selfish can I be?
I want to be normal. I want the world to be normal. I don't want crazy people with swords stalking me, I don't want to have to spy on Tally to make sure her powers don't hurt anyone else and I don't want to have to fight my friends. I just can't do this! Mark scrunched his face tightly as if that would end the dream.
"Mark!" Book's scream was a mess of emotions.
For what it's worth, you have my apologies in advance.
With a primal cry that released every drop of tension in one frightening burst, Mark swung around and crashed his fist into Pete's jaw. With a cracking sound and the sharp clack of teeth banging together, Pete flew backwards. Mark stepped backwards, pulling back his fist incase Pete needed another slug. One of the Double Blazers was tied around his fist, sparing Mark the pain of colliding his bare skin with the fire-like Artificial by acting as brass knuckles.
Mark quickly turned away from Pete and aimed his Double Blazers across the field. He fired them both at the same time. Despite the distance, Mark's aim was fairly accurate. One beam of fire struck the leg and the other impacted the chest, sending Kenny flying across the grass until he was stopped by a hard collision with an unpadded football sled.
Out of the corner of his eye, Mark saw Wally swinging at him. Mark managed to dodge his massive fists three times. At just the right moment, Mark held up both of the Double Blazers, one tied to his fist and the other gripped by his fingers, only inches from Wally's washboard abs.
"Double Blazers!" Mark yelled loudly.
There were gasps, cheers and high-pitched screams from the audience as the fire erupted from the two magical weapons. Instead of two separate streams, the two merged together to form a single beam of fire with the same diameter of a tractor tire. The flames instantly engulfed Wally and launched him more than fifty yards down the field, over the fence and into the locker room, the stucco and concrete wall instantly crumbling on impact.
Mark ceased fire and brought his weapons close to his face to examine them. He could not help but smile. He had no idea that would happen. His reverie was broken when he finally became aware of the exploding applause and cheers that came from the stadium seats. Mark was unsure and a little embarrassed at first, but he grinned and threw a fist into the air, posing for his admirers.
"Hmph," Book huffed as she slapped her cone across the face of a transparent-skinned Artificial. Her cheeks were a shameful red as the heat bubbled up beneath her skin. "Idiot."
Mark coolly pulled himself away from the affection of the audience and turned back towards Kenny. With glowing hands and a frothing mouth, the blonde boy charged at Mark.
"I can't accept this world the way it is," Mark said somberly. He aimed his shoulder at Kenny and raised a Blazer in his direction. "But you guys are the real victims; you guys and Tally. So if this is really what you want, then I have every intention of keeping my promise." Mark fired the Blazer, not hesitating to stop Kenny dead in his tracks.