Well, it seems to have been a busy month. Uploaded three chapters, each for a different story.
An Unlikely Hero has been a pleasant surprise for me. So far it’s turned out quite well and the latest chapter (Chapter Four) has really advanced the plot. In fact this was the chapter in which I really worked out what the plot was going to be. When I first started writing AUH, all I had was in my head was the image of the main character being brutally killed in the first chapter yet somehow miraculously coming back to life.
Chapter Six has been a long time coming. The last chapter was posted way back in August of last year. I got pretty bad writer’s block at the start of the chapter. I knew that Trace (the main character) was going to save the day, I also knew that there was no way he could take out Dorga and his goons in combat. Unless of course it was in an extended “Home-Alone” style guerilla campaign. In hindsight that would have been kinda cool but would’ve taken ages to write. This chapter also revealed the final bits and pieces of the kid’s backstory and exactly what the relationship between him and Dorga was.
After taking a break to write four chapters of AUH, I returned to RS with The Tattoo. I’m glad to return to this story, as its the longest I’ve every written and there’s still so much I want to write. I really want to finish this some day. This particular chapter pretty much has nothing to do with the plot of the story, so it could be seen as filler. It does however ramp up the tension between Ryan and Boris.
These two almost came to blows in this chapter and only the timely arrival of Daniel prevented a knife fight from breaking out. This chapter also introduced Bucky. A last minuted inclusion, I never intended to introduce a dog but somehow, that section just wrote itself. Bucky is in fact the dog owned by my Mutants and Masterminds character, Jared Sanchez. Ryan’s little joke about the reason behind Bucky’s name is painful in origin, as it was originally the reason why I called my character’s dog Bucky in the M&M game. I pretty much got the same reaction from the GM and other players as Ryan did. As I said, its painful.
Exams are starting this week in programming and computing, as long as I don’t freeze up they should be a cake walk. Maths next week I’m less confident about.
The wind whipped at the sea, sending bursts of spray up onto the cliff-side path. Ryan pulled his coat tight trying to ward off the cold wind. He was supposed to be revising for his SATS exams that started on Monday but he had needed to get some fresh air after being cooped up in the house ever since getting out of hospital earlier in the week. That was what he had told Susan and Anthony, making up some story about having to return a library book in order to explain why he was taking his backpack with him. The truth was that Daniel had answered the message that Ryan had left on his voicemail, phoning him on Friday night to arrange a meeting. So here he was on a cold and windy Saturday morning, making his way towards the old lighthouse.
The lighthouse was on old granite and brick structure, constructed in the 18th century. It had served the small fishing port well into the 19th century until it was replaced by a sturdier structure out by the breakwater. That one itself was replaced by an automated electric lighthouse in the 1970’s. The original lighthouse remained as a local landmark, perched on a small plateau by the cliffs. As tourism had increased and started to replace Cliffport’s fishing fleet as the main source of employment, the lighthouse had become something of a tourist attraction. However, the Great Storm of ’87 almost put an end to that. The hurricane strength winds of that October night sheared the top off the structure; sending granite blocks, metal and glass tumbling into the raging sea below. All that was left was the hollow shell of the bottom half propped up from the inside by a latticework of supports. Shortly after coming to Cliffport, Ryan had noticed the sign outside the local church hall showing the total funds raised for the lighthouse’s restoration, a total that hadn’t seemed to have moved since the sign was put up two decades earlier.
As Ryan got to the end of the path leading up to the lighthouse, he heard the sound of barking from the path behind him. He turned and saw a small dog running up the path towards him. Ryan involuntarily took a step back as it ran up to him, its wild eyes startling him and reminding him for a brief second of the spectral hound that he had encountered nearly a month and a half ago. The dog ran around behind him and stopped, crouched on the floor whimpering. He was no expert, but even he could tell that the dog, an Alsatian crossbreed, was terrified of something. “What’s the matter boy?” Ryan asked as he stroked the dog’s fur gently. It’s black and brown coat was dirty and he wasn’t wearing a collar; Ryan guessed it was a stray. The dog perked up slightly as he spoke to it but shrank back down as Ryan heard voices down the path.
Boris and two other boys from school ran around the corner red faced and out of breath. The two boys were both carrying cricket bats, but Boris was armed with a knife. When the older boy saw Ryan standing in front of the cowering dog, he smiled. “Hey boys, looks like the mongrel’s found us another stray to play with.” Boris friends laughed as they spread themselves out in front of Ryan in a semi-circle.
Ryan’s eyes narrowed, having to deal with Boris was the last thing he wanted. “What’s the matter, bullying little kids at school not enough for you so you’ve decided to pick on defenceless animals now?”
“You and me, we got unfinished business,” Boris said glancing at his friends and waving his knife in Ryan’s direction. “But tell you what, give us the mutt and maybe we’ll let you walk out of this without breaking your legs.” His offer was greeted by derisive laughter by the other boys; Ryan had no illusion that the offer was genuine. He looked down at the dog behind him. Even if the offer had been genuine, he wasn’t about to hand the dog over to a bunch of thugs for them to torture.
“If you want this dog,” Ryan said surprising himself with how confident he sounded, “then you’ll have to come through me.” There was a glint in Boris’s eyes as he said this. Ryan realised that he’d probably made a huge mistake, the last thing he should have done is challenge Boris in front of his friends. The thug already had it in for him and after what had happened at school, he probably felt the need to prove himself. However, right at that moment, he was reminded of what he had said to Jake two months ago, “I ‘aint taking shit from any of you anymore.” He had meant what he had said back then, all those years of being someone’s punching bag were over. Even if it meant taking a beating, there was no way he was going to let this third-rate thug push him around
“You think I got a problem doing that retard?” Boris said as his friends laughed, “I mean, I heard you were a dumb shit but three against one, I thought even you’d be smarter than that.”
“I’ve taken on three knife-wielding thugs before and I still kicked their asses,” Ryan said cockily. He was also exaggerating slightly, only two of them had been armed and only one of them had actually been carrying a knife. “And the last time we fought Boris, I was half-zonked out by a stomach bug but I was still strong enough to put you on the floor.” The thug tightened his grip on the knife, silently fuming as Ryan spoke. Ryan reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the flick knife. He took a step forward and extended the blade. “Let me tell you something, three to one odds don’t mean that you outnumber me, it just means that I’ve got a target-rich environment.”
Boris’s body tensed, readying itself to charge forward and attack but was stopped when a new voice made itself heard. “Make that three against two.” Everyone turned towards the source of the voice. Ryan grinned confidently as he saw Daniel standing in the doorway, picking at the dirt underneath a fingernail with one of his knives.
“Who the hell are you?” Boris barked as Daniel walked over to stand beside Ryan. Suddenly Ryan didn’t look like such an easy target and Boris’s friends looked a little less sure about themselves. They looked between themselves and their ringleader nervously.
“I’m someone who thinks children shouldn’t play with knives or gang up on those younger than them,” Daniel said quietly, drawing his other knife and twirling them around in an impressive display of skill and finesse. “Unlike you kids, I know how to use these weapons so I suggest you leave before I have to show you what a real knife fighter can do.”
“Hey Boris,” one of the thug’s friends called out, “we can always get him at school next week.” The two sides stared at each other across the dirt for several tense seconds until Boris huffed and stepped back, relaxing the grip on his knife. He looked at Ryan with a grin on his face, although his eyes were anything but friendly.
“See you on Monday morning Henderson,” Boris said calmly, “maybe you won’t be so cocky without your boyfriend around to protect you.” With that, the thug turned and left.
Ryan watched as the boys left, not relaxing his stance until Boris had turned the corner out of sight. He dropped down into a crouch, his arms resting on his knees and laughing nervously, releasing the tension that he was feeling. The dog stood up and walked over to Ryan’s side, nuzzling against his knee as its tail wagged. Without thinking about it, Ryan reached down and scratched the back of the dog’s head affectionately. “It’s okay little fella, that jerk’s gone now.” Ryan looked over at Daniel to say thanks but stopped when he saw the look on the man’s face as he looked down at him. It was a look of disappointment. “What?”
“So you’re carrying a knife now?” Daniel said as he tucked his knives back into a pair of holsters inside his jacket.
Ryan stood up and laughed. “You’re one to talk, you carry two of them; both of them bigger than my forearms.”
Daniel crossed his arms. “That’s different, I…”
“What,” Ryan interrupted, his expression hardening and his face assuming an adolescent pout, “I’m not allowed to defend myself? After everything I’ve been through the last two months, I reckon I deserve the right to carry some protection.”
As Ryan spoke, Daniel saw that there was a confidence in him that had not been there before. When he had first tracked Ryan down nearly a year ago, he’d been a lonely young boy, barely willing to raise a fist in his own defence. All traces of that boy were gone now and there was a fire within him, perhaps a dangerous one. Along with his newfound confidence and courage, there was a short temper and a reckless streak a mile wide. He realised that Ryan had stopped talking and an awkward pause had settled over the two. “You’ve changed.” He finally said.
Ryan’s mouth opened, ready to give an angry response. Before he did, the boy’s expression softened and he looked down at the ground. He walked over to nearby bench facing the cliff edge and sat down, staring at the knife in his hand. “I’ve had to,” he said quietly. Daniel came over to the bench and sat down next to him.
“I guess so; just don’t forget who you are inside.” He put a hand on Ryan’s shoulder in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture. “You said you needed to talk.” Taking a deep breath Ryan told about what he had experienced when he “fell ill.” Listening carefully, Daniel only interrupted Ryan when he needed the boy to clarify some detail or another. After Ryan had finished speaking, Daniel leaned back on the bench and looked out to sea. “So what makes you think what you saw wasn’t just a fever-induced hallucination.”
Ryan tried to explain but he struggled to find the right words. “I remember,” he said eventually after several failed attempts, “spending my twelfth birthday hiding under my bed and barricaded in my bedroom because my foster parents at the time had come home from the pub drunk, again. But I also remember spending it paintballing with Mark and my dad before going out for a family meal; two years after he was supposed to have killed them. Plus, ¿cómo diablos puedo hablar español si nunca me lo han enseñado?”
“You what?” Daniel asked, not speaking a word of Spanish.
“I said, ‘how the hell can I speak Spanish even though I’ve never taken any lessons in it?’. The only languages I’ve learned in school are French and a bit of German. It was the other me, the one from my ‘hallucination’ that did three years of Spanish in high school. I don’t know what’s real anymore!”
Daniel whistled, “Listen, you’re not going crazy if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Ryan looked at him desperately. “Then what the hell’s happening to me?” He was close to the breaking point; Daniel could see that from the look in the boy’s eyes. The eighteen-year-old stood and leaned against the railing, facing Ryan.
“It’s difficult to explain,” Daniel began, “but I’ll try.” Ryan had been the victim of a very old and very powerful curse; one that had a unique method of attack. It subdued the victim, making it appear they had taken ill and falling into a deep fever. Their consciousness would then be forced to experience a kind of alternate reality crafted by the caster. “What you experienced was real. It sounds like Mark trapped you in a world where the events of that night four years ago never happened. He used that to get close to you without you suspecting. You’d have no memory of your real life while under the effect of the curse; at least not until the magic started to decay. That’s probably why you have all these memories that aren’t yours.” Ryan looked down at the ground, his hands fiddling uneasily with the material of his jeans. “If he’d managed to kill you while you were ‘hallucinating’, then you would have gone in to a coma and died here.” But it didn’t make sense, Daniel thought to himself. There was no way that Ryan’s brother should have been able to cast this curse. He wasn’t nearly powerful enough and even if he were, he would have needed a foci in order to target Ryan. When he told this to Ryan, the boy looked up at him, the light of realisation in his eyes. He reached inside his backpack pulled out the old leather bound book. Flicked through the pages, he stopped when he reached one that had a crudely drawn picture of a red crystal.
“Would something like this work?” Ryan showed the book to Daniel.
“A Seer Stone? That could work, but they were all supposed to be lost or destroyed long ago. Where would he get…” Daniel stopped midsentence, Ryan suddenly had a very guilty look on his face. “What did you do?”
“I kinda gave him one?” Ryan admitted. “But I didn’t have much of a choice.” He went on to explain what had happened a month and a half ago to Trey. When he was finished, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back sighing. “You know, I hate to admit, but with the way he set everything up, Mark’s smarter than ever I gave him credit for.”
“Well, at least we know where he got the power from.” Daniel said sitting back down on the bench. “But he would still have needed a foci to target you. It’s usually something personal; either something of yours or something of his in your possession.”
Ryan’s mind was blank; he couldn’t think of anything that could be the foci. He hadn’t seen his brother in four years, and as far as he knew, everything he had owned back then had been lost in the fire. It was conceivable that Mark could have taken something before torching the house but Daniel told him it was unlikely that anything could have retained a strong enough psychic impression after all that time. “But if we can’t find it, what’s to stop Mark from using it to attack me again?”
Daniel looked at the boy, a mischievous grin beginning to form. “I have an idea. But it’ll probably land you in a heap of trouble.”
Ryan returned the smile. “What’ve I got to lose?”
It had taken them a couple of hours to drive from Cliffport to Newquay, a town on Cornwall’s northern coast. The drive had been quiet, with few words being exchanged between Daniel and Ryan. Daniel had joked as they walked from the old lighthouse to the car, the small dog Ryan had ‘rescued’ following close behind, that it looked like Ryan had made a new friend. The man had found it less funny when the dog jumped onto the back seat and no amount of cajoling would get him to get out. Eventually, he had given in and Ryan had climbed in the back. Ryan had spent most of the trip sitting in the back and looking out the passenger side window, lost in thought. The dog was sitting on the seat next to him, its head resting on his lap. Daniel broke the silence as they passed by the town of Bodmin, asking Ryan what he was thinking about. “I would give anything to be able to go back to that night and stop him.” He had said. “The one thing I’ve wanted more than anything is the chance to change what I … what happened that night. I miss all of them, even Mark. As much as I hate him, part of me misses the way we used to be. All the fun we used to have, the way he looked out for me. I guess I’ve always wanted to know what it would’ve been like if they hadn’t died. Now I know. But it’s a rough trade; the lives of Trey, Ben, Jake and Spud for my parents.” Daniel didn’t know what to say after Ryan had finished, so the rest of the trip was done in silence.
When they finally arrived at Newquay and pulled into a car park, Ryan paused as he got out of the car and watched the surfers a short distance away from the beach. “I’ve seen you on that skateboard of yours,” Daniel said noticing what Ryan was looking at, “you’d probably be pretty good on a surfboard.”
Ryan turned and looked at Daniel, his eyes narrowed in annoyance. “You know, this whole stalker thing you got going ‘aint exactly helping me ‘resolve my trust issues’ as Mrs Anders would say.”
“Who’s Mrs Anders?”
“Nobody you need to know about,” Ryan said shaking his head as the dog jumped out of the car. He was surprised; Daniel seemed to know everything else about him, which was disconcerting enough, but at least there was one thing he didn’t know, the name of his psychiatrist.
They walked away from the seafront, into the town. Taking several of the back streets, it didn’t long for Ryan to get thoroughly lost. Eventually they reached their destination, a small shop above a Chinese takeaway. Before he opened the door to the stair, Daniel turned to Ryan. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Ryan nodded and together the climbed up the stairs.
The shop was dark, dimly lit by small windows. A row of chairs was lined up against one wall facing the counter, like in a doctor’s waiting room. On each of the walls were pictures of tattoo designs; both illustrations and actual photo’s of tattoos on various people. In a glass cabinet behind the counter was a selection of ear and body piercings. “Hey, anyone home?” Daniel said leaning over the counter and yelling over the load music coming from the back room. The music was turned down and a man in his late-twenties came out of the back room. He was a large man, nearly six foot in height although some of his muscle had turned to flab through lack of exercise, ruining what otherwise would have been an impressive physique. The man glanced at Ryan dismissively as he entered the shop front before focusing his attention on Daniel. “So what can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for some help for my friend here,” Daniel said. The man glanced at Ryan a second time with an appraising eye before returning his attention to Daniel.
“Kids under 16 need a parent or legal guardian present before any piercing can be done,” the man said hitching his thumb over his shoulder towards a sign on the wall that said the same, “it’s not against the law but it is company policy.”
“That’s not what we’re here for…”
“No way,” the man interrupted, “tattooing a minor is against the law, and I’m not losing my license because some punk wants to join a gang.”
“Hey,” Ryan said indignantly before Daniel cut him off.
“Look mate, we’re not here for gang tags or something to impress girls. We’re here for one of these.” Daniel pulled a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket and showed it to the man. There was a symbol drawn on it, an inverted triangle with small arcs on each of the upper two points. Almost like part of a circle that would have surrounded the triangle connecting its three points. The arcs and the tip of the bottom point were drippy, almost like something dribbling downward from their points. When the man saw the picture, he nodded in understanding. “So you’re after a Protection Sigil?” Daniel nodded. “You sure this is what you want for the kid, tattoo’s are kinda permanent after all.”
“Hey,” Ryan said indignantly, “I’m standing right here you know.”
Ignoring the boy, the man haggled with Daniel over the price for a few minutes before eventually coming to an agreement. “Gear’s in the back,” he said beckoning for Daniel and Ryan to accompany him. As Ryan turned to follow, the man held out his hand stopping him. “Hey shrimp, flip over the closed sign and lock the door will you, we don’t want anyone coming in while I do this.” Muttering under his breath, he did as he was told. When he went into the back room, he saw the man placing a small stepping stool next to the tattoo chair in the centre of the room. Seeing Ryan enter the room, the man cracked his knuckles. “Now that we’re alone,” he said, “I can dispel this bloody enchantment.” The man’s hands quickly formed a series of symbols in front of him and Ryan watched as the man’s form seemed to collapse in on itself. As the man shrank, a dog-like muzzle transformed the profile of his face and hair sprouted from his body. Thankfully, his clothes shrank with him and fitted his new four-foot high body perfectly. Ryan glanced over at Daniel, unnerved by the man’s sudden transformation. If Daniel was concerned though, he wasn’t showing it. The man looked over at Ryan and pointed at the chair. “Well kid, you waiting for an invitation? Hop in.”
Ryan climbed up into the chair and couldn’t stop himself from giggling. “What’s so funny shrimp?”
“The big plan to stop my brother from cursing me again is getting a tattoo from an ewok!” Daniel smothered a snigger behind his hand.
“I’m not a ewok,” the man said indignantly, “I’m a pooka.”
“A pooka, a member of the fey race, from the goblin realm?” The man threw his hands up in frustration. “Don’t they teach human children anything anymore?”
Ryan was still giggling. “But you look…”
“I know, I know,” the man interrupted laughing slightly, “trust me, my people were howling for George Lucas’s blood long before he made those blasted prequels.”
Daniel cleared his throat. “While I’m sure this is very amusing to you two, can we get on with this? I don’t think I can stand any more of this Linkin Park crap.” He said referring to the music playing.
“It’s not Linkin Park…” the man began as he climbed on to the stool.
“It’s Amber Pacific.” Ryan finished for him.
The man punched Ryan playfully on the arm, “You’ve got taste kid, I like you.”
“All sounds like emo pop punk crap to me,” Daniel muttered under his breath.
Ryan couldn’t help but look at the tattoo as they drove through the Cornish countryside. It hadn’t taken the man long to do it, his hands blurring with supernatural speed as he tattooed the shoulder of Ryan’s left arm. He had expected it to hurt, after all the ink was being placed under the skin using a needle and he wasn’t exactly fond of needles to start off with, but it hadn’t hurt at all. In fact, he had barely felt the procedure. Daniel told had told him that the tattoo granted him protection from rituals like curses, hexes and scrying spells. The tattoo would make it almost impossible to target Ryan unless they had something of him to use in the ritual. Something like a strand of hair or a drop of blood. The tattoo would have little effect if a warlock tried to throw a lightning bolt or fireball at him however. Magic like that didn’t need to targeted, just cast in the right direction. Despite the added protection the tattoo provided, Ryan didn’t feel any different. He had to take Daniel’s word that the tattoo was worth it.
“Have thought about what you’re going to tell your foster parents?” Daniel asked Ryan as he rolled his sleeve back down his arm.
“When I first came to live with Sue and Anthony, they sat me down in the kitchen and laid down the ground rules. No alcohol, no drugs, especially no smoking around the house. They were particularly insistent on that one,” Ryan said smiling at the memory. “Be home before curfew, you know, the usual stuff. They never said anything about not getting a tattoo.” As he said this, he noticed Daniel glancing at him and seeing the expression on the older boy’s face, he laughed. “I know, I know, I can’t use that as an excuse. I’ll have to think of something, but I don’t want to lie to them. They’ve been real good to me.”
The small dog sitting on Ryan’s lap yawned contentedly. “You keeping him or what,” Daniel asked nodding towards the dog.
Ryan looked down at the dog who looked back up at him expectantly. “I always wanted a dog when I was little, just need to think up a name for him.” The dog sat up and started licking Ryan’s face, causing the boy to giggle. “Now I’ve got to figure out a way for them to let me keep you.”
That evening, after checking that Sue and Anthony were in the living room watching TV, Ryan quietly crept out of the back door and headed to the garden shed. He had gotten home earlier that afternoon and, not knowing what to say to his foster parents, Ryan made sure the tattoo remained hidden under the sleeve of his t-shirt during dinner. When evening had started to close in, he couldn’t wait any longer and decided to chance a visit to the shed. Carrying a small bundle wrapped in a blanket, he quickly walked across the garden and opened the shed door.
As soon as he opened the the dog leapt at him, yipping happily. “Quiet down boy, you don’t want the others to hear.” Ryan unwrapped the bundle to reveal a pair of small bowls from the kitchen, a plastic bottle filled with tap water, a can of dog food he had bought from a shop on the way home and a small squeaky ball. The dog ran around his legs excitedly as he filled one of the bowls with water and emptied the can into the other. Ryan smiled as the dog greedily gobbled up the food. “You’ve got my table manners, that’s for sure.”
The dog looked up, as if distracted by something. There was a creak from the window and Ryan turned around to see Trey looking in through the dirty glass. Their eyes met and Trey grinned sheepishly. Realising that he had been rumbled, he motioned for Trey to come in. The younger boy came in and sat down next to Ryan. Cautiously at first, the dog padded over to Trey and sniffed at him. Apparently deciding that he liked him, the dog licked at Trey’s outspread hand. “What’s his name?”
“Bucky,” Ryan said picking up the ball, “and this is his ball.” He squeezed the ball and laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“Bucky’s ball? Buckyball? Geddit?” Trey looked at him blankly. “Carbon 60 is one of the hardest substances known to science. It’s better known as buckminsterfullerene and its most common form is a spherical molecule called a bucky ball.” The younger boy still wasn’t laughing. Now that he had said it aloud, it wasn’t as funny as he had first thought. In fact, it sounded a little sad, a little geeky.
“Where did you get him?”
“He found me,” Ryan said, “up by the lighthouse. Boris and some of his jerk friends were torturing the poor thing.”
“Do you think he belongs to anyone?” The dog seemed completely comfortable around the younger boy now, as it sat on his lap while Trey stroked him.
Ryan shrugged. “No, I think he’s a stray.”
“Kinda like us then,” Trey said looking over at Ryan. The two boys sat in the shed, lit by an electric lamp, laughing, talking and playing with Bucky. Neither of them realised how late it was getting until the shed door was opened and their foster father looked inside.
“We were starting to wonder where you two had got too,” he said. Then he saw Bucky sitting between Ryan and Trey. “Where did that come from?”
Ryan and Trey looked at each other, at first neither of them saying anything. Ryan opened his mouth to say something but was beaten to the punch by Trey who picked up Bucky and went over to Anthony. “His name’s Bucky, he’s a stray and he’s got nowhere to go,” Trey said holding Bucky tightly, “can we keep him, pleeease?”
Anthony looked down at Trey. He tried to look stern, but Ryan could see the corner of his mouth curling upwards as he barely concealed a smile. “Trey Bennett, are you trying to give me the puppy dog eyes routine?”
“Maybe,” Trey said slowly, “is it working?”
“How did you get so manipulative?” Anthony asked.
“He’s twelve,” Ryan answered causing Anthony to laugh and Trey to scowl.
“Having a pet isn’t like getting a new computer game or toy,” Anthony said carefully, “it’s not something you can just abandon when you get bored.”
“Is that a no?” Trey asked at the same time as Ryan asked “Is that a yes?”
“It’s a big responsibility, and it’s something that we’d have to talk to Susan about. But for the time being, you’d better bring him inside; it’s going to be very cold tonight.”
“Yes!” Ryan and Trey cheered at the same time, high-fiving each other. Anthony told Trey to take Bucky inside as Ryan picked up the bowls, blanket and ball. As he turned to follow Trey, Anthony put an arm across the doorway, barring his exit.
“Don’t think we haven’t noticed that … thing on your arm,” Anthony said as he lifted up the sleeve of Ryan’s t-shirt, “Tomorrow, we’re going to have a little talk about the sort of behaviour that is and isn’t appropriate for a fourteen-year-old. But for now, I think it’s an early night for you.”
The car pulled up in front of the school. Todd looked out of his window towards the main entrance of Horace O’bryant Middle School. It had been a just over a week since he had been released from quarantine and given the all clear, two weeks since the incident at the house. This was his first day back at school and he was a little nervous. He got out of the car and turned to close the door. “Todd,” his dad said leaning over to the passenger-side window, “are you sure this is what you want?” Sam had tried to convince his son to take Uncle John up on his offer of arranging a place at Cody’s school. He had been worried about his son’s safety and if he’d had his way, Todd would have gone to school surrounded by armed guards. In the week he’d spent on Sentinel after being released from quarantine, Todd’s dad had spent nearly every minute with him. It was understandable though, he had almost lost his son that night. But Todd was adamant that he wasn’t going to hide for the rest of his life, nor did he want to be shielded from the real world like his cousin. Somehow, he had managed to convince his dad to let him return to his normal school. He was a little suspicious that his dad had acquiesced so easily.
“I’ll be fine, quit worrying about me.” Todd said a little too sharply and shouldered his backpack. Taking a deep breath, he walked through the main entrance and towards the playground. He received more than a few strange looks from the other kids as he walked onto the playground. Several people pointed at him and whispered to their friends. He started to wonder if this was such a good idea, maybe dad had been right, maybe he should have waited another week but Todd had been eager to get back to school. He’d already had a rough start to the eighth grade and missing two weeks near the start of the school year probably wasn’t going to help.
He was about to turn around and head back to the gate when he heard voice cut across the playground noise. “Todd, you’re back!” Todd looked up and saw a boy his own age running towards him.
“Hey A J.” Todd had joined the school at the start of the school year after moving to Key West earlier in the summer. He hadn’t had much time to make friends but thankfully, most of the other children in his class hadn’t made it too hard for the new boy to settle in. Todd had been lucky enough to find himself sitting at a desk next to Andrew Jarvis on his first day and once the usual adolescent awkwardness had passed, he had made his first friend since moving to Florida. “Did I miss much?” He asked as A J skidded to a stop in front of him.
“Never mind that,” A J asked him, his eyes wide open, “is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“Billy Taylor’s dad’s a cop,” A J explained, “and he said that his dad said that you got shot, that there was blood everywhere!” Several of his classmates were also starting to move over towards them, forming a small group around him.
Todd sighed inwardly, so much for the cover story that Uncle John had drilled into him. If A J knew then it was a good chance that half the kids in school knew as well; things like that spread quickly across the playground. He could try to deny it, stick to the cover story, but that would be difficult if half the school was already convinced of the truth. Besides, he hadn’t been comfortable about having to lie to his new friend in the first place. “It’s not as bad as Billy’s making out,” he said hoping his dad wouldn’t be too mad about this.
“Are you calling my dad a liar?” Billy said from behind Todd.
“That’s … that’s not I meant.” Todd stuttered, more than a little intimidated by the larger boy.
A J asked him again. “Well, did you get shot or not?”
Sam watched his son enter the school before driving off. As well as being impulsive, his son had a stubborn streak a mile wide. Todd got that stubbornness from his mother. Like her, once he had his mind set on something, there was very little that could be done to change it. He could have put his foot down, sent Todd to that boarding school whether he wanted to or not but for some reason he didn’t. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to take any steps to protect his son. As he stopped at the intersection waiting for the lights, he reached over and switched on the dashboard mounted GPS unit. The LCD touch screen lit up and displayed a map showing the car’s current location. Sam pressed the little magnifying glass icon, activating the “Find” function, and an onscreen keyboard replaced the map. He tapped on the keys, spelling the word “Todd” and pressed the “OK” button. The map reappeared centred over the school where had dropped his son off. A blinking yellow dot appeared over the school; Sam pressed dot and the screen blanked for a second. A live satellite feed appeared and zoomed in on the school playground. Sam could see Todd standing with a group of other children, oblivious to the fact that he was being watched from space. Last night, he had given Todd a present. A brand new digital watch, crammed with features, half of which he knew the boy would probably never use. Todd had rolled his eyes at the gadget but had taken the present nonetheless; it was a cool looking watch after all. What Todd didn’t know was that Sam had placed a GPS chip in the watch; a chip that Sam could use to track his son’s whereabouts at all times using one of Overwatch’s satellites orbiting over the US. Sam had effectively “lojacked” his son, something he knew Todd would be furious about if he ever found out. The car behind him beeped its horn, the lights had turned green.
Across the road from the school sat a grey utility van with the logo of a local cable company plastered on its side. A worker sat in front a nearby utility box, a rugged laptop on his knee as he ran a series of connection tests, occasionally cursing. To the casual observer, he appeared to be nothing more than a technician trying to track down a fault within the area’s broadband or cable TV connection. However, the act was a lie; his work with the utility box was merely a cover for his real job.
He watched the young boy that he had been ordered to spy on get out of his father’s car. The last time he had seen Todd Marshall, he had been lying in his father’s arms bleeding to death after he had nearly emptied an entire clip into the boy. With their mission complete, they had returned through the portal only to learn a few days later of the boy’s miraculous survival. Part of him was glad that he had survived, he had never been comfortable with shooting the boy. Still, you don’t argue with orders given by a man that orders the death of a child merely to underscore a point he is trying to make.
The man tapped a series of notes in coded shorthand on his laptop as Todd entered the school. He hoped that he wouldn’t be ordered to finish the job; this Todd seemed like a good kid. Looking up from the laptop, he saw Todd surrounded by a group of school kids and lifting his t-shirt up. “What’s that all about?” He wondered.
“Brutal,” A J whistled as Todd lifted his t-shirt. He had been browbeaten by Billy into showing his chest after admitting that he had been shot. Todd had learnt on his first day that Billy usually got what he wanted and he didn’t want to have to explain to his dad again why he had black eye. Although the nanobots had repaired most of the damage caused by the gunshots without leaving any marks, a knot of scar tissue had been left behind on the right hand side of his stomach where several bullets had hit close together. The flesh had been torn ragged by the entry of the bullets but the nanobots had been able to knit the flesh back together making it appear as only a single gunshot wound. “Did it hurt much?”
“Dunno,” Todd lied, “I woke up in hospital a couple of days later. Don’t remember anything about Sunday night.” He tried to downplay the situation, make it sound less serious than it actually was. Then Billy just had to pipe in with the fact that Paragon had been present at Todd’s house. If this had been New York, where Todd had lived for ten years before moving to Key West, no one would have cared about the presence of the super. Super-battles were so common there that they barely made it to the traffic reports, never mind the nightly news. However, here in Key West, supers and super-battles were rare. Todd thanked God that no one had any idea that Paragon was his uncle or that his dad freelanced for Overwatch.
“You met Paragon?” A J said wide-eyed. “That is so awesome, what was he like?”
“Er … did you miss the part where I said I was unconscious and I don’t remember anything.” Across the playground, he saw his homeroom teacher walking towards the classroom block. “Hey, I’ll catch up with you guys in class.” Todd picked up his backpack and jogged away from the group towards his teacher. “Miss Gunderson!”
Sarah Gunderson turned around at the sound of his voice and flashed a kind smile when she saw him running over. “Todd, I didn’t know you were back at school today. How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay Miss,” Todd said smiling back. He liked Miss Gunderson, unlike many of the teachers he’d had previously, she didn’t make him feel stupid when he asked a question in class or didn’t understand something because of his dyslexia. She also had the patience to deal with him fairly when he acted up in class and made sure that if he needed extra help because of his problems that he always got it. She was a new teacher, having only started at the school at the start of the year and she was still enthusiastic about teaching.
“That’s good to hear. Now, what can I help you with?”
“I missed the math test on the 21st and I was wondering if there was any way I could take it during lunch?”
Miss Gunderson raised an eyebrow, “I thought you hated maths, it always seems to bring out your most colourful language.”
Todd blushed, it was true that sometimes he got so worked up in math lessons that he occasionally cursed out loud in frustration without meaning to. “I know, but I studied really hard for it and I’d like to at least have a go. I’ll probably fail it anyway but I want to able to tell my dad that I tried.”
She laughed softly, “I’m sure you’ll do your best. But perhaps during third period would be a better time to take the test, I wouldn’t want you to miss lunch in order to do some algebra sums. That would be cruel.” The school bell rang and children began to filter towards their classrooms. “I’ll have a word with Mrs Willis and see if I can arrange it for today.”
“Really, thanks Miss, you’re the best.” With that, he turned and ran off to join his classmates, waving as he ran. The teacher watched as Billy came up behind Todd and said something that made the smaller boy scowl. Todd clenched his fists as his face flushed red but to his credit, he managed to control his anger and turn back to A J. Miss Gunderson could see what has coming and she quickened her step to try to intervene. Billy cuffed the back of Todd’s head and she could visibly see the moment that Todd’s patience snapped. The smaller boy span around yelling “LIAR” and struck the side of Billy’s face. The bully leapt onto him sending both of them to the ground where they started kicking and punching each other.
That afternoon, Sam was in his study sitting at his desk. Piled next to him was a stack of unmarked coursework. As well as his research position, Sam also taught a couple of classes, something which gave him a great deal of pleasure. After spending two weeks off work with his son, there were a number of assignments that needed marking and he had decided to work from home so he could clear the backlog. Yet try as he might, he found it hard to concentrate on the mysteries of molecular engineering. His eyes kept wandering across the desk towards another stack of papers, Todd’s test results that he’d brought with him from Sentinel. He started flicking through the test results, hoping inspiration would strike, anything to take his mind off the appointment he had tomorrow with his lawyer about the possible charges he might be facing for injecting Todd with the nanobots. Even though it had been a desperate act done in order to save his son’s life, the Advisory Council had decided to go forward with the charges. On top of it all, earlier in the day he had received a most unwanted phone call from his son’s school.
The front door opened and Sam heard his enter the house noisily. “Baxter, is dad home?” He heard his son yell from the hallway.
“I’m in the study son,” he said answering for the computer, “can you come in here for a minute.”
Todd ran into the study. His face was red, as if he had ran home all the way from the bus stop. His t-shirt was dirty with a small tear near the bottom and there were a few spots of blood on its front. Despite the state of his clothes, Todd was grinning. “Dad,” he said breathlessly while holding a piece of paper, “you’ll never guess…”
Sam looked at his son sternly as he interrupted him, “Todd, the principal called. He said you were fighting again with Billy Taylor.”
Sam pinched the brow of his nose and sighed. “No buts Todd, we’ve talked about this before. I know you find school difficult, and that Billy Taylor is a little thug, but you have to learn to control your anger better. Do you want to get kicked out of another school?”
“Billy Taylor said you were making drugs in the basement and selling them to college students and the bad guys found out and were angry that you were stealing their customers and they came to our house to threaten you and I got shot because you wouldn’t give them a cut of the profits.” Todd said quickly without taking a breath.
“And that’s why you punched him?”
“He started it,” Todd whined defensively, “was I supposed to just stand there and let him tell lies like that.” But his dad wasn’t listening, he kept on talking about not using violence to solve his problems. As he spoke, Todd just got angrier and angrier. He looked down at the piece of paper in his hand, which until a few moments ago had seemed so important.
“Well, what are we going to about this?” Sam asked, looking at his son across the desk.
Todd screwed up the paper was holding into a ball and looked up at his father. His eyes were red and he was holding back tears as he glared angrily at his father. Why couldn’t he make his father understand, why couldn’t he just see that it wasn’t his fault? Why did he have the ruin everything? Dropping the ball of screwed up paper to the floor; he spoke quietly, barely above a whisper but loud enough for Sam to hear. “I hate you.” Todd turned and ran out of the room, not wanting his dad to see him cry.
“Todd wait,” Sam said getting up as his son fled. “Damn,” he thought, “that didn’t go well.” Maybe he had come on too strong, been too hard on him. After all, his son had been provoked into the fight. Sam had so much on his mind; maybe he should have cut his son some slack. Walking around the desk, he picked up a photo frame and sighed. The photograph was the only one that he had of the three of them together, Todd, Helen and himself. It had been taken only a few weeks before the crash in which his wife had died. “I’m a terrible father.” She would’ve known what to do, he was sure of it.
Putting the photo frame back on the bookshelf, Sam noticed the screwed up ball of paper that Todd had left on the carpet. He reached down and picked it up, smoothing out its crumpled surface. It was a graded test paper and in the top corner, circled prominently and with the words “well done” written next to it, was the grade; an A plus. Todd had gotten every single question correct. Sam scanned the paper, all the working out was there, all in Todd’s handwriting. “Wow,” Sam said to himself, “his first A.” No wonder he had been so happy when he came home, he thought, all that hard work had paid off. Then it hit him, Todd must have rushed home to tell him and the first thing that happened is that he received a lecture from his father over a silly playground brawl.
Taking a deep breath, he slowly walked up the stairs towards Todd’s bedroom. Sam knocked on the door. The only answer he got was a muffled “go away” which he ignored and opened the door. Todd had been lying on his bad, his face buried into his pillow. He sat up quickly as Sam came in, wiping his eyes and nose on the back of his sleeve. “What do want now?” Todd said glaring at him from under his fringe.
Sam sat down on the bed next to him handed him the test paper. “You left this downstairs.” His son took the paper off him, sniffing slightly.
“I just wanted you to be proud of me for once,” Todd said quietly, a tear he couldn’t hold back falling onto the test paper.
“Todd,” Sam said in surprise, “I’ve always been proud of you.”
Todd shook his head. “But, you’re like the smartest person in the world, how can you be proud of someone like me. I’m always in trouble at school and I never get good grades. I’ve never got above a C in my life. If I was good at sports that’d be something but I suck at that too.” As he spoke, Sam began to realise that this wasn’t something new; Todd must have been bottling these feelings up for weeks, months perhaps even years. How long had he been hiding these feelings and how could he have not seen them? “My seventh grade teacher was right, I’m a moron.”
“Todd Marshall,” he said turning his son around to face him, “you are not a moron, you are my son and I am proud of you.” Todd opened his mouth to interrupt but Sam kept on talking, saying something he realised he should have said long ago. “You’ve always had difficulties at school because of your problems. But unlike other kids, you’ve never used them as an excuse to just give up. You’ve always tried your hardest to overcome them, and it’s not been easy; it’s been hard but you never stopped trying. That’s why I’m proud of you.” A small smile appeared on his son’s face.
“Really?” Todd asked him.
“Of course,” he answered, pulling his son into a hug. “Just do me a favour, no more fighting to protect the family honour. One superhero in the family is enough.”
Todd awoke in the early hours of Tuesday morning with a thumping headache and a mouth more parched than the Arizona desert. Bleary-eyed, he stumbled out of bed and shuffled his way towards the bathroom. He winced as he switched the light on, temporarily blinded by the sudden light, even though he should have expected it.
“Is everything all right?” Baxter asked quietly from a speaker in the ceiling, the volume of his voice lowered because of the early hour.
“Just a headache, and a bit thirsty,” Todd grunted, “I’ll live.”
“There is a bottle of headache tablets on the bottom shelf of the medicine cabinet.” The computer said helpfully.
“Thanks.” He reached over to the medicine cabinet, having to stand on his tiptoes to reach it, and felt around for several seconds for the bottle before finding it. Todd read the instructions before tipping one of the tablets into his hand and swallowing it along with a gulp of water from a glass. “We’ll see if it’s fast acting or not,” he muttered rubbing his temples in front of the mirror. He stood there for a couple of seconds, looking at his reflection. The weather had been warm and he had gone to bed without a vest or t-shirt. In the glass of the mirror, he could see he could see the knot of scar tissue. Despite how “awesome” his friends at school might have thought it was, to him it was an uncomfortable reminder of just how close he had come. His headache took that moment to send a stab pain rippling across his head. “What sort of alien nano-thingies,” he hissed through gritted teeth, “can heal a dozen gunshots but can’t do anything about a simple headache.”
He was about to leave the bathroom when something strange happened. Grey static washed over his vision, blinding him for several seconds. Todd stumbled towards the sink in panic and was about to call out to Baxter when his vision suddenly cleared. Staring at his reflection in the mirror, and panting heavily with beads of sweat dribbling down his face, he became aware of something very disturbing. Floating in the bottom left of his vision were a series of glowing green characters. Todd didn’t recognise them and he had a feeling that they belonged to no earthly alphabet. Another series of characters appeared in the upper right that changed rapidly; an ever changing sequence of alien letters and pictographs which only stopped when they read “LANGUAGE SETTING: EARTH/HUMAN/ENGLISH.” The characters in the bottom left of his vision changed at the same time to read, “OPTICAL SHUNT ESTABLISHED – BEGIN BIOHOST INTEGRATION PROCEDURE YES/NO?”