“Does it have a color?”
“No,” I said.
“Is it a type of food?”
Ethan and I were walking home from the Burning Creek IW, the sky above us almost an exact copy of the one we’d just left in the Dusk Dimension. Jade had volunteered to take Aesop — who was still mumbling to his hallucinations — home to make sure he didn’t wander into traffic.
“Can you…bring it to school?” Ethan asked.
I shrugged. “I mean, you can, but that’s not really how it works.”
He raised an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Yes or no questions only!”
I was acting nonchalant for Ethan’s sake, but he didn’t see the way I kept my right hand held over Splatsy, or how my eyes shifted to look at every shadow and dark corner.
“Fine,” he said. “Is it something you can buy?”
“No.” I paused. “Wait, yes. Sometimes, I guess?”
He rolled his eyes. “Remind me never to play this with you again.”
“What’s the matter? Am I too smart for you?”
“You’re something, all right.”
“Come on, keep guessing!”
Just then, one of the neighborhood cats streaked out in front of us, and I reacted like the totally awesome warrior goddess that I am — and definitely not by jumping a mile in the air and yanking Ethan back by the collar of his shirt. While he coughed and massaged his neck, I watched the cat run across the street and jump over somebody’s fence. Threat neutralized.
“What was that for?” Ethan demanded.
“Your, uh, allergies,” I said, carefully scanning the neighborhood. “You’re allergic to cats, right?”
“Sure you are. Listen to you cough!” I kept walking, giving him a playful slug on the arm. “Come on, guess again!”
In truth, I was pretty freaked out. The man in the mask had been at Feverdream Field. I remembered him walking beside me, but I’d assumed he was just another hallucination. That was enough to tie my guts into knots. If he’d wanted to kill either of us, I wouldn’t have even tried to stop him. The fact that we were both here, alive, was pure dumb luck. I’d failed.
But I wasn’t going to let that happen a…how many times had it been now? Well, from now on I was Ethan’s personal guardian angel. Nobody was going to so much as blow a dandelion at him without getting a big facefull of Splatsy.
“I give up,” he said. “What is it?”
I looked at him. “Huh? What?”
“The game,” he reminded me. “I don’t know what it is, so just go ahead and tell me.”
“Oh, right. It was the letter O.”
He squinted at me. “The letter…O?”
I grinned. “Yep! Pretty clever, huh?”
“No, I’m pretty sure that’s against the rules!”
“How is it against the rules?” I asked.
“You said you could buy it! You lied!”
“You can buy it. Haven’t you seen Wheel of Fortune?”
He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at me, and then shook his head and kept going.
We got home a few minutes later, and I collapsed gratefully onto the living room couch after honking my disguise away. Mom was there too, watching the news, while my dad hummed cheerfully in the kitchen. The spicy smell of taco meat was almost enough to give me heartburn — delicious, delicious heartburn. After what I’d been through today, I figured I could get away with a little stress eating.
“How was school?” Mom asked.
“Lousy,” I said. “Mehsdays are always lousy.”
Mom laughed at that. She always laughed. It never did anything for me, being a klaon herself and all. Bless her purple little heart, though, at least she tried.
“How about you, Ethan?” she asked, turning. Ethan froze, obviously trying to sneak upstairs unnoticed. “Have a good day at school?”
“Oh, uh, yeah,” he said. He swallowed hard. “I’ve got some homework to do, so…”
Mom smiled. “We’ll call you down for dinner. Henry, do you have any homework?”
“Nope,” I lied.
The news came back on, and I sighed while Ethan dashed upstairs. I usually avoid watching the news. It’s always so depressing. If klaons feed on laughter, then I’m surprised watching the news doesn’t give us food poisoning or something.
“Can we watch cartoons?” I asked.
“It’s important to know what’s going on in the world, Henry,” Mom said sternly.
I grimaced as the reporter started talking about how a four year old girl had gotten mauled by a pit bull. “What’s the point? If this world sucks, we’ve only got about a million others to choose from.”
“Because we live in this one,” she said, just like she always did. “You can watch cartoons after it’s done.”
Grumbling, I settled back on the couch to wait, too tired to get up and do something else till then. Tonight’s news had it all. Fires, murders, robberies — a smorgasbord of terribleness.
“Hidey ho, family!” a disembodied voice declared a few minutes later.
I sat up just as Grandpa Teddy appeared, cutting the Corner that led directly from his house to our living room. He leaned heavily on his cane, and held a box in his other hand that clinked whenever he moved.
“Evening, Dad,” Mom said. “How was the council today?”
He groaned as he sat down beside me, his old bones creaking. “Terrible. Between Ichabod and Victoria’s bickering, it’s a wonder society hasn’t collapsed.”
“Maybe we should call them Bicker-od and Vict-argue-a,” I said.
Mom laughed and Grandpa Teddy chuckled, but I could hear the fakeness in their voices.
“I brought you some more canisters,” Grandpa Teddy said, putting his box on the coffee table. “Try to make them last a little longer this time, okay?”
“Thanks.” I opened it up and peeked inside at the little metal capsules, each of them filled with a day’s worth of human laughter. There were enough in there to last a month, supposedly, but fighting maiams meant I went through the stuff like a…thing went through…another thing.
Hey, jokes are hard and I’d had a long day.
“Where do you get that stuff, Dad?” Mom asked, picking up a canister.
“Family secret, I’m afraid,” he said with a knowing smile.
Mom handed it to him. “Last I checked, we are family.”
“This is an idea my father had,” he said, holding the canister up to the light. “Bottling up human laughter for those of us who are…disadvantaged. But it wasn’t until now that we’ve actually had the technology to do it.”
I scowled. Disadvantaged my butt. I hated the way people, even other Blues, beat around the bush when we talked about our…okay, fine, maybe “disadvantage” was as good a word as any, but that wouldn’t stop me from hating it.
“I wish he could see me now,” Grandpa Teddy whispered. “I think he would actually be proud of me.”
“Grandpa Hector was always proud of you, Dad,” said Mom.
Grandpa Teddy smiled sadly at her. Mom was always the encourager, even if she had to bend the truth a little to do it. I had only been four when Great Grandpa Hector had died, and my memories of him were fuzzy, but even I knew that he’d been a bitter, unpleasant old man. A Blue like me and Grandpa Teddy, yes, but age and a life of…disadvantageness…had left its mark.
In the end, McGus had been forced to kill him. That was where we’d met for the first time.
“This is going to help so many people, Henry,” Grandpa Teddy promised, his voice full of passion. “Someday very soon.”
“Why not now?” I asked. Pulling the inhaler out of my pocket, I took a quick puff. “Seems like they work fine.”
“Oh, there’s nothing wrong with the inhalers,” Teddy quickly backtracked. “There’s just a couple, ah, kinks in the production process.”
I couldn’t help but smile at the excitement I saw twinkling in his old eyes. He really did care about this. If Grandpa Teddy’s inhalers took off like he wanted, it would be a victory for the Blues in more ways than one. It was a victory we desperately needed.
“Ten minutes!” Dad called from the kitchen.
“Why don’t you stay for dinner, Dad?” Mom asked.
“Oh, if only,” said Grandpa Teddy. “But I’m afraid your husband’s tacos are too much for this old stomach these days. I just came by to drop off Henry’s canisters.”
“Thanks,” I said, setting the box on my lap.
“And how is Ethan?”
“He’s…” I hesitated, looking up at his room. “As good as you’d expect, I guess.”
He nodded sadly. “The poor boy’s been through a lot recently. After that accident…”
“Accident?” I asked.
“I did some digging,” he admitted. “It turns out his parents died in a car wreck eight months ago.”
“Oh, the poor boy!” Mom exclaimed.
“Ever since, he’d been passed around from foster family to foster family. He finally settled in with his uncle, a man he barely knew, but…”
“But then the maiam got him,” I said softly, spirits falling again.
Grandpa Teddy nodded. “That was his last living relative. Between the double whammy of shock and grief, I’m surprised he’s in as good a condition as he is.”
“Well, don’t you worry,” Mom said. “We’ll take care of him until he’s better, no matter how long it takes!”
I sighed. Great. Then again, could I really complain? If I had been just a little quicker…a little less of a failure…Ethan would still have his uncle and neither of us would be in this mess.
While we all thought about that, the news came back on.
“In local news,” said the reporter, “there’s been another disappearance in Englehop today. Twenty six year old Troy Rainer’s car was found abandoned on the side of…”
“Another one?” Mom asked, frowning. “That’s three this month.”
“And so close to home,” Teddy muttered.
“Officials are offering a reward to anyone who has information that leads to Troy being found.”
Grandpa Teddy stood up with another groan. “Well, I’d best be off. I still have some errands to run for the council.”
“They’re working you too hard, Dad,” Mom said as he went to stand in the middle of the room. “They treat you more like a pack mule than a representative.”
He smiled at her, but didn’t disagree. “Take care, everyone. Especially you, Henry!”
“Love you, Grandpa,” I said.
He turned, and was gone. Mom sighed. She worried about Grandpa Teddy. We all did.
“Here,” she said, tossing me the remote.
Grinning, I flipped through the channels until I found a rerun of Oops, I Married a Giraffe. Mom rolled her eyes, but didn't complain as I propped up my feet on the coffee table and started giggling.
“Honey,” Jeremy Jeroff whined, “your parents put killer bees in my toothpaste again!”
We sat quietly for a few minutes, but then a shadow passed in front of the screen. I looked up in surprise to see Ethan. He looked awkwardly at me, then awkwardly at my mom, and then sat down next to me without saying anything — awkwardly.
“You finished your homework already?” I asked.
He looked down at his lap. “It was, uh, really quiet in there. I didn’t like it.”
My heart sank into my stomach. School and…certain after school activities…had managed to keep him occupied all day. But now that he was home and the excitement was over, there was nothing to distract him from his memories of the last few days, and the feelings they must have brought with them. In the end, he’d decided that spending more time with me was better than being alone with his thoughts.
“So, uh,” I said, “tell us about yourself.”
He shook his head, and I frowned. I felt bad for how I’d treated him over the past couple days. Legitimately bad. I wanted to make up for it, but how could I do that if he kept clamming up like this?
“Okay then,” Mom spoke up. “Let’s talk about us.”
Ethan looked at her, confused.
“What can we do to make this house feel more like home to you?”
I shrank back into the couch with a soft groan. Whenever Mom asked questions like that, I always ended up with extra chores.
“It’s fine,” Ethan muttered.
Mom folded her arms. “That isn’t the voice of someone who’s fine.”
His face reddened a little, but he just shook his head again.
“Taco time, everyone!” my dad called from the kitchen.
“Dude, just answer her,” I said. “She’s not letting any of us go until you do.”
“Why do you care?” he asked. “It’s not like I’m family.”
Mom’s face suddenly turned stern. “Young man, as long as you’re in this house, we do consider you family. And family doesn’t talk like that to each other.”
Ethan gave her a cold look, but it didn't last long before melting away to leave him looking ashamed.
“Do you,” he asked hesitantly, “have any colored pencils?”
“Colored pencils?” I looked at Mom. “Why?”
“I…draw sometimes,” he admitted, blushing. “Comics. Stupid stuff, but—”
“You draw comics?” I leaned forward with a new interest. “That’s awesome! What are they about?”
“N- Nothing,” he said, trying to scoot further away from me. “They just…help sometimes. So if you have any colored pencils…”
“I don’t think we do,” Mom said. “But I can run out and get some tomorrow!”
“What?” He held up a hand. “No, you don’t have to—”
Mom nodded. “It’s settled, then! I’ll have a nice set of colored pencils here for you when you get home from school tomorrow.”
“If we’re giving gifts,” I said with a grin, “I’d love a new—”
“Don’t push it, young lady.”
I sighed. It was worth a try.
Mom stood up with all the authority of a councilwoman dismissing an assembly.
“Now,” she declared proudly, “let’s go eat!"