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Chapter Twenty Two

“Ha! Now, Gira Hakanebra, prepare to feel the enamel corroding power of…the Shadow Brush! Ha ha ha HA ha!”

 

“No, Cavitarrus, it is you who shall fall. You’ve never understood…the…true power of…FRIENDSHIIIIP!”

 

It was Sunday afternoon. I was lying on the couch, half asleep, while a rerun of Shikai Warriors: Jaws of Heaven played on the TV. I had no idea what the story was, but that was fine. You don’t need Shakespearean writing to justify pointy haired anime dudes fighting each other with giant toothbrushes.

 

Ethan sat nearby, silently doodling on the sketchbook Mom had bought for him along with the colored pencils he’d asked for. Mom and Dad were out running some boring grownup errand, leaving me with unregulated access to the TV and the can of whipped cream in our fridge. Now that my sugar high was fading and there was nothing good on, I was growing bored.

 

“Your plaque destroying powers are impressive,” said Lord Cavitarrus, “but you will never defeat me!”

 

“That’s what you think! I have yet to show you my ultimate attack! Razorfloss Web of the Divine Molars! HYAAAAAA!”

 

“N- No! Impossible! Such power!”

 

My eyelids began to droop…

 

“You have to choose what’s more important, Henrietta.”

 

I jerked back awake with a snort that made Ethan glance over at me. It had been a week since Ichabod had given me his ultimatum — betray my family or lose my job — and true to his word, he hadn’t told anyone about how I’d left Ethan alone at Uncle Junk’s shop. As for what I was going to do…I was trying my best not to think about it.

 

Forcing my mind away from the stressful subject, I found my mind drawn to the masked man instead. I hadn’t seen him since Feverdream Field. That worried me. Not because I wanted him to show up again or anything, but because I had no idea what he was up to.

 

Ask them about the farms.

 

The show went to commercial, and I rolled onto my back to stare at the ceiling. What he’d said was haunting me almost as much as Ichabod’s threat. Farms? What did a farm have to do with me? It might have helped if he’d told me who I was supposed to ask. The only people I interacted with, besides my family and friends, was the Council of Shnoob. Did they have any farms? That made a little sense, I guess. Klaons have to eat just like anyone else, so I could see how farming and livestock might be something they’d have a hand in. But why would a masked psychopath with poisonous laughter care about that?

 

Maybe he wants to use his laughter to poison our food supply, I mused. But no, that didn’t make sense either. Even if the council was in charge of farming, it wasn’t like we all got our food from the same place. Mom and Dad bought groceries from the store, and Mom had a little vegetable garden out back. I’d never thought about it, but that was probably true for most of klaon society.

 

Maybe “they” weren’t the council at all. Maybe “they” were somebody else entirely. But that just put me right back where I started. Who did I talk to enough that the masked man would associate me with them? Maybe…

 

My stomach growled, chasing thoughts of mysteries and conspiracies away. Never save the world on an empty stomach, Dad always said.

 

“Hey, Ethan,” I said. “Wanna go get Chinese?”

 

He shook his head and kept drawing.

 

“Oh.” I thought for a second. “Hey, Ethan. Wanna go get a burger?”

 

“No thanks,” he mumbled without looking up from his sketchbook.

 

“Mmm. Hey, Ethan. Wanna go—”

 

“Henry!” He finally looked up at me. “I just want to draw. If you want to do something, go without me.”

 

“I can’t,” I grumbled. “You know what the council will do.”

 

“Who’s going to know?”

 

“Ichabod’s probably staking the house out right now.”

 

He looked at me for a few seconds, then shook his head and sighed. “If I split the cost of a pizza with you, will you order one and leave me alone?”

 

I sprang to my feet. “Do warthogs fart over a thousand times per day?”

 

“I…have no idea.”

 

“Me neither. But yes, I’ll leave you alone.”

 

“Fine! I have ten dollars in my room.” Grumbling to himself, he set his sketchbook down and went upstairs. My eyes were immediately drawn to that sketchbook. From here, by the flickering light of the TV, I could make out some vague shapes and colors, but nothing specific. Curious, I walked over and picked it up.

 

Backfire: The World’s Worst Superhero! the cover proudly declared. Beneath the title was a picture of a muscular guy in brightly colored tights. His eyes were crossed and his hair was on fire. I smirked and turned the page.

 

Backfire and his team were racing across town in the Backmobile — I snorted — to stop the insidious Professor Blunderbuss from blowing up The Great Chinatalian Buffet. The drawings were pretty good. Way better than I could have done.

 

“Don’t worry, Metropitown!” Backfire shouted, leaning his head out the window as he drove. “We shall save you!”

 

He swerved around a corner, nearly creaming an old lady. I chuckled. For a guy who never laughed, Ethan could be funny when he wanted to.

 

“Slow down, Backfire!” yelled Lady Magnificent. “You’re going to kill somebody!”

 

“Nonsense,” Backfire argued. “I’m the good guy!”

 

“One must always follow the rules of the road,” said Slugthug, who took up the entire back seat. “Even if one is a superhero!”

 

“If I see Juan, I’ll tell him that! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m busy breaking the law!”

 

I smiled as I turned the page again. This one showed the Backmobile flying towards a busy intersection — and perched above it was Backfire’s nemesis. The Mother of Traffic Jams, Scourge of Rush Hour: Red Light Roxanne!

 

“Backfire, you need to stop!” said Lady Magnificent as Roxanne turned from green to yellow.

 

“I have time!” Backfire argued.

 

Roxanne laughed with malicious glee, her putrid yellow light glaring down on the Backmobile.

 

“Backfire, hit the brakes!” yelled Slugthug.

 

“I can make it!”

 

Roxanne turned red.

 

The next three panels were dramatic closeups of the heroes’ faces, Lady Magnificent and Slugthug looking terrified while Backfire glared defiantly up at the evil mutant stoplight . He sped into the intersection…I turned the page…

 

The collision with the semi-truck took up the entire sheet of paper.

 

“Ouch,” I whispered.

 

The Backmobile was decimated. Flipped upside down, it skidded across the street until it plowed into a bus stop. I cringed. Oddly violent for a silly comic, but okay. The next page had nothing but gray, unfinished sketches. It looked like I’d gotten as far as Ethan had drawn. But in the incomplete mess, I could make out Backfire dangling upside down, held in place by his seatbelt. Lady Magnificent and Slugthug were…

 

I almost dropped the comic.

 

They were dead.

 

“Hey!” My head snapped up just before Ethan yanked the sketchbook out of my hands. He looked furious. “What’s wrong with you?”

 

I held up my hands. “I was just looking.”

 

“I didn’t give you permission to look! You…You…” I was shocked to see tears in his eyes. “This is private!”

 

I looked at the notebook in his hand, then at him. “Ethan, are you okay? That comic…”

 

“Shut up!” he screamed. Turning, he stormed up the stairs. “I can’t believe you, Henry!”

 

I went up after him and grabbed him by the wrist. “Ethan, wait! Talk to me, okay? Whatever’s wrong, I want to help.”

 

He turned to glare at me, and I took a step back in shock. There was such a hurricane of emotions in his eyes that I was afraid I, being part emotion myself, would get sucked in.

 

“I- I’m sorry,” I gasped, taking a step back.

 

“You can’t help,” he said in the most venomous voice I’d ever heard. “And even if you could, I wouldn’t want you to!”

 

“Ethan…”

 

He slammed his door.

 

 — —

 

Mom and Dad got home a couple hours later, but neither me nor Ethan would answer when they called us to come down for dinner. They’d tried to find out what was wrong, but had eventually given up and left us alone. That was fine. I don’t think I could have eaten anything anyway. Not after seeing the look Ethan had given me earlier.

 

I rolled over in bed, staring blankly at the Three Stooges poster on my wall. I hadn’t treated him right at first, I admit that. But after I’d pulled him out of Feverdream Field, I had tried to change. I’d actually wanted to be his friend. I still remembered the way he’d taken my hand at Uncle Junk’s store, and the tiny bit of joy he’d squeezed out for me. But somehow, by reading his comic, I had hurt him. Really hurt him. I didn’t understand why, but he saw what I’d done as some kind of betrayal. There was one thing I did understand, though.

 

Whatever had been happening between us, I’d just ruined it.

 

I looked at the clock. Half past eight. What a rotten way to end my Sunday. Alone in my room, glooming it up while my former friend threw a pity party down the hall.

 

No. I sat up. I’d worked too hard to let it end like this. Not without a fight.

 

Getting out of bed, I crept as quietly as I could down the hallway. Mom and Dad were downstairs watching an Adam Sandler movie like they did every Sunday — our shameful family secret. But I didn’t want them hearing me and trying to get into the middle of things. This was between me and Ethan.

 

I stopped just outside Ethan’s door. I could hear him muttering something on the other side, along with a weird droning hum, like he’d set up a bug zapper in his room.

 

I knocked softly. “Hey, Ethan? Can I come in?”

 

The muttering stopped, but the humming didn’t. I waited, feeling hopeful.

 

“Go away,” he finally said.

 

I sighed. “Listen, I just want to say that I’m sorry. I don’t know what I did that was so wrong, but I won’t do it again. Promise.”

 

Silence.

 

“Are we good?” I asked. “Ethan?”

 

“I said go away!” he told me again, louder this time.

 

I scowled at the door, temper rising despite myself. He must have thought I’d left, because he started muttering again. The humming grew a little bit louder. Something tickled the back of my brain when I heard it. Whatever he was doing, it sounded familiar in a way I couldn’t quite place. Holding my breath so he wouldn’t hear me, I gently pressed my ear against the door.

 

“Cogito et creo,” I could just hear him say. “Cogito et creo. Cogito et creo.”

 

He was saying it in a weird sort of rhythm, like he was following the beat of a drum that I couldn’t hear. I furrowed my brow. What was he saying? It was weird, but the low, monotonous chant he had going almost sounded like a…

 

I froze.

 

Oh, horseradish sauce!

 

“Ethan!” I grabbed the knob and threw my shoulder against the door, crashing into Conrad’s old room. “Ethan, stop!”

 

Ethan looked up at me in surprise. He was sitting cross legged on his bed, with a thick old book lying open in front of him. In his hands was the last thing in the world he should have been holding: McGus’ crystal spellhammer. I swore under my breath when I saw how brightly it was glowing. The vibrating hum was so strong now that it was making my hair stand on end. I reached for it — but I was too late.

 

The spellhammer exploded with light.