Yawning, I stumbled into the kitchen and sat down in the kind of frizzy haired, half asleep daze that only a Monday morning can give you.
“Morning, sweetie!” Mom said, freakishly chipper for this time of day.
“Mmmgfrm,” I replied.
“Henry,” Dad said around his toast, “open your mouth when you talk.”
Barely able to keep my eyes open, I reached for the Chocolate Frosted Cocobutts (with marshmallow turds). Pouring myself a bowl, desperately trying to keep from faceplanting into it, I added a few spoonfuls of sugar and started to eat.
Dad cleared his throat.
“What?” I mumbled.
He discreetly jerked his head toward Ethan, sitting across from me in his Batman PJs. He was trying to act natural, but I could see the way his eyes shifted back and forth, like he was afraid my parents would eat him if he looked away for too long.
“Oh, right.” I said. “You, um, sleep all right, Ethan?”
He gave me a haunted look. “Your brother has weird taste.”
I smirked. “Just wait till you meet him.”
We had moved Ethan into my older brother Conrad’s room. Con was off at college right now, so my parents used his bedroom as the guest room. And Ethan wasn’t wrong, Con’s choice of decoration was…unique, to say the least. Black walls, black curtains, black rubber bats hanging from the ceiling. His shelves and dresser were lined with at least a dozen skulls. Don’t worry, though. I know for a fact that only three of them were real.
“The council pulled some strings,” Dad spoke up. “Ethan starts school today.”
I froze with my spoon halfway to my mouth. “What?”
Mom chuckled. “You didn’t think he was going to sit around the house all the time, did you?”
Actually, that was exactly what I’d thought. This wasn’t his hometown, which meant he wasn’t enrolled in my school. And since I couldn’t go anywhere without him…can you say eternal weekend?
“He’ll be sharing all your classes,” Dad said. “That way you’ll never be too far from him.”
“Like a dream come true,” I muttered.
Our grandfather clock chimed the half hour, and I grabbed my bowl to drink my Cocobutts in one magnificent chocolatey slurp. Then I sprinted to my room, threw on some clothes, and slid back down the banister before Ethan had even made it to the top. Giving my red rubber N.O.S.E. a honk, I glanced at the mirror to watch my pure white skin turn pink and my blue hair darken to brown.
The scar on my forehead turned from blue to pinkish white, and I brushed my bangs so that they covered it. Mostly.
A couple minutes later, Ethan and I were walking down the sidewalk together. Burning Creek was a small town, so the school was only a couple blocks away. Mom and Dad said the town was “comfortably sized,” whatever the butt trumpets that meant. Personally, I didn’t see how any place without its own shopping mall and/or water park could be comfortable.
“So, uh,” I said after a few minutes of awkward silence, “how long do you think it’ll take for you to start laughing again?”
“Dunno,” he said softly.
“All right, cool, that’s fine.” I thought hard. “Do you have any hobbies?”
He shook his head.
“Play any sports?”
“What kind of music do you like?”
He turned and glared at me. “Were you dropped on your head as a baby or something?”
Before I knew what I was doing, I had grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him so we were nose to nose.
“Take…that…back!” I growled.
Ethan blinked in surprise. “Take what back?”
“I said take it back!” I raised my fist.
He tried to back away, but my grip kept him still. “What did I say? All I asked was if you—”
“If you say it again, I’ll Splatsy you so hard that you’ll poop out your own skull!”
Then I saw the look in his eyes. Fear. Almost as much fear as when he’d been snatched by the maiam yesterday. I forced myself to let go, take a step back, and breathe. He didn’t know. He was just a jerk saying jerky things, trying to bring me down to the same level of jerkiness as him. Even though my blood was still boiling, I forced myself to keep walking. A few seconds later, Ethan caught up to me.
“Fine,” he said grumpily, “if I have to talk to you, then you can start by telling me what you are!”
I curled my lip. “Charming. I already told you, I’m a klaon.”
“Okay, but what’s a clown?”
“Klaon. You’re mis—”
“Don’t start that again!”
“Fine.” I thought for a second. “To begin with, we’re not human. Obviously. I mean, we’re more like you than you might think, but…ugh, it’s too early for this!”
Ethan rolled his eyes.
“Okay, Mr. Grouchy Pants!” I snapped. “Tell me what a human is!”
He gave me a sideways look. “What?”
“Tell me,” I said again slowly, “what a human is.”
“But you already know what a human is!”
He sighed. “Fine, a human is a…” He paused. “They’re…”
“See?” I elbowed him, and he winced. “Not that easy, is it? Now shut it for a minute and let me think.”
We walked in silence again for another couple minutes while I tried to come up with an adequate explanation.
“The biggest difference,” I finally said, “besides the fact that we have way cooler hair and are born with awesome face tattoos, is that we eat emotions. Joy, to be specific.”
“How does that work?”
“Through laughter. Laughter is the universal language of joy. No matter where in the world you go, a laugh is a laugh.” We came to the street corner, and I spotted a group of elementary schoolers waiting for the bus. An idea came to me. “Wait here and I’ll show you. Hey, kids!”
They turned to look at me warily. Who was this random older girl, they were probably wondering, and should they go running for their moms? I walked up, grinned at them, and…
Farted like a hippo on Taco Tuesday.
“Well?” I asked with an expectant smile.
The kids stared at me in bewilderment. When it was obvious that none of them were going to laugh, I scowled and walked around them, hands in my pockets.
“What was I supposed to get out of that?” Ethan asked, jogging after me.
It wasn’t fair! If I’d been born a Red, or even a Purple, that fart would’ve had those kids rolling on the ground in absolute hysterics. I worked so hard, and got so little for it. What made a creep like Ichabod Hench deserve power like that, while I did my best to make do with stuff he wouldn’t even consider his table scraps? After a few minutes, though, I managed to calm down and take a consoling puff from my inhaler.
That gave me an idea.
“Here!” I held my inhaler in front of his face and sprayed it for him. “What do you see here?”
He cocked his head. “That you have asthma?”
“Wrong!” I sprayed it again. “If you were a klaon, you would see a rainbow made of mist coming out of it right now. That’s human laughter, packaged and preserved with my grandpa’s secret technique.”
“And if you don’t get it, then you turn into one of those things?” Ethan’s voice grew faint.
I paused. “No. That’s…something else.”
Suddenly, my inhaler felt like it weighed a hundred pounds.
“The laughter we eat has to be given willingly,” I said in a quieter voice. “Taking it — stealing it — like some kind of emotional vampire, has terrible consequences.”
“You turn into a monster?”
I nodded solemnly. “A maiam. But it’s more than that, Ethan. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the world kinda sucks. It’s filled with evil, and corruption, and other crappy, disgusting things. Laughter is one of the only things the world hasn’t ruined! And it’s part of us. Klaons like me are literally made of emotions. By stealing it, you’re taking something good and pure and turning it bad. And that turns us bad.”
Ethan looked at me, stunned.
“Sorry,” I said, clearing my throat. “But anyway, that’s where I come in.”
“Those guys on the council called you a hunter.”
“The Hunter,” I corrected him. “There’s always one. Someone the council chooses to do their dirty work, hunting down maiams before they can hurt anyone. McGus was the Hunter before me, and now he’s training me to be his replacement.”
“So he…sends you out on your own?”
I shrugged. “There’s no better teacher than experience.”
“But what if one attacks you?”
“Uh, that’s kind of the idea.” I patted Splatsy, who hung from my belt in ping pong paddle form.
Ethan looked at Splatsy and shook his head. “I guess what I’m trying to ask is, are you going to be able to keep me safe?”
I stopped in my tracks. That’s what this all came down to, wasn’t it? He didn’t care about me, my people, my culture, or anything. He just wanted to make sure he was going to live to not laugh another day. Could I blame him for that? I guess not.
But I did anyway.
“Yes, your majesty,” I spat. “I’ll keep your royal little heinie from getting any nasty booboos, okay?”
He scowled at my tone, but at the same time seemed to relax a little. Jerk.
We went around the next corner, and Ethan got his first look at Gumsplat Junior High. Only two stories tall, yet it seemed to tower over the rest of the town like the castle of an evil dark magician. Or worse, a mathematician (yuk yuk yuk!). Hung above the main entrance was a gray banner with “Go Slushies” painted in big black letters. Yes, our football team is called the Slushies. Personally, I would have called them the Smears, since that’s what the other teams turn us into, but I guess a slushie is easier to make a mascot costume out of.
“Just so you know,” I said, heading in, “my protection only covers maiam attacks. If you get swirlied, you’re on your own.”
Who knows? I might even be the one swirlying him.
Going to school with Ethan was exactly like going to school without Ethan. First there was math with Miss Rutherford, who still hadn’t forgiven me for my little “piranha incident” last semester. After that was history with Mr. Dunning, who doubled as our PE teacher, and would sometimes hurl dodgeballs at us to make sure we were paying attention. After that was science with Mr. Eckles, who had once threatened to light me on fire. I liked him.
Anyway, nothing really interesting happened until lunch.
“Hallelujah!” I proclaimed when Ethan and I sat down together. “What favor the lunch gods have shown to us today. Behold, fairy poop!”
“And this!” I prodded the jiggly green cube they’d given me. “I had no idea humans had learned how to farm slime monsters! Most impressive.”
“But this here,” I eyed the mushy lump of meat and…not meat…that was my main course. “I admit, I have no idea what this is.”
“That’s…” Ethan paused. “Actually, I don’t know what that is either.”
“Only one way to find out!”
I shoveled a heaping spoonful into my mouth. Then I froze, eyes bulging out.
“Okay, that was a mistake,” I said, grabbing my napkin and spitting it out. “But at least I know what it is now.”
Ethan gave me a flat look. “Pray tell.”
“Chicken nightmare casserole!”
He rolled his eyes, and I scowled at him. I could still smell his pent up laughter every time he opened his mouth, making my stomach growl. I knew the council expected me to bring him back when he learned to laugh again so they could fight over how to distribute it, but…well, they couldn’t really blame me if I just so happened to tell the world’s funniest joke and ended up taking it all for myself, could they?
The problem with that is, I’m…well…
“BEHOLD!” yelled the more-than-welcome distraction.
Someone popped up beside the table like a Whack-a-Mole and slammed his fist down in front of us, making Ethan fall out of his seat with a scream. The newcomer, a short guy with mischievous green eyes and a bright red buzz cut, opened his fist to let a shiny speck of gold fall onto the table.
“The product,” he said, “of patience, skill, and all around awesomeness.”
I broke into a grin. “Aesop, you little goblin, is that Mr. Rothington’s gold tooth?”
“Maybe.” He snatched it up and pocketed it in his oversized camo shirt.
“How on earth did you manage that?”
Aesop wiggled his fingers at me. “A master thief never reveals his secrets!”
“Excuse me,” Ethan said, picking himself back up, “but who are you?”
“You’re at our table,” a quieter voice spoke up. “Who are l”
Another tray clacked down onto the table next to me, and I looked up to see a girl with the hood of her black sweatshirt raised despite being indoors, the long bangs of her raven-black hair hiding the right half of her face. The left half, however, was surprisingly beautiful — as evidenced by the stunned look Ethan gave her.
“Henry?” the girl asked expectantly.
“Guys, this is Ethan,” I said. “The council says I’m on babysitting duty. Ethan, this is Aesop O’Gale and Jade Xiwang.”
“Oh ho, so Henry’s found herself another little lost puppy, has she?” Aesop leaned forward with new interest, then held out his hand. “Well, top o’ the mornin’ to ya, boyo! Pleased t’be makin’ ye acquaintance!”
Ethan shook his hand, but looked at me. “Did he just change accents?”
“Yeah. You’ll get used to that.”
“Ach, don’t know what ye’re talkin’ aboot!” Aesop protested, grinning. “Tis only natural for a wee leprechaun like meself to speak in the tongue o’ Mother Ireland!”
“It’s not even a very good acc…” Ethan paused. “Wait, did you say leprechaun?”
Aesop’s grin grew even wider.
“You’re kidding!” Ethan looked at him, then at me. “He’s kidding, right? Leprechauns aren’t real.”
I smirked. “He said to the magical clown girl.”
“You haven’t told him anything?” asked Jade skeptically.
Ethan turned to look at her. “What are you supposed to be, then?”
The eye that wasn’t hidden by Jade’s hair narrowed, but she didn’t answer. Before Ethan could press her, I reached across the table and slapped the side of his head.
“Ow!” he complained. “What was that for?”
“Why don’t you just ask her how much she weighs while you’re at it?” I snapped. Luckily, we were saved from further awkwardness when Aesop slammed his hands against the table again, scaring Ethan out of his seat a second time.
“I’ve got it!” he declared.
I leaned forward in excitement. The look in his eye could only mean one thing: chaos.
“What’ve you got?” I asked.
“If he’s going to be part of the gang,” Aesop said, eyeing Ethan with undisguised malice, “then he needs to be initiated.”
“Oh, ho!” I chuckled, a grin spreading across my face. “Now you’re talking! What’re we gonna make him do?”
“I already hate the sound of this,” Ethan grumbled.
I ignored him. “Let’s make him bungee jump off the floating cliffs.”
“Boring!” Aesop said.
“Then…he could steal a diamondfruit from the Ancient Fangwood!”
Aesop rolled his eyes. “Math class is scarier than that.”
“Fine,” I huffed, folding my arms. “What’s your brilliant idea, Mr. Picky McChoosy?”
A grin spread across the young leprechaun’s face, reaching almost all the way to his eyes. Across from me, I saw Ethan shiver.
“How about,” Aesop said, relishing the suspense, “we make him run through Feverdream Field?”
My mouth fell open, spilling the bite of jello I’d just taken down my shirt.
“Aesop O’Gale,” I said slowly, “you are a genius!”
“What’s Feverdream Field?” Ethan asked.
I turned to my other friend. “What do you think, Jade?”
The hooded girl shrugged, picking at her food. “Do we have to?”
“Then it’s settled!” Aesop decided. “We’ll meet at Wombo World after school.”
“I have to bring McGus his Escher Cube first,” I said with a grimace, “but we’ll be there right after.”
Aesop stood up to his less-than-impressive four foot height. “Got it! Jade and I’ll go on ahead and set things up. You bring the meatbag and meet us in the Dusk Dimension.”
They left. Once we were alone, Ethan gave me his dirtiest look yet. “Why do I suddenly get the feeling that I’m in danger?”
I gave him a smug little smile. “Because you are.”