Authors: R.J. Ross
"The email. It's not there anymore. It disappeared."
"What do you mean it just disappeared? You just read it to me!"
"I don't know what I mean, I just mean that the moment I pushed the print button the email disappeared! It says ‘this post could not be found,’" he says, scowling darkly. "I'll check the other folders," he decides, clicking on the mouse. "No. No. No, no, no--it's gone. It's completely gone. It's not in the junk or the drafts or the deleted--it's just like it was never here," he says, looking as if he's going to cry. His fist comes down on the desk next to the keyboard, hitting it and cracking it. "Dang it!"
"We still have to go," I say. "We have to tell them what happened."
"And why would they believe us?" he asks, turning his chair so he's looking at me. "Two foster kids saying that they're being stalked by a super villain? Yeah, I'd believe that."
"Then--then what about him?" I ask, starting to feel desperate.
"No. Technico. What if he believes us?"
"I--I doubt it."
"We've got to try something!" I say. "And--and if anyone can handle Maximum it's another super villain, right?"
"But we don't even know for sure--"
"Sunny. Look in a freakin' mirror already," I almost bellow. "You look just like him! He's going to believe us!"
"Fine. Whatever. Go pack your stuff," Sunny says, standing. "We're leaving. It's the least we can do. Last thing we want is for Maximum to show up here."
I pause. I think about it.
"Zoe!" Sunny snaps.
"What? Some of those jerks deserve it!" I protest.
"Just get your things," he says and heads past me to his own room.
"But how are we even going to get in to talk to him?" I ask.
"We'll figure that out when we get there," he says.
It doesn't take long for us to pack, but by that time the entire house is there, getting ready for dinner. We have no choice but to stick around, eat, pretend that we aren't planning on bolting the moment everyone heads off to their rooms for bed. It's agony. Each time someone asks me to pass something I find myself jerking and looking at them blankly for a second before Sunny passes it for me.
"So, Zoe, you seem a bit distracted," Marge says. She's the "mother" of this foster family. She's the one that decided it was a brilliant idea to take in five kids that didn't belong to her. Don't think she's all that altruistic, though. She's making plenty of government money off of this. Her husband, Richard, is sitting across from her, silently shoveling food into his mouth. Clearly this is Marge’s job, just like everything else that has to do with the foster kids.
"I'm fine," I say, playing with my food.
"She's--she's got um... boy troubles," Sunny says, earning a sharp look from me. "It's nothing big. We'll take care of it."
"Oh?" Marge asks. I can feel the rest of the table turning to look at me, and I can practically hear the smart-alec comments brimming to the surface. At any moment Jack is going to make a joke, or a crack--I look at the older boy. He's staring at his plate with a strange expression on his face. Slowly, as if feeling my hate-filled gaze, he looks up at me. Now he's going to say something. I can feel it. Ten, nine, eight--
Jack looks down at his plate again.
"What kind of boy troubles?" Marge asks. The moment is gone, temporarily. Jack, the biggest jerk in the house, has said nothing.
"Nothing," I say, pretending that it’s just a high school problem. "He's just a guy." That can hold an entire super bowl hostage, I add silently. "He's interested in me, I guess. But I'm not that interested in him." Lie. How can you not be interested in the guy that could kill you and possibly knows where you live? But I'm not interested interested or anything. I mean, you don't see me plotting out "my first boyfriend the super villain" novels or anything. I'm just... interested. Yeah. I'm digging a hole, aren't I? Forget I said anything. There's probably a better word--ANYWAYS--
"Well if he causes you too much trouble you come talk to me, understand?" Marge says. "We'll have a talk with your school."
"Yeah, sure," I mutter. "Can I be excused? I've got homework to do."
"But you've hardly touched your food--" she starts out. I hand the plate to the kid next to me, stand, and storm to my bedroom.
"I'll talk to her," I hear Sunny say. He's behind me a few seconds later. "Patience," he whispers. "If we act too strange she's going to know something's happening."
"I want to leave," I hiss. "Can we go now?"
"No. They're already watching us," he says quietly. "Was it just me or was Jack acting strange?"
"Jack always acts strange," I say, but I know he's right. I don't care. We have bigger problems to worry about. "How did he do it?" I finally ask as Sunny closes my bedroom door behind us. I share the room, but my roommate is still at the table, so we're alone.
"I dunno, he didn't make a crack about you being too ugly to attract a guy?" Sunny says.
"What? Not Jack! Forget about Jack! I mean Maxi--Max! How did he delete that email? It's got nothing to do with gravity--"
"He's a hacker or has a special program, or something," Sunny says, dropping down on my bed. "It's pretty obvious--I mean, he got into the Hall email account, I'm sure he can figure out a way to delete an email that he sent. I’m betting he’s smart. Super villains are supposed to be smart, right?"
"I was hoping you wouldn't say that," I say, dropping down next to him. "You know they always say that super villains are a lot smarter than the heroes, right?"
"They can't be that smart. They get caught, right?"
"Brute force. I wonder how they caught Technico," I say, my mind going back to the man we had spied on that day.
"Brute force," Sunny says. "Look--I know you don't think we should, but--but I think we should go to the Hall first. They're not stuck in prison, and it's their job to protect citizens, in the first place, right?"
I don't want to admit it. I stare blindly at the annoying poster of the teenage heartthrob Justin on my roommate's side of the room, trying to come up with a logical reason to go to Technico first. There isn't one.
"Fine," I say finally. "We'll go there first."
"Now... we just wait," Sunny says, looking at the same annoying poster that I'm looking at. "Does she still like him?" he asks abruptly.
"Yeah," I say. "I guess he's kinda cute."
I glance at my bag. It's sitting against the wall next to the window, just waiting to be grabbed. I can hear people from the dining room all the way here. I'm pretty sure it's because of my newfound powers. Yippee. Look, Ma, I can hear like a dog! But even spying on them the conversation is boring.
"Hey, who do supers date, anyway?" Sunny asks abruptly, making me look at him blankly. "No, seriously! Clearly they have kids, right? Because I don't remember being bitten by a radioactive plant, and I know you weren't bitten by a computer. So either we were experimented on and don't remember it, or we inherited it--which is what you've been saying ever since you saw that chapter on Technico during Super Awareness week at school," he says. "So who do they date?"
"Our mom," I reply dryly.
"That's the worst joke I've heard all day."
"What's really funny is that it's not a joke," I say, leaning and resting my head against his shoulder. "I'm tired of this already, Sunny," I whisper. I feel like crying. Life is hard enough with our mother disappearing a year ago. We've not heard from her, not a letter, not a phone call, nothing. It's like she disappeared off the face of the world. We were dragged into the system quickly and stuck here. Yay.
Awkwardly Sunny wraps an arm around my shoulders. "Yeah," he says. "But what about us? I don't know about you, but I'd like to get a girlfriend someday in my life."
"Nope, no urge for a girlfriend whatsoever," I say straight faced. "I mean, they're cute and all, but I think I like boys better."
"You know what I mean," he says, making a face as I grin up at him. "Think there's a cute little super hero girl out there that doesn't mind a skunk hairdo?"
"Mom," I say. "She hooked up with Technico, right? Maybe."
"I said super hero," he says. "And one not related to me."
"First let's focus on living through this," I tell him. "Then we'll talk about heroes and girlfriends."
"Yeah," he says, leaning back against the wall behind us. A second later I realize he's fallen asleep where he's sitting. I will never know how he manages to do that, but I'm a bit jealous. It promises to be a very long night. I move a little closer and close my eyes, trying to get comfortable for a moment. Before Mom disappeared, we would have never done something like this. But now? We are all we have in this world, and we know it. It's a lonely way of life.
I hear the door open a bit later and I crack an eye open, watching as my roommate peeks in then steps back out, closing the door softly behind her. "Time to go," Sunny says, making me pull back and look at him.
"But your stuff--"
"I'll go get it, you go out the window," he says, standing. "I'll be out in a minute."
"You'd better," I say, grabbing my bag and heading for the window. It's dangerous. We probably should wait longer, until we're certain that everyone's asleep, but I'm not going to. I want out of there. Slipping the shoulder straps of my bag over my shoulders I open the window, climb out, and close it behind me before dropping down the ten feet or so to the ground.
"Where are you going?"
The voice makes me jerk and whirl around, my heart leaping into my throat. Jack steps out of the shadows of the nearest tree. He's got a cigarette in his mouth. "I don't think you should do this. This is how stupid little girls just like you get into serious trouble."
"It's none of your business, Jack," I hiss. Is he going to alert the adults? I wouldn't put it past him. "Go away."
"Are you really supers?" he asks.
I jerk, speechless. What do I say to that? But before I can come up with a reply I hear a window opening behind me and my brother comes out, dropping down next to me. "Let's go," he says, heading for me. He looks at Jack. "He won't say anything."
"How do you--"
"Because I know. Jack isn't going to say a word, are you, Jack?" Then Sunny grabs my elbow, tugging me along. I dread the moment when Jack lets out a shout, or heads into the house to tell them, but all the guy does is stand there, his cigarette absently burning down to a butt as we walk away.
I forget to breathe until I can no longer see him. "I don't trust him," I say, pulling my arm away from Sunny's hold. "I bet he's going to rat on us."
"He won't," Sunny says. "I've got some stuff on him that he doesn't want people to know."
"Like the fact he's got a thing for you."
"Wh--wha--WHAT?" I yelp. "Ewwww! I feel dirty--you're SO lying," I accuse him. "Jack hates me! Almost as much as I hate him! Ew, I feel sick--I think I'm going to throw up," I say, looking for a bush. "You're lying. Please tell me you're lying."
"Fine, I'm lying," he says.
I look at him sharply, knowing that tone, but I don't want to push it. Seriously, I really do feel sick to my stomach at the idea of Jack liking me. Whether Sunny's lying about him liking me, or lying about lying, I don't really want to know. I just want to get to the Hall--no, I don't even want to go there, I just want this over. Sadly, that's not going to happen.
We walk on, heading down the middle of an empty street, not saying anything for a long time. We have to go to the city--which is a good three hour's walk from here. "Think we can afford to take the bus?" I ask.
"Not if we want to eat tomorrow."
"But a bus
fare's, what, a couple of bucks?"
"So is a cheeseburger."
The only sound is out feet on the concrete. A chill presses against my skin and I shove my fists deeper into my pockets. "What kind of trouble?" I ask suddenly.
"Jack said that running away like this is how girls like me get into a lot of trouble. What kind of trouble?"
"Probably stuff we don't wanna know about."
"Yeah. But how does he know about it?"
"I think Jack's been in a lot of homes," Sunny says with a shrug. "He's probably heard a ton of horror stories." The highway is looming in the distance. The easiest way to get downtown is to go on the highway, but I guess it's also the easiest way to get killed.
"I wish we could fly," I say, trudging on. It looks like we’re going to have to travel through the woods alongside the highway--
"It's a nice ability to have."
That--that wasn't Sunny that said that. You heard it, right? I'm not just imagining things--but Sunny's looking up now and I'm almost afraid to do the same because of his expression.
"Now why are you two heading for the highway?" the male asks as I slowly force myself to look up. Yeah, it's not Sunny talking. It's not Technico, either (just in case you were wondering.) There, floating above our head as if he's lounging on a lay-z-boy, is most definitely Maximum. He's got a big gulp slushee in his hand and is taking a long drag off the straw even as I stare at him. "Wow, you are majorly cute," he says to me.
Forgive me if I don't think it's a good thing that a super villain compliments me. No, I'm not blushing. Seriously, that's not a blush! Okay... maybe its a little blush. So sue me, he's kind of cute even with a mask on! I bet, like, the biggest super villain in history was kind of cute, too. I glare at him to try and cover up how flustered I feel. This is the bad guy. The guy that ran us out of our home--
Okay, maybe not entirely a bad thing.
But still! He held the entire super bowl ransom. He is NOT someone I want to be messing with. And he's totally in my face now. Yes, while I was trying not to blush he was landing in front of me and--
"You're kind of short, aren't you?" I blurt out.
Wait... did I seriously just ask him that? He's staring at me like I did. Okay, if I wasn't blushing before, I am now. Like, so bright that I'm probably showing up in the dark.
"I'm five eight," he says. "And does it really matter how tall you are when you can fly?"
"What do you want with us?" Sunny asks, grabbing my arm and hauling me back, because clearly I am too stupid to know when to keep my mouth shut. No, that wasn't sarcasm. I meant it. Really, what kind of moron tells a super villain that he's short?? I might have powers, but I'm not anywhere close to Maximum's league! I don't even know how to use them! I'm so dead. I would leave my stuff to Sunny, but I doubt it'll fit him.
"You're like me," Max says, still watching me closely. "I have plans. I want to put together a team."
"What, like the Mini-Hall?" Sunny asks. "No thanks."
"Not a super hero team. A super villain team. I can help you control your abilities. We can take over the world with a little bit of effort! And besides, if you come with me you won't have to go back there."
"Can we think about it?" Sunny asks before I can turn him down flat.
"Sunny!" I hiss. "Are you--"
"Just--just let us think about it," Sunny says. "Tomorrow! You already planned to meet us tomorrow, right? So wait until tomorrow--we'll give you your answer then."
"I wish I could," Max says, shoving his spiky black hair out of his face. "I really wish I could believe you. But there's a reason you're heading for the highway, now isn't there?"
"We're not heading for the highway--we're heading for the seven eleven," I say, my brain finally kicking in. "We're going to get some cupcakes. We have to buy our own--they don't allow sugar in the house."
"I think you're lying," Max says, stepping forward and looking me in the eye. He’s short--but he’s taller than me. For a second I forget to breathe as his hand comes up, his knuckle touching the underside of my chin.
"Don't touch my sister," Sunny snarls.
"You wouldn't lie to me, would you, Zoe?" Max asks, ignoring my twin completely. My heart skips a beat. My hands are starting to sweat and I can barely breathe. I wonder for a moment if he's using his abilities, but I'm pretty sure he's not. He's just... overwhelming.
"I'm not lying," I grit out. "I want a cupcake."
"Then why don't I go with you?" he asks, tugging off the simple mask he's wearing. "I could use a cupcake, too." All I can do is let out a breath as his hand stops touching me. My heart is pounding recklessly against my chest and I feel light headed. He isn't much older than me, I remind myself. He looks like a typical teenage boy without the mask--and I was right. He is seriously cute. Somehow that makes this situation even worse for me.
"You can't go in like that," Sunny says, pointing at the black and silver skin-tight uniform that Max is wearing. "Everyone will know who you are--"
A zipper sounds and Max steps out of his uniform, revealing a pair of shorts and a white tanktop. Now he looks exactly like a regular teenager, I think, trying not to stare. Especially when he grins at me. Oh man, that grin--
Stop. Stop, stop, stop! Maximum is NOT a cute teenage boy to stare at or even put on a poster on my wall like that Justin guy (he's cuter, though, my mind whispers.) He's a super villain. Su. Per. Vill. AIN. Bad guy! A really bad guy! Wow, I wonder if this is how Mom felt--
"You coming?" Max asks, jerking me back to reality. Somehow he's produced a pair of flipflops.
"How do you fit that outfit under that thing?" Sunny asks.
"Practice," Max replies. There's something different about his expression, almost as if he's excited. But I'm not supposed to be staring at him, right? Come on, help me out here! I'm pretty sure you're picking up on my problem, right? You can't say you've not seen someone really cute that's nothing but trouble before, right? How do you deal with it?
Eep--he just grabbed my hand! He JUST GRABBED MY HAND! I was too busy breaking the fourth wall to notice--now he's tugging me! I almost trip and fall. (Don't think you're off the hook, you know--I'm going to get that answer sooner or later, by the way.) Sunny's stepping forward and my mind is picturing just how my brother will look as a pancake on the street before Max lets go.
"I forgot my wallet," he says, patting his short pockets. "Crap."
"Left it in your other set of tights?" Sunny drawls.
"Well it's not like I'm going to carry my license around when working," Max says. "Oh well, I'll just rob the place," he decides cheerfully. Trouble. Serious trouble. It's worse that he's grinning at the idea.
"No you won't!" I say. "This is the closest place we can get snacks from--we want to be able to come back! Not to mention stealing is wrong!"
"I like how your first thought is self-preservation," Max says. "Do either of you have money?"
"Enough for one pack of two cupcakes," Sunny says. "Which is one for me and one for Zoe."
"How'd you get that slushee, anyway?" I ask abruptly.
"I stole it," Max says. "There was this kid just coming out of the place with it and I was thirsty." He takes another drink, as if only remembering that he's holding it now.
"And he didn't call the cops on you?" Sunny asks.
"For stealing his slushee," Max says with a bland expression.
"You mugged him!"
"I took his slushee, not his wallet. But I probably should have taken the wallet, now that we're going on a snack run. Wonder how far he's gotten..."
"Oh for crying out loud," I cry, getting a headache. "You can have half of my cupcake. Just don't rob anyone!"
"Promise?" Max asks.
"Yes, I promise," I say. I'm... confused, actually. You're confused, too, right? I mean, here you've got a guy that can lift giant things with his mind and we're arguing over cupcakes. I look at Sunny, who looks like he's got a headache. But Max is already heading into the gas station, as if he wasn't here earlier to rob some poor guy of his slushee. "Everyone put your hands--" I hear him say.
"MAX!" I bellow, racing in after him. He's insane! He's absolutely insane! Sunny reaches him first, wrapping his arms around him and pulling back.
"He's joking," Sunny tells everyone in the place. "He's just got a really stupid sense of humor." He gives Max a dark look, pushing the other teen away from the counter. "We're just looking for the cupcakes," he adds over his shoulder as I race after them.
"Your faces!" Max says, breaking out in laughter. "Oh man, that was too good!"
"It's not funny!" I say.
"No... it's a little funny," Sunny admits. I give him a dirty look and he shrugs. "No, seriously, you're a jerk, Max," he tells the other boy almost blandly. "You about gave me a heart attack." That definitely sounds like a lie.
Max grins. "Do you know how many of us there are?" he asks. "Teens or kids. Not adults. And even those, do you know how many of them are kept under wraps? Completely hidden--even with all the hacking I do of the Hall's information, I can't find them. We need each other, guys."
I get the feeling, strangely enough, that he isn't just trying to sway us over to his idea for an Anti-Hall league. Or maybe I'm just an idiot. Yeah, I'm really leaning towards the idiot conclusion. There's no way a super villain of Maximum's league has anything other than his own prerogatives on his mind.
"How many?" Sunny asks.
"Probably fifty five in all--but we're talking all over the world," Max says, straightening and starting to walk down one of the aisles of snacks. "In this town we've got... oh, counting the three of us, probably six or seven that have come into their skills." He picks up a three pack of cupcakes. "I haven't met them. I want to, though."
"For your idea?" I ask.
"Sure," he says, looking at the price. "Can you guys afford two fifty?" he asks.
Sunny looks at me and I can almost hear him thinking. "Yeah," he says finally. "We can afford it."
"Sweet! I get my own!" He hands the pack over to Sunny, who's digging out his wallet. "We'll keep looking around while you check out," Max says.
"I'm going with Sunny," I say, following my brother. It’s a dangerous decision, I realize belatedly. We're only here because we're playing along with a psychopath. It's not like we're friends with him. It's not like we're friends with anyone, really.
I don't think he is, either.
He's following along behind us, his hands in his pockets and a curious expression on his face as he watches me. I get the feeling, though, that I don't have his full attention. The bell over the door rings and he turns, looking at the person that just walked in. I can't help but follow his gaze.
I barely stop myself from saying Jack's name. The teenager is standing there, staring at the three of us at the counter with an expression that I can't read. Then he speaks. "Didn't get very far, did you?"
"Who're you?" Max asks.
"I think that should be my question," Jack says.
"Come on, Max," I say. "Sunny's paid for the cupcakes already." This time it's me grabbing his hand to tug him towards the door. Sunny follows us--the only problem is that Jack's standing in the way of the door.
"You think you're pretty tough, huh?" Max asks.
"I'm tough enough."
"No, kid, you're not," Max says, moving closer. Sure, Jack's a lot taller, so it seems a little ridiculous--or it should. I am completely on edge and have been since this entire thing started, so all it seems is dangerous to me.
"Max, come on!" I say, tugging at his hand.
"Move out of the way, Jack," Sunny says. "We're just getting a cupcake--it's got nothing to do with you."
"Who is he?" Jack demands. "Does it have something to do with you two being su--"
"He's my boyfriend!" I say a bit too loudly to cover the "S" word. I don't even have time to wonder when he figured it out. The entire world seems to go still as all three males look at me blankly. "You know, the guy we were talking about at dinner--he's not so bad after all, okay? So would you move already?"
Silently, with a rather shocked expression on his face, Jack takes a step to the right. Thankfully Max is just as stunned and I manage to haul him out the door. I should be stunned, myself, I know, but I don't have time! I'm the only one sensible enough to know that a fight between Max and Jack would be ridiculously one-sided.
"Are you a moron?" Sunny asks once we get to the parking lot. "Now Jack is going to tell the entire house you've got a boyfriend!"
"So? We were running away, anyway, right?" I say. "Don't yell at me, Sunny, I need to think!" My head hurts.
"So you're coming with me?" Max asks. I almost jump out of my skin, having forgotten for a moment that I was holding his hand. I'm still holding his hand. I'm... holding... Maximum's hand.
Oh for crying out loud, that's nothing compared to what I just did!
My face turns so red that I feel faint. "I--I was just--that wasn't--" I stutter, tugging at my hand. He's not letting it go.
"I don't mind," he says. "Y'know, using me to get rid of a guy. But if you're running away, that means you two have decided, right? You're going to join my group, right?"
I look him in the eyes. "You're acting, aren't you?" I say. There's a sharp look in his eyes that makes a mockery of his innocent tone. "You're making out to want to be our friend, but what you really want is for us to join your league of evil."
For a moment I swear there's a hint of hurt in his eyes. I almost take my comment back, almost feel the urge to beg for forgiveness, but then he straightens, appearing taller. He smiles slightly. "I almost had you, huh?" he says with amusement. "You're smart, too. I like that. But before anything else gets said--where's my cupcake?"