It was way too hot to be in a car without air conditioning, Gerard thought. He could feel his face sticking to the window. They'd probably have to pry him off with a crowbar or something when they actually got there. At least the seats weren't leather. Then he'd be sticking to those, too.
Are we almost there?
He didn't bother looking over at Mikey. It was too hot. "I don't know," he mumbled. "Ask Mr. Ross."
"What's that?" asked Mr. Ross from the front seat. He didn't seem too interested, but then, Mr. Ross hadn't seemed too interested in about much of anything since he came to pick Gerard and Mikey up.
I don't want to ask him. I'll sound like a little kid.
"You are a little kid," Gerard muttered, but he raised his voice to ask, "When do you think we'll get to the group home, Mr. Ross?"
Mr. Ross blinked slowly in the rearview mirror. Gerard could just make out the bandana he wore to keep his hair out of his eyes. "Um. I don't know. We're close. Another ten minutes, maybe?"
Good, said Mikey. I'm getting carsick.
"Why don't you talk out loud?" Gerard asked under his breath, giving his brother a poke in the shoulder. "Mr. Ross is gonna think I'm a weirdo."
Like he's one to talk. Mikey raised his eyebrows up over his glasses, somehow managing to look expressionless and mocking simultaneously.
Gerard wondered if Mikey'd be willing to teach him that trick—they did look sort of alike, and they were brothers, so it wasn't fair that Mikey managed to hide himself so completely when Gerard sucked so bad at hiding anything at all. At least, it felt that way sometimes, especially now that Mikey'd retreated into himself and left Gerard to deal with all the strangers who'd popped up over the last week or so. Sometimes Gerard thought he'd burst from the pressure of convincing them all that he and Mikey were normal.
"So. Um, are you guys okay back there?" asked Mr. Ross. He sounded kind of nervous, which Gerard found strangely reassuring.
"We're okay," he said.
"Right, right, that's good," said Mr. Ross. He was a lot younger than most of the social workers on Law and Order, Gerard thought. Maybe that was why he looked like such a hippie.
"I know you guys are hurting right now," Mr. Ross went on, and Gerard kind of wanted to put his fist through the window. It sucked enough that Mama'd died without people reminding them about it every five minutes. "But the guy who runs this place is, like, my best friend in the world, and he's a great guy. You're probably a little freaked, but trust me, you'll be okay there, all right?"
He doesn't know what to say, Mikey said. That's why he's rambling and stuff.
"I know," Gerard said, both to Mr. Ross and to Mikey. It was kind of a pain having two conversations at once. He missed the days when he and Mikey and Mama would sit around in the living room and talk—Mikey talked out loud all the time then, and even when he didn't, Mama seemed to get what he meant anyway and Gerard didn't have to translate. Mama was so cool. Sometimes Gerard still hoped that he'd wake up, and find that it was all a dream, Mama hadn't died, they weren't on their way to some orphanage run by stupid hippie Mr. Ross's best friend….
Mikey leaned over to put his head on Gerard's shoulder. It's okay, he said. Don't cry, Gerard.
"Hey, I'm the big brother," he mumbled into Mikey's hair. "I think I'm the one who's supposed to say that."
You said it last night when we were packing up our stuff. My turn now.
Mr. Ross looked uncomfortable in the rearview mirror, but Gerard didn't really care. "Hey, Mikey, Gerard," he said, "there it is." He pointed.
Gerard hadn't been paying much attention to the scenery, but he detached his face from the window to pull back and look outside. They were driving up a long driveway in a big, bright green lawn. Gerard could see a basketball court by a small parking lot, and a bunch of kids were playing on it. A lot more kids were playing frisbee and soccer on the lawn, and it looked like a group was getting a kickball game together. Gerard felt part of himself freeze with nervousness inside. He'd never seen so many kids in his life, except maybe at school assemblies, and now he was going to have to live with all of them.
I hope we get our own room, Mikey said, and Gerard felt a little better to know Mikey was nervous about it, too. Sometimes it was hard to tell with Mikey.
Mr. Ross pulled up in front of a huge white building. A sign by the door said, "Smith Children's Home," and a guy with longish hair and a goofy-looking beard on his round face was standing by the sign. When the car stopped, the man came and opened Gerard's door. "Hey," he said. "You must be Gerard."
"Yeah," said Gerard, stepping out of the car. The guy shook his hand.
"And you must be Mikey," he said, and he waved at Mikey. "I'm Spencer Smith. You can call me Mr. Smith, or Spencer if you want. I don't really care. Did you have a good trip?"
"I guess," Gerard said. It really hadn't been that exciting. Mikey nodded and looked around, and Mr. Smith—or maybe Spencer, people usually didn't ask you to call them by their first names unless they actually wanted you to—looked over their heads to grin at Mr. Ross.
"How was traffic?"
"Ha, ha," Mr. Ross said sarcastically, and Gerard felt a little embarrassed. He loved Monroeville and everything, but it was super-small, and he felt kind of like a hick when people pointed that out. It wasn't like this place was in some huge city, either. "I've got their stuff in the trunk," Mr. Ross went on. "You want to give us a hand with it?"
"Don't I have people to do that?" Spencer asked, but Gerard thought he was probably joking, and when Mr. Ross opened up the trunk, he took a suitcase along with the rest of them.
"You two lucked out," Spencer said as they carried their stuff up the stairs. This place was totally cool, Gerard thought. It was a big old-fashioned house with intricate wood-work everywhere and high ceilings, the kind a ghost might haunt. It was brighter than most haunted houses, but Gerard thought it still had that creepy feeling of living history about it. And best of all, it had air conditioning. "Mostly we have four kids to a room," Spencer went on, "but we actually just lost a few kids—I mean, we didn't literally lose them, a family wanted to adopt them, but you totally don't care. The point is that you guys'll get a room to yourselves, at least for a while."
Yes! said Mikey, and Gerard said, "That's awesome," feeling relieved. The idea of sharing a room with somebody who wasn't Mikey or Mama kind of freaked him out.
It was a little room, with two sets of bunk beds against one wall, two desks against another, and four little chests of drawers against the wall with the closet. The walls were plain white, and all the furniture was brown fake wood. Gerard felt kind of like an ungrateful jerk for missing the gray and black wallpaper and the wrought-iron bed in his room back home, but he couldn't help it.
"I know it's looking kind of boring right now," said Spencer, "but if you want, you guys can put posters or pictures up. As long as you don't actually mess up the walls, anything goes." Something about Mikey caught his eye and he said, "Wow, that's really cool." He bent over and tapped Mikey's starcase.
It was a little box made of thick metal with two stars on the lid. Mikey kept money and his Gameboy games in it. Sometimes Gerard thought the two stars were supposed to be him and Mikey, but there really wasn't any way of knowing.
"Thanks," Mikey said, holding it up so Spencer could look at it better. Spencer's eyes widened, and it took Gerard a minute to figure out that it was because Mikey'd spoken out loud.
"That's Mikey's starcase," he said. "He's had it as long as we can remember."
"Oh, man, it opens?" asked Mr. Ross. "A starcase. That's awesome. I don't think I've ever seen a case like that before."
Mikey shrugged, and Spencer straightened up. "Well, you guys can leave your stuff here," he said. "I know you're probably tired, but we have some paperwork to fill out downstairs."
Mikey made a face, and Spencer laughed. "Don't worry," he said, "it's not too bad. Just some basic information and stuff. And after you're done, it'll be just about time for dinner, and you can meet everybody else."
Gerard actually preferred the idea of filling out forms to the idea of meeting all the kids he'd seen outside, but it wasn't like they got a choice in the matter either way. He looked wistfully at the backpack with his sketchpad and comic books in it before grabbing Mikey's hand, the one that wasn't holding the starcase, and being ushered downstairs by Spencer and Mr. Ross.
"This place doesn't seem so bad," he whispered to Mikey.
It's too big. And our room's too small. Mikey squeezed his hand tighter. He had a pretty tight grip for such a skinny kid. I wanna go home.
Me too, thought Gerard. He'd never had the knack Mikey did for talking without his mouth, but maybe if he thought loud enough, Mikey'd know what he meant, anyway.
They came to a hallway with a lot of closed doors—classrooms or offices, maybe. Another man poked his head out of one of them. "Oh, hey, new kids!" he said with a broad smile. "And Ryan Ross!"
"Hey, Brendon," said Mr. Ross with an easy smile. "This is Gerard and Mikey."
"Awesome," said Brendon, walking out into the hall. He had purple, sparkly shoes, and Gerard couldn't help staring at them. Seriously, sparkly shoes?
"Cool, aren't they?" Gerard jerked his head up, embarrassed, but Brendon didn't seem mad. He was still smiling, and there really wasn't anything mean about the smile, either. Gerard tentatively reached out with his mind, trying to feel things the way Mikey did all the time, and didn't feel anything but curious welcome coming from Brendon.
"I've never seen shoes like that," Gerard said.
Mikey added, At least, not on someone who wasn't a little girl, and Gerard frowned a little at him. Mikey liked unicorns, so he totally wasn't in any position to be making fun of other people.
"And you probably won't again," said Spencer dryly.
"You laugh, Smith," said Brendon, "but these are totally one-of-a-kind shoes." He turned to Gerard and Mikey and explained, "We did a craft day with the little kids once where we decorated shoes, and I made these babies."
Now that he was looking closer, Gerard could see that the sparkles did look kind of haphazardly glued on. "That's cool," he said hesitantly, and Brendon's smile got even bigger.
"Well, I can already tell that you've got good taste!" He held out a hand. "I'm Brendon. Pleased to meet you."
Gerard took it and shook hands, feeling a little overwhelmed. "I'm Gerard," he said, "and this is my brother Mikey."
"Pleased to meet you, too," said Brendon, waving at Mikey, who was still holding onto Gerard's other hand. "You guys down here for the forms and stuff?"
"Yeah," said Spencer before Gerard could answer. "But they'll be done in time for dinner. Make sure they don't end up sitting by themselves?" Gerard couldn't decide whether he was more pissed off at the idea that he couldn't make friends by himself or the idea that he wasn't going to be able to escape sitting with other kids at dinner.
Brendon didn't seem to pick up on his irritation, though. He just said, "You know it! Good seeing you, Ryan, and it was nice to meet you, Gerard and Mikey." With a final wave, he went down to the end of the hall and disappeared as he went around the corner.
"Speaking of paperwork," said Mr. Ross, "I've got to get back to CPS and fill out some forms, too."
Spencer sighed. "Yeah, okay. Give me a call this weekend about movie night."
Mr. Ross nodded. "Yeah, okay." He gave Gerard and Mikey an awkward little wave and said, "Good luck, you guys."
"Um, thanks," Gerard said. They watched as Mr. Ross's spindly form went the way of Brendon's.
He's like a scarecrow, Mikey said. A scarecrow from the 1960s. Gerard couldn't help but giggle.
Spencer gave them a little smile. "He does kind of look like a hippie Amish dude these days, doesn't he?" He rolled his eyes. "Swear to God, that guy gets weirder all the time. He's pretty awesome, though, and he's a good social worker." He jerked his head towards one of the doors. "Wanna get going on this paperwork?"
No, said Mikey, but he went with Gerard and Spencer into what looked like a school library.
There was already a kid in there, writing at a round table. He had bleached blond hair shaved in a weird pattern and his tee-shirt was dirty and ripped. When he looked up, he gave Spencer—or maybe Mikey and Gerard—a grin that made Gerard a little nervous.
He looks like one of those kids in the D.A.R.E. videos, Mikey said. The ones that try to make you do drugs with peer pressure. Gerard nodded, not wanting to say anything that might piss off Spencer or the D.A.R.E. video kid.
They walked over to the table with Spencer, who produced a couple of packets of paper from a folder in his messenger bag. "Frank," he said, "this is Mikey and Gerard. They're gonna be filling out some forms, but just because they're here doesn't mean you can blow off that paper."
"Yeah, I know, Spencer," said the kid—Frank—with a smirk. "Don't worry about us."
Spencer snorted. "Right. Well, just remember, I'm gonna be in my office, right down the hall, and the walls in this place aren't that thick." With a kinder look at Mikey and Gerard, he said, "They shouldn't take you too long. My office is the second door on the left, so when you're done, just bring the forms back and we'll go to dinner."
Gerard nodded, and Spencer smiled and left. With a sigh and a nervous look at Frank, he picked up the packets and handed one to Mikey.
The questions didn't seem that hard. There were some about their parents that he couldn't answer, but it wasn't like this was a test. Nobody knew about their parents, so Gerard and Mikey couldn't get into trouble if they got the questions wrong. Some of them were about school, and those were pretty easy to answer. A lot of them seemed like questions you'd ask if you were getting to know somebody, and they went pretty quickly.
What should I put for "sports?" Mikey asked.
Gerard shrugged. "I don't know. I'm putting 'spectator.'"
Mikey grinned at that. Ha. Spectator, that's good.
From across the table, Frank gave them a weird look. "Dude. You thinking out loud, or what?"
"Oh," Gerard said. "I was just…." He glared at Mikey and scribbled on the back of his form, TALK OUT LOUD!! THIS GUY'S GONNA THINK WE'RE FREAKS!!! Mikey gave no answer, vocal or otherwise, pointedly ignoring Gerard as he wrote out answers. Gerard sighed, smiled apologetically at Frank, and went back to trying to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up.
"Introductory forms, huh?" Gerard looked up again at Frank, who shrugged. "They're not so bad. So what happened, your foster parents get sick of you?"
Gerard frowned. "No. Our mom died."
Frank's face fell at that. "Oh. I'm sorry."
"That's okay," said Gerard, shrugging uncomfortably. He didn't want to talk about it. Just thinking about it made him want to cry, and he didn't want to cry in front of this kid.
"It's just, most of the kids here," Frank said with an expansive gesture, "well, you know, we're kind of the rejects. Like, if you get thrown out of a bunch of foster homes and they can't find any more for you, they send you here."
Great, said Mikey.
Gerard shrugged again, not sure how to respond to that. "Um, okay."
"They're into, like, therapy and all this new-age discipline shit." Frank pointed to the paper he was writing. "Like, okay, I broke this kid's arm, right? I mean, I didn't mean to or anything, but he was calling Greta a whore, and that shit won't stand, you know what I mean? So, anyway, we started fighting, and I pushed him down, and he broke his arm. And most places, they'll give you a lot of grief for that, but Brendon, we just sat down and talked about it for like a half an hour and then he said I had to write a paper about how I felt about breaking stupid fucking Paul's arm and why I did it and how I'd solve my problems better in the future."
Frank sure cussed a lot for someone who looked like he was about ten, Gerard thought. But then, if he went around breaking people's arms, maybe that wasn't so surprising. He gave Frank an appraising look. He was really little, littler than Mikey even. Maybe Gerard could beat him in a fight. Maybe the kid whose arm he'd broken was, like, six, and he wasn't really as intimidating as he seemed.
"What are you staring at?" asked Frank with a frown.
Gerard could feel himself flushing, scrambling for an answer that wouldn't lead to a fist fight or whatever, when the sound of the door opening saved him. "Yo," said Spencer, walking in. "Didn't I just tell you I could hear everything from my office?"
"Hey, I'm practically done!" said Frank.
Spencer gave him a flat, unimpressed look. "Uh-huh," he said. "Why don't you go finish in Brendon's office and call him in when you're done to go over it?"
"Why don't you bite me?" muttered Frank.
"Frank," said Spencer, a warning in his voice.
Frank got up. "Fine, I'm going, I'm going," he said, and he left the library without even looking back.
Gerard heaved a sigh of relief. Spencer raised an eyebrow at him, but he was smiling. "Frank's a good kid," he said, "just has some issues with impulse control." He sat down where Frank had been sitting and said, "How are those forms coming along?"
Mikey slid his over without a word. Gerard frowned at his, but really, there was a limit to how much you could write about your favorite class in school, so he said, "I'm done, too," and handed the packet over to Spencer.
Spencer looked over them for a long minute, then set them on the table and breathed out loudly. "Now, I'm not gonna pretend to know how you guys feel," he said, "but I'm gonna guess you're kind of scared and missing your mom right about now."
Gerard nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Mikey reached a hand over to grab at Gerard's.
Spencer scratched at his beard. "That's gotta be really hard, and if there's anything I can do to make you guys feel better, I hope you'll let me know. We have a really great counselor—Brendon, you met him earlier—and he's awesome at talking about this kind of stuff." He pulled out another packet of papers from his bag and made a kind of uncomfortable face at them. "I feel terrible asking this, but the state likes having their records as complete as they can get them, and for all we know, you might have relatives out there looking for you. Now, you guys are legally Mikey and Gerard Minnelli, after your mom. Would you maybe have any idea what your last name was before then, or anything about your parents?"
Gerard had asked Mama about that stuff a million times, until she'd snapped and said, "Gerard! Hon, I can't tell you what I just don't know!" He and Mikey were like those two stars on Mikey's starcase, coming randomly together out of space dust. Like they'd just appeared one day from nowhere. But he couldn't say all that to Spencer, so he said, "I don't remember. I was, like, five, and Mikey was three when Mama adopted us." That was Mama's best guess, anyway.
"Five?" Spencer frowned. "You don't remember anything before then? I'm not trying to push, but just…if you remember anything at all…."
Sometimes Gerard thought he dreamed about before, where he and Mikey had come from, but he never remembered it in the morning. Mikey, though…
Cold. Wet. His clothes are weighing him down, he can feel them dragging him down through the water, into the cold darkness beneath, but he's clinging to a piece of driftwood, a man's holding his hand, keeping him from floating away—
They weren't Gerard's memories. They were sort of emanating in a wave of cold fear from Mikey, who was just staring out into space like he did sometimes, like he was looking at something in some other dimension that ordinary people couldn't see.
"Mikey?" Spencer asked, sounding worried. "Are you okay?"
Mikey nodded slowly, and then, to Gerard's surprise, he said out loud, "I'm sorry. I can't remember anything." And then to Gerard's horror, a couple of tears slipped from under his glasses.
Before Gerard could grab him and wrap him in a hug, Spencer was already out of his seat and putting his arms around Mikey. "Hey, hey. You don't have anything to be sorry about. It's okay. It's okay." Mikey sniffled into Spencer's shoulder, and Gerard found himself wishing Spencer would hug him, too.
As if Mikey'd heard his thoughts—and knowing Mikey, he probably had—he reached an arm out towards Gerard, laying it on his shoulders and pulling him closer. Spencer seemed pretty willing to include Gerard in the hug, too, so Gerard went with it and maybe, just for a minute, he pretended he was home in his living room hugging Mama.
After a long moment, Spencer pulled his head back. "You guys all right?" he asked. Mikey nodded. "You gonna be okay to go to dinner?"
"I guess," Gerard said. Somewhere in all the stuff that had happened that afternoon, he'd gotten really hungry.
"Well, okay then." Spencer stood up, keeping an arm around Mikey's shoulders. "Let's go eat." And they walked, the three of them, to dinner, Mikey holding Gerard's hand the whole way.
Frank loved summer. It wasn't like he hated school or anything, but summer was awesome. You could do anything—you could go play tag, if you could get enough other people to do it with you, you could sit around and play video games, you could lie in the grass and just feel the sun on you, you could even sit in the library and read, if that was your thing.
This summer, Frank's thing was kickball. It was like baseball, except you didn't have to screw around with a lot of equipment, and the ball was easier to catch. You didn't necessarily have to be good at anything to play kickball, which was why Frank was sort of hoping he could get Gerard and Mikey to play.
He didn't even know why he cared. They were sort of weird, and it wasn't like they went out of their way to talk to him or anything. In fact, he wasn't sure Mikey even could talk. At least, he'd never heard him. And Gerard seemed kind of afraid of Frank—-well, Frank and everybody else at the Home. Neither of them ever wanted to hang out with anybody; the two of them spent all their time huddled together in the library or in the woods, never talking to anybody but each other. Frank kind of regretted telling Mikey and Gerard on that first day about how the Smith Home was like the House of Misfit Kids or whatever, but how was he supposed to know they'd be such little pricks about it?
Still, Frank wasn't a dick. He knew that they had to be real freaked out, if this was their first time in a group home, and he was perfectly willing to hang out with them even if they were super weird. They just had to let him.
So Saturday morning, he sat next to Jamia at breakfast and planned out a big kickball game. Jamia was the coolest girl ever. Frank wanted to have her on his team, but she wanted to be the other captain, and since she was actually better at kickball than Frank, he figured she probably ought to get her way.
They went out to the baseball diamond and Frank looked around for the Minnellis. It was still early—they couldn't have wandered out too far. He finally spotted them sitting under the slide on the playground and he nudged Jamia. "Hey," he said, "I'll take Gerard if you take Mikey."
"Why?" asked Jamia. "It's not like they're gonna play, anyway."
"They might if we pick them," said Frank. Now that he thought about it, he didn't think they'd ever been picked for a team since they'd gotten there. And if you weren't much of a sports person, you might never play if you didn't get picked.
Jamia frowned like she was thinking about it. Finally she said, "Fine, but you get Mikey."
"Fine, whatever," said Frank, though he'd been hoping to maybe start a conversation with Gerard, and Mikey was kind of a shrimp. Not that Frank could talk, but still.
They shook hands on it and then picked teams. It was kind of a mixed bag—Frank got Darren and Ashlee, who were pretty good, but he also got Chris, who had asthma, and Bill, who tripped over his own feet sometimes. At least Jamia got stupid Paul, whose arm was still in a cast. Frank wasn't in the mood for another fight.
Finally, they were down to the Minnelli brothers. "Hey, Mikey!" Frank yelled. On the playground, Mikey looked around like he was trying to figure out where the noise was coming from. Frank yelled again, "Mikey, over here! Come play on my team!"
Mikey and Gerard both stood up then, Mikey looking confused and Gerard looking suspicious. "We're playing kickball!" Frank added.
The two of them had one of their weird silent discussions, and for a minute Frank thought they were just going to sit back down under the slide. Finally, though, Mikey shrugged and walked over. Slowly. God, he was really gonna suck at kickball, Frank could already see it.
"Gerard, you can play on my team," said Jamia, and Gerard bit his lip and followed his brother. It didn't look like he was exactly Speedy Gonzales, either.
As it turned out, they were both really bad. Not like Frank had suspected any different. The first inning, Gerard totally whiffed on the ball and almost fell over. Bill, who was catching, laughed, and Gerard sighed and rolled his eyes. Mikey wasn't any better. Frank put him in the outfield, where he didn't even look at the ball, but just stared at the sky and periodically pulled out some blades of grass.
Still, even with Mikey's nonexistent left field abilities, Frank's team managed to keep Jamia's from scoring throughout the whole inning, which was pretty good considering how hard Jamia kicked the ball. They switched sides, and Frank, who was the first in the kicking lineup, assessed the field. Greta was pitching. She was good, but pretty short, so Frank could probably get it over her head. The Butcher was playing shortstop, and his arms were like eight miles long, but Frank was pretty sure if he kicked it more towards third base, the Butcher wouldn't even notice because he was wiggling his eyebrows at Adam, who was on second. Yeah. Yeah, he was totally getting at least a double out of this one.
Greta let the ball go and Frank's foot connected with it solidly. Oh, man, he thought as he watched it fly over the Butcher's head, that's a home run! And he ran.
He didn't take the time to watch it as he rounded the bases, but out of the corner of his eye he saw it head over to the woods behind center field. Gerard was the only one covering the field out there, so Frank wasn't too concerned.
But then Gerard jumped, and Frank actually stopped running for a second to look. Because he'd never seen anyone jump like that. Not even in the Olympics on TV. Gerard was actually up near the top of a fucking tree, and not a little tree, either. And while he was up there, he caught the ball before falling back through the shorter trees to vanish in the brush.
"Ha!" said Jamia. "You're out, Frank!" Like she hadn't even noticed Ripley's Believe it or Not going on in the woods back there.
"No way," said Frank, trying to think of how Gerard could have possibly caught that ball. Finally, he said, "He climbed on something, that's cheating."
"How's that cheating?" asked Greta. "I mean, if he did it before the ball hit the ground, it still counts, right?"
"No, no, no!" Frank was getting a little pissed, now. "There's no trees on a real baseball field. You can't just climb on something to catch a ball. It's like—-like using a prop or something, it's cheating!"
Gerard came stumbling out of the woods with the ball under his arm. "Hey, I caught it," he said with a little smile. "Does that mean you're out?"
"Oh, screw this!" said Frank, and he ran over to knock the ball out of Gerard's arm. Shit, he'd put up with weirdness, he'd put up with Gerard Minnelli being an antisocial judgmental asshole, but he was not gonna put up with being cheated and then being made fun of about it.
"What?" Gerard looked surprised and kind of scared. "I caught it."
"Nobody can jump that high, you prick," Frank said. "You stood on something."
"No, I didn't," said Gerard, and Jesus, he was the worst liar in the world, chewing on his lip and giving his brother nervous glances the whole time.
"Yeah, you did!" Frank was so pissed off he could barely speak, and he shoved roughly at Gerard. "Cheater!"
"I'm not a cheater," said Gerard indignantly. "I don't even like this stupid game. You're just mad because I got you out."
And there was something smug about the way he said I got you out that made Frank even angrier. He didn't care if Brendon made him write a hundred stupid essays, he was gonna teach this kid that nobody cheated Frank and lied about it and then got away with it. "You didn't get me out!" he bellowed, barely even paying attention to Jamia's rolling her eyes and the interested crowd gathering around. "I was safe. I scored. You're the one who should be out!" And he threw a punch right to Gerard's stupid smug face.
But it didn't hit Gerard's face, it hit the ball. The ball, which was suddenly floating in the air in front of Gerard's head, and didn't move when Frank hit it. And Gerard's head was about fifteen feet further back than it had been, as if in the blink of an eye Gerard had managed to jump backwards farther than Frank had ever jumped forwards in his whole life.
"The hell?" Frank heard Bill mutter. There was something genuinely weird going on here, but that thought didn't totally penetrate the haze of anger around Frank's brain, and he ran forward and struck out with his fist again.
The ball hit him in the stomach, pushing him down and knocking all the air out of him with a painful whoosh, and Gerard was staring at him with a weird, creepy look of intense concentration in his eyes. There wasn't any noise—Gerard hadn't hit or kicked the ball. It had just flown on its own into Frank's stomach.
"Holy crap," Jamia muttered. "You okay, Frank?"
"Yeah," Frank managed, staring at Gerard. How was Frank supposed to fight with someone who could…what, control kickballs with his mind? Jump a thousand feet? What the hell else was he gonna do?
Not that much, apparently. The look of concentration faded from his eyes, replaced by a scared expression. He ran over to grab his brother's hand, and the two of them ran off into the woods. Nobody tried to stop them. Nobody said a thing.
Nobody felt much like kickball after that, so they went to the lounge and watched Animal Planet until lunchtime. Frank looked around the cafeteria for Gerard and Mikey, to see if they might do other weird stuff, but they weren't there, not even sitting alone in the corner like they did sometimes.
After lunch, Jamia wanted to play capture the flag, but Frank begged off. He wanted to figure out what the deal was with the Minnelli brothers. He couldn't believe that everyone didn't want to find out what the deal was, actually, but he wasn't gonna complain. Maybe this could be something that was just his, a secret that nobody else knew about.
Of course, he had to find Gerard and Mikey first, which proved to be harder than he'd originally thought. They weren't in any of the places Frank usually saw them, in the library or the lounge or on the playground. He even went to their room, which he'd never seen. It looked pretty much like all the other rooms in the Home, except they'd hung some cool drawings of comic book characters and vampires and dragons and stuff on the walls. He stopped to admire them for a minute before continuing the search outside. He didn't want one of the adults to catch him in another kid's room without permission.
He wandered around the woods behind center field for a while, and then the woods behind the basketball court on the other side of the house. It was a nice hot day, with warm sunshine filtering down through the leaves and making overlapping shadowy patterns on his skin. He wondered if anyone had ever tattooed leaf shadows on themselves, and if not, why not? They looked really cool, and it'd make a pretty kickass camouflage.
He was kind of getting bored, though, and he was about to go join Jamia's capture the flag game when he heard voices murmuring from one of the clearings a little ways away.
"You should have let him hit you. It's just a stupid game," said a kid's voice. Frank didn't recognize it, but it had to be Mikey, right? Apparently he could talk, after all.
"Mikey, he broke a kid's arm!" And Frank knew that voice, he'd know Gerard's scratchy, nasal voice anywhere. He felt a stir of indignation-—he'd explained to them about why he broke stupid Paul's arm, and how it'd been an accident--but he smothered it. This was way more important than rehashing that dumb fight again.
"Well, you should have made it look like he was winning, then," said Mikey. Frank crept a little closer, until he could see them. Gerard was curled up against a tree stump, drawing on a big pad of paper, and Mikey was leaned up next to him, reading a comic book. Frank hid behind a tree so he could watch them without being seen. "You promised, Gee," Mikey said solemnly. "We both did, we promised Mama. We weren't gonna do any weird stuff in front of people."
"Yeah." Gerard put down his pencil and let out a loud sigh. "I know. You're right. But it's not like you're any better at being normal. Everybody thinks you can't talk."
"That's dumb," Mikey said, turning a page. "Just because I don't want to talk to them doesn't mean I can't talk." He made a face. "You know he's hiding behind a tree listening to us, right?" Oh, shit, thought Frank.
"Who is? Frank?" And Gerard looked right at the tree Frank was hiding behind and frowned. "What are you doing?" he said, sounding sort of mad and sort of scared.
There wasn't any point in hiding anymore, Frank figured, so he stepped out from behind the tree and waved, trying to look as unthreatening as possible. "Hey," he said. "I just wanted to say…sorry about before. I guess if you can actually jump that high, it's not really cheating, so I shouldn't have tried to hit you. Truce?" He meant it, too—he wasn't one to hold a grudge, especially not against a kid who had super powers.
Gerard twisted his mouth into a weird frowny pout and stared at Frank through narrowed eyes before shrugging. "Yeah, I guess." For a long moment it was totally silent except for the leaves rustling and the birds chirping while Frank tried to figure out a way to say what he wanted to ask. Finally Gerard said, "Um. Did you want something else?"
Screw tact, Frank thought. You didn't see this kind of magic powers shit every day. "How'd you do that?" he asked. "With the jumping, and moving the ball, and stuff?"
Gerard winced, and he and Mikey had another silent conversation. Frank wondered if maybe they were psychic, too. That would explain why Mikey never talked. "I don't--" Gerard said, "It's not—it's nothing, it's not a big deal. I'm just a good jumper, is all."
"Are you kidding me?" Frank said incredulously. "You jumped, like, thirty feet in the air. That's not just being good at jumping, that's practically flying. And that thing you did with the floating ball—-what's that called, telekinesis or something?"
"Frank…." And Gerard looked really scared now, like he might actually cry, the kind of look some of the kids had when they got out of really bad foster homes. Mikey didn't look quite as scared, but his eyes were huge in his face and his mouth was drawn up in a short, quivering line. "Please," said Gerard. "Please don't…make it a big deal. I won't do it again, I promise."
"Dude, no!" said Frank. What the hell did he think Frank was gonna do, turn him over to some government agency to be dissected? As if. "I'm not gonna tell anybody, swear to God, but seriously, that's the most awesome thing ever. Of course it's a big deal!"
Mikey gave him a serious look, which was a lot funnier coming from a skinny kid with glasses than when it was coming from Spencer or Brendon or somebody. "You gotta keep it a secret," he said slowly. "Some kids found out back home and it sucked. Mama had to pull us out of school for a year."
"I just said I wouldn't tell anyone, didn't I?" said Frank, plopping down on a soft patch of moss near the Minnellis' tree stump. "What happened?"
"They thought we were devil-worshipers or something," said Gerard with a little half-shrug, like sure, totally natural to have people think you're a devil-worshiper. "They threw rocks at us and stuff."
Frank had to raise his eyebrows at that. Where'd they come from, Salem or something? He said firmly, "Well, you clearly went to school with stupid kids." He looked at Mikey, who'd drawn his knees up to his chest and was hugging his legs. He was wearing jeans, even though it was like a million degrees out. He and Gerard both were, actually, covered in jeans and dark hoodies like they didn't want anyone to see them, and Frank maybe got a little bit why they seemed so freaked out by all the kids at the Home. He reached out a finger to poke Mikey in the leg. "So do you have superpowers, too?"
Mikey flushed and smiled crookedly, which was kind of awesome. Frank didn't think he'd ever seen Mikey smile, at least not like that. "Kind of, yeah," he said. "I can sort of talk to animals and, like, open locks and stuff."
"With your brain?" Frank asked, and Mikey nodded. "God, that's so cool." Frank sighed happily. "So are you guys mutants, or what?" Usually the people in X-Men only had one superpower, but not always, and Frank didn't know enough about genes and DNA and stuff to say how accurate X-Men was. He'd always thought it was totally made up, but then, he'd never met any actual superheroes before.
"I don't know," said Gerard. "I guess."
"Did your mom have super powers, too?" Maybe they were a whole family of superheroes. Maybe their mom had died saving people from a burning building or something.
"No," Gerard said sadly. "But we weren't Mama's real kids. She adopted us when we were little."
"What about your biological parents?"
Mikey sort of shrugged with his eyebrows. "We don't remember them," he said.
Frank nodded, because that was something he understood. "I don't remember mine, either," he said. "They died in a car crash when I was two, and my grandpa raised me." Grandpa hadn't been a superhero, but he had been awesome. "He was a musician," he added, because that might not be as cool as being able to move shit with your mind, but it was still pretty sweet.
"Mama did musical theater," Gerard said, and Frank laughed. Not that musical theater wasn't cool, but it just figured that two kids who never talked to anybody and hid in the woods to read comic books would have a mom who got up on stage and sang and danced.
Before Gerard's frown could turn into another psychic fist fight, Frank said, "That's cool. Do you guys sing or anything? I'm trying to get a band together." So far he'd only succeeded in getting Bill to come sing, and then only if he played stupid Monopoly with Bill and Adam and the Butcher.
"I play the harmonica," said Gerard, and Frank nodded approvingly. Bob Dylan played the harmonica. They could work with that. "I can sort of sing, too," Gerard added, which was even better.
"What do you play?" asked Mikey.
"The guitar." Frank's grandpa had given him his guitar on his sixth birthday, had sat him down and shown him all the chords and how to tune it. It was the only thing he still had from the time he'd lived with his grandpa, aside from some photos.
Mikey said, "Awesome," sounding kind of wistful.
Now, Frank wasn't psychic like the Minnellis, but he had a pretty good guess why Mikey sounded like that. "You wanna learn how to play?" he asked. "'Cause I could show you, if you wanted."
"Really?" asked Mikey, looking about as excited as Frank had ever seen him. Not that that was saying much, because he mostly looked really bored or kind of scared.
"Yeah, sure," said Frank. "I mean, I'm not Jimi Hendrix or anything, but I know some songs and stuff. It's no trouble."
Mikey gave him another crooked smile, bigger this time, and said, "Thanks, Frank." He closed his comic book and looked at Gerard with an expression that Frank was starting to think of as his psychic message look.
Whatever he was saying, Gerard must have agreed, because he smiled, held out his sketchpad and said, "We're making a comic book. Wanna see?"
And at that point, Mikey and Gerard went from being the annoying antisocial kids, who were secretly cool because they had superpowers, to being friends. And being friends with them was gonna be awesome, Frank could tell already.
Things got a lot better after they made friends with Frank. Gerard had never really had a friend like Frank before, a friend who knew about what weirdoes they were and actually thought it was cool, a friend they could tell about Mikey's weird dreams or the pictures Gerard sometimes drew of stuff that hadn't happened yet.
Frank made them play sports sometimes, and they still pretty much sucked at them, but sometimes he'd also come hang out in their room. He'd teach Mikey how to play some simple chords on the guitar and then watch while Gerard drew pictures with his harmonica.
"Seriously," he said as he watched the crayon trace a straight line in mid-air to a wailing note in "House of the Rising Sun," "That's the coolest thing ever. Imagine how kickass that would be if you did it at a concert—like, you played your harmonica and dudes in the audience started floating in the air."
"They'd call the cops," muttered Mikey, who was running a hand over his starcase and staring at the ceiling. I wish I could make stuff move with the guitar, he added silently to Gerard, sounding vaguely sad and jealous.
Gerard frowned and hit him on the shoulder. Maybe Mikey couldn't do psychic stuff with musical instruments, but he could do a lot more with just his mind than Gerard could, which was probably more practical anyway. What kind of superhero stopped in the middle of a battle to play the harmonica?
"Hey, you're doing it again," Frank said, dangling himself over the top of the other bunk bed to glare at Mikey. "Talk out loud! I wanna hear!"
About a month after they'd come to live at the Home, Mikey jerked awake in the middle of the night, waking Gerard, too. Gerard, he said. For some reason his thought-voice was a million times more irritating than his actual voice when Gerard was asleep, and so Gerard groaned and put a pillow over his head. As if it would help. Gerard! Mikey said again, more urgently. Do you hear that?
"Hear what?" Gerard asked irritably.
It's a cat. Out in the woods by the basketball court. Mikey poked his head up from the bottom bunk, his eyes looking unfocused without his glasses. She's lost, and she's scared, he said. Some jerk dumped her from his car on the road, and she wandered here trying to find her way home.
"God, Mikey, can't it wait until the morning?" Gerard was seriously not interested in going out in the dewy, chilly night in just his skeleton pajamas. "Can't cats see in the dark or something?"
Gerard, Mikey said, and he was probably going for scolding, but he came across kind of pleading, and Gerard sighed and sat up.
"Fine," he said. "But if we get in trouble, I'm totally blaming you."
They put on their sneakers and carefully crept down the hall. The stairs were pretty creaky, but then, they were creaky even when nobody was stepping on them, so it wasn't like they were any louder than usual. It was a cool, clear night with a bright full moon, and Gerard had to admit there was something kind of exciting about being outside under that moon, walking through the wet grass and knowing that he and Mikey were the only ones awake.
"Okay," he grumbled as they made it past the basketball court. "Where's this cat?"
Mikey paused with a focused look on his face, listening. "This way," he said, and he vanished into the forest.
The woods were scary at night, full of opaque shadows and a million mysterious noises. The silvery moonlight made everything look almost two-dimensional, like paper cut-out trees set in a thousand overlapping layers. It was awesome, and despite the damp, Gerard totally regretted not taking his sketchpad.
Unfortunately, he didn't have time to enjoy it, because he had to keep up with Mikey, and Gerard really wasn't used to running through the woods at night. "Jeez, Mikey," he gasped, "slow down! This cat's not going anywhere, right?"
You don't have to keep up, said Mikey. It's not like I'm gonna get lost.
Mikey clearly didn't get that, as far as Gerard was concerned, being a big brother meant that he didn't let his little brother go wandering around alone in the woods at night. If he'd been good at sending thoughts like Mikey, he would have said that; instead, he saved his breath to concentrate on staying on the narrow path and trying not to trip over sticks and roots.
Finally, Gerard heard what Mikey'd heard from their room—-a soft, pathetic-sounding meow. Mikey practically ran the last leg of the trail and threw himself on a small, mottled patch of shadow in the dark shade of a pile of leaves.
He didn't say anything out loud, but Gerard could feel him soothing the cat even from a distance. The cat's frantic heartbeat slowed, and it started purring loudly. Gerard stepped closer to get a better look at it and scratch behind its ears. Even if they didn't take to him the way they took to Mikey, animals tended to like him.
But then he sneezed, and abruptly he remembered that he was allergic to cats. It was easy to forget at home—Mama never had cats around, and it wasn't like Mikey and Gerard went over to play at other kids' houses all the time.
"Man, I'm sorry, Gee," Mikey said, pulling his face from the cat's neck. "I forgot you were allergic."
"That's okay." Gerard tried to ignore the burning in his eyes. "We've still gotta figure out what to do with this cat."
"Bunny," Mikey said.
"What?" It was definitely a cat. The sneezing and purring kind of proved it.
"That's her name. Bunny."
Gerard wondered if the cat had actually told him that, or if Mikey just thought that Bunny was a good name for a cat for some reason. "Whatever," he said. "We're still not allowed to have pets, remember?"
"You think they wouldn't let me keep her?" Mikey frowned. "Jon loves cats." Jon was one of the teachers who tutored at the Home. Even though there weren't classes over the summer, he still hung around to run the summer reading program and referee basketball games. Mikey was right, he did love cats, but Jon wasn't in charge.
"Nope," Gerard said. "Spencer'll probably call the animal shelter. And you can't hide her in our room," he added before Mikey could suggest it. "Allergies, remember? I'm pretty sure Spencer'd figure out something was up if I couldn't stop sneezing and rubbing my eyes all the time."
"Hmm. Yeah." Mikey stared at the cat for a long time, like he was giving it a stern talking-to. Gerard shivered. As hot as it was during the day, he sort of wished he had a jacket now. "Okay," Mikey said suddenly, "let's go." He stood up, still clutching the cat in his arms.
Gerard wondered if he'd forgotten about the conversation they'd just had or if he was working out some plan to hide Bunny in the building. Either way, it seemed like a disaster in the making to Gerard. "Um, Mikey?" he said hesitantly.
"Bunny and me worked it out," Mikey said. "She can stay in the tool shed at night and then we can hang out outside during the day."
"Well, what's she gonna eat?" Gerard asked. Oh, there were so many things that were gonna go wrong with this plan.
Mikey looked at Bunny questioningly for a moment and then back at Gerard. "She likes meat and cheese and stuff. I can bring her food."
"Mikey…." Gerard began. He wanted to tell him that it was a bad idea—summer wouldn't last forever, and the shed was no place for a cat once it got cold, and didn't cats need to go to the vet for shots and things, anyway? But Mikey was looking at him, not even pushing at him mentally, just looking at him expectantly with big eyes, and Gerard wasn't gonna be the guy who pulled a kitten out of his little brother's arms. No way. "Okay," he said, sighing loudly. "For now."
Mikey beamed, and Gerard felt a little better. Together they crept back out of the woods and around the basketball court to the tool shed, where Mikey managed to leave Bunny with only one unhappy sigh. Their pajamas were wet, so neither of them even bothered to get back under the covers, but they lay on top on one of the Home's plain navy blue comforters in Mikey's bunk until they went to sleep. Gerard had weird dreams about chasing squirrels through the woods; even in the dream he suspected that Mikey was having some kind of dream-conversation with Bunny and passing it along to Gerard.
Despite Bunny's less-than-dignified appearance at their first meeting, she turned out to be a pretty kick-ass cat. Mikey must have explained the need for secrecy really well to her, because she somehow managed to avoid being seen by Spencer or Brendon or Jon or any of the other kids while still seeking out Mikey at every opportunity. She seemed to get that Gerard couldn't handle being around her too much, so she kept a safe distance while still coming across as friendly. And as far as Gerard could tell, she'd do just about anything to protect Mikey.
Every so often, the adults who ran the Home would take everyone on a field trip--not too often, because it was pretty expensive to take forty kids out to museums or the pool or a restaurant, but often enough that everyone was spared cabin fever. Back home, going to the movies hadn't been a big deal, because Mama had taken Gerard and Mikey for dinner and a movie all the time. It was pretty exciting now, though, as they waited for the bus to come, not the least because they were seeing the new Batman movie.
"The last one was so great. Usually, I don't like the movies where they tell you how somebody became a superhero," Frank said, "because seriously, who doesn't know Superman's from Krypton and Spiderman got bitten by a spider and stuff? But this one kicked ass!"
"Totally," Gerard said, thankful for the millionth time that Frank had turned out to be a comics nerd. "The casting was so great-—I mean, could you even imagine a better Alfred than Michael Caine?"
"He was a totally badass Alfred," Frank agreed.
Mikey nodded, but his face was worriedly blank. Gerard, he said, that Paul kid-—the one whose arm Frank broke-—he keeps looking at me.
Gerard turned to look. Mikey was right. Gerard didn't really know Paul or anything. All he really knew about him was that Frank didn't like him. But for some reason, since Frank had started hanging out with Gerard and Mikey—or maybe since Gerard had been stupid enough to show what he could do during the kickball game—Paul had been looming in a vaguely threatening manner around them. And the look he was giving Mikey now wasn't at all friendly.
Frank, who was a pretty observant kid, looked over and glared at Paul. "What are you looking at?" he snapped.
Paul sneered, and Gerard winced. He hoped this wasn't going to turn into a fight. Paul was a lot bigger than Gerard, and almost twice Frank's size, and even if Frank had broken his arm before, Gerard wasn't any too optimistic about their chances if he and Mikey didn't use their powers. He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as Paul strode over. "I was just looking at your little faggot boyfriend's jewelry box," Paul said. Before Gerard could even parse what he'd said enough to understand it or be insulted by it, Paul had grabbed Mikey's starcase.
"Give it back!" Mikey shouted, causing heads all around to turn. "That's mine!"
"Holy shit," said Frank's friend Bill. "It speaks!" Gerard gave him a dirty look, for all the good it would do.
Frank glared at Paul, looking almost as angry as he had the time he'd tried to hit Gerard. For all he was a really short kid, Gerard thought he was pretty intimidating. "Paul, stop being an asshole and give him back his starcase."
"Give him back his starcase," Paul mocked. "'Starcase.' What the fuck, Iero, you turning into some kind of freak like these two fags?" He dangled the starcase by the leather handle in its corner, swinging it around like a purse in an old-fashioned movie. Mikey's face went pale as he watched.
Gerard felt a fierce stab of anger under his fear. "What's your problem?" he said, stepping between his brother and Paul. "We didn't do anything to you."
"Oh, yeah?" Paul stepped forward, narrowing his eyes at Gerard. He had a really bumpy nose, like it had been broken a time or two, Gerard thought. He'd never seen it up close before, but it kind of reminded him of Liam Neeson's. "You're friends with him," Paul said, pointing at Frank with his broken arm. "Enough said."
Jamia rolled her eyes. "Jesus Christ, Paul. They weren't even here when you guys had that fight. It's not their fault."
"You stay the hell out of this!" Paul scowled at her before turning his glare back on Gerard. "There's something really fucking weird about you, Minnelli," he said. "What was that shit you pulled during the kickball game? Why the fuck doesn't your brother talk?" He held up the starcase and gave Frank, Gerard, and Mikey an ugly smirk. "And what the hell's in this thing?" He swung it back like he was going to throw it against the wall of the building. "I guess we'll find out."
Before Gerard could do anything about it, Mikey ran out in front of him, rushing at Paul. Gerard didn't have time to get out his harmonica or think of a plan. He just thought HELP ME!, as hard as he could, focusing all of his energy on keeping Mikey safe.
There was a horrifying screech, and then, as if out of nowhere, Bunny appeared, hissing like crazy. She ran faster than Gerard had ever seen a cat run before and leaped through the air, knocking the starcase out of Paul's hands and scratching his arms with fully extended claws. A couple of kids cried out in shock; Mikey broke out into a huge grin.
"Hey!" Spencer, who'd been holed up in his office talking to Brendon and Jon at the bus rental place, materialized in the doorway, glaring fiercely. "What's going on here?"
"There was a cat!" exclaimed Greta. "It…." She looked around—somehow, while they'd all turned their attention on Spencer, Bunny had made her escape.
"A cat?" Spencer said skeptically. "Because it looks like you guys"—he gestured towards Mikey and Gerard and Paul and Frank—"were about to get into a fight. Please, please, tell me you guys weren't getting into a fight on Movie Day, because I really don't want to have to find someone to watch you while the rest of us go see Batman."
Gerard thought his chest would burst with the unfairness of it all. How could Paul's taking Mikey's starcase and calling them names possibly, possibly make them worthy of punishment? Mikey, meanwhile, squatted down in the dirt to pick up his starcase and stood up to give Spencer a little smile, apparently oblivious to the travesty of justice about to be perpetrated.
Frank, who clearly wasn't happy about letting Paul off the hook but who also clearly didn't want to miss the movie, said, "We weren't fighting. Seriously, this cat just came out of nowhere and scratched Paul. It was freaky." Paul, who seemed to know a lucky break when he saw one, nodded earnestly.
Spencer frowned. He looked from one person to another with narrowed eyes, but, apparently more or less satisfied that either they were being honest or they just weren't going to talk, he finally nodded. "Okay," he said. "I'm gonna go back in for a sec and call Mr. Ross over at CPS about getting us some more chaperones. Nobody do anything. Paul, why don't you come with me and I'll see about getting some band-aids for those scratches?"
"Okay," Paul muttered. With a final, confused glare at Mikey and Gerard, he followed Spencer back inside.
As soon as they were gone, everyone started talking excitedly amongst themselves, and Frank turned eagerly to Mikey and Gerard. "Holy shit," he said. "Did you guys do that? Make Bunny attack Paul?"
Gerard didn't think so, but it had all happened kind of fast. "Did you call her, Mikey?" he asked.
Mikey shook his head. I was just gonna see if I could get the starcase from Paul, he said. Out loud, he added, "Did you?"
"I don't know." Gerard had never been able to talk to animals like Mikey—at least, not as far as he could remember. Probably Bunny'd just been hanging around and got pissed off and freaked out when she thought Mikey was in trouble. But it was still a pretty big coincidence that Bunny had appeared right when Gerard was focusing everything he had on calling for help. It was strange, even by their family's standards, so he shrugged helplessly.
"You guys are so weird," Frank said, but he was smiling, and it made Gerard feel a lot better.
Spencer did eventually manage to dig up some more chaperones and a bus, and they got to the theater before the trailers but after the weird deodorant commercials, which suited Gerard just fine.
The movie was awesome, and it left Gerard with so many things to say to Mikey and Frank he could barely form complete sentences even in his own head. He stepped out of the theater, blinked at the sunlight, and turned to Mikey to talk about Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker compared with Jack Nicholson's.
But Mikey didn't seem to be thinking about the movie at all or paying any attention to Gerard. Instead, he was frowning at a blue Honda Civic parked at the music store across the street. Gee, he said, see that car?
"The Civic?" Gerard asked, somewhat disgruntled at being distracted from his opinions about Batman but curious. Mikey nodded, and Gerard said, "What about it?"
Mikey frowned at it with a look of worried concentration. Something's going to happen to it, he said. Something really bad. The guy who drives it—we can't let him get back in the car.
Gerard felt a cold shiver at the back of his neck. Mikey didn't get premonitions out of nowhere that often, but when he did, they were always right. A hand grabbed at Gerard's shoulder from behind, and he jerked forward, trembling, before turning around to see Frank standing there.
"Whoa," Frank said, his eyebrows drawn together worriedly. "What's up? You okay?"
Mikey nodded and patted Gerard's arm absently. "We gotta stop that guy from getting in his car, now," he said, pointing to a short, heavyset guy with glasses coming out of the music store.
Frank wanted to ask why, Gerard could tell, but he didn't. Instead he pressed his lips together determinedly, stepped forward, and yelled, "Hey! Hey, mister!"
A couple of men walking around turned to look at Frank with bemusement, and Gerard felt himself flush. He'd been kind of hoping they could come up with a sneakier plan than just yelling at the guy, but he had to admit, Frank's way was the most direct. Frank dashed across the street to the Civic guy, and Gerard and Mikey followed him as fast as they could.
"Hey," said Frank to the Civic guy again, "don't get in your car."
The guy frowned and said, "Um, I have to get in my car to go home," in the confused, controlled and gentle voice that people who weren't comfortable talking to kids used. "Do you guys have somebody watching you?" He wasn't much taller than Gerard, but he craned his neck to look over at the group of kids from the Home like he was looking for an adult. Gerard hoped Spencer or one of the chaperones didn't pick that minute to come out.
Frank glared at the Civic guy. "I'm not a moron, I know what cars are for. But my friend here says you shouldn't get in your car." He gave Mikey an encouraging look and said, "Tell him."
Mikey said quietly, "Something bad's gonna happen to it," staring at his shoes the whole time. The man just stared at him.
"I know it sounds crazy," Gerard said desperately, "But my brother gets these feelings, and they're pretty much always right, so if he says something bad's gonna happen, something bad's gonna happen."
Frank nodded firmly. "Seriously, Mister, he's like a psychic."
The man blinked and pulled off his baseball cap, scratching at his thinning red hair. Finally, he said, "Um. Are you guys with that group of kids across the street?"
"If we tell you," said Frank, "will you stay out of your car?"
"Jesus," the guy said, shaking his head. "Come on." He put his hands on Gerard's and Frank's backs, hesitantly ushering them forwards. Looking both ways, he led them back across the street. Gerard had a sinking feeling that they were about to get into trouble.
When they got back to the bus, Jon and Brendon were frantically looking between their clipboards and the group of kids in front of them. When they saw Gerard, Frank, Mikey, and the Civic guy, their anxious expressions dissolved into ones of anger and relief, and they ran over.
"Jesus Christ!" Jon exclaimed. "Didn't we tell you guys not to wander off?"
Frank glared at Jon and Brendon with a defiant expression, and Mikey hadn't looked up from the ground yet, so Gerard said, "Sorry." Jon didn't look too mollified, but he put a hand on Gerard's shoulder and squeezed, letting out a deep breath.
"Thanks for bringing them back," Brendon said. "Swear to God, this trip was actually chaperoned, but with forty kids and six adults…." He shook his head. "I'm really sorry if it was any trouble."
"Oh, no problem," said the Civic guy. "They were just…giving me psychic warnings about my car, I guess."
"Psychic warnings?" Brendon raised his eyebrows, then looked down at Frank. "Frank, have you been holding out on us? Hiding your supernatural talents?"
Frank rolled his eyes, but didn't say anything, and Gerard felt a fierce rush of gratitude that Frank was the kind of guy who could keep a secret. Probably it wouldn't be so bad if Jon and Brendon found out about him and Mikey—they'd been nothing but nice so far, and they didn't seem the type to be superstitious about witches or Satanists or whatever. But you never knew how people were going to react to the supernatural thing, and it was always better safe than sorry.
"Well, I'm gonna go," said the Civic guy awkwardly. "I'm just glad I could help." He turned around, ready to step back down into the street.
At that moment, however, a pickup truck came screeching down the street, weaving in and out among the other cars haphazardly and brushing against the curb. They were already standing on the sidewalk, but Brendon and Jon pulled Frank, Mikey and Gerard back from the curb. The guy driving the pickup was leaning out the window, looking barely conscious. Jon was already digging out his cell phone and calling 911 when the truck took a sharp turn to the right and plowed into the blue Honda Civic, hitting it so hard it pushed the other car up onto the sidewalk.
"Oh, my God," Brendon said, echoed by the Civic guy.
Frank turned to Mikey and hit him excitedly on the arm. "Holy shit, Mikey!" he exclaimed. "You sure called that one."
"Yeah," said Mikey in a dull, gloomy monotone. To Gerard he added, I think something else is gonna happen. I still have a bad feeling.
Gerard didn't usually feel things the way Mikey did, at least not without clearing everything else out of his mind and concentrating hard enough to make his head hurt, but he felt it now, too, without even trying. The sense that something big was coming washed over him in a dizzying wave of feeling, and he reached out to grab his brother's hand. "I hear sirens," he said. They were a few miles away, still, but for once Gerard was the first to hear them.
As a general rule, Patrick Stump was pretty modest about claiming knowledge for himself. He knew a lot about music and organizing schedules, a fair amount about computers and talking to people over the phone, and very little about European history or quantum physics. He was cool with that, and he always tried to step carefully in areas where his knowledge was particularly spotty. Knowing what Pete Wentz wanted, however, wasn't one of those areas.
As soon as the tow truck, the cops, and the Smith Home's bus pulled away, he pulled out his cell phone and called Pete.
"Patrick!" Pete said before Patrick could get so much as a word out. "Dude, you have to come save me. Andy brought in these guys who keep talking about, like, predicting the future by counting the number of letters in the Bible, and every time I mention the fact that different translations have different numbers of letters, they just stare at me like I'm from another planet. Christ, where does he find these whackjobs?"
Patrick didn't point out that Pete pretty much invited people like that into his life—and more than that, he made Andy and Joe and Patrick bring people like that into his life—or that Pete, who pretty much embodied the idea of an eccentric rich guy, was in no position to be calling other people whackjobs. Instead, he said, "I'll be back as soon as I can. My car got hit by a truck."
There was a loud thump in the background. "Jesus!" Pete said. "Holy fuck, Patrick, are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said. "I wasn't actually in it."
Pete exhaled loudly. "I'll send a car for you."
"You don't have to--" Patrick began, but Pete's attention was clearly elsewhere.
"What? No, I don't have a supply of holy water—-Christ, these people! What are they, vampire hunters or something? See you soon." Patrick didn't have time to ask him what was going on before he hung up.
So, Patrick found a bench to sit on, set his new CDs on the ground, and, while he waited for the car, thought about just what he was going to tell Pete. The thing was not to get him too excited, Patrick thought, make him understand this could just be a fluke, and that even if it wasn't, that they had to proceed carefully.
Dirty and the car showed up sooner than Patrick had expected. Rolling the window down, Dirty stuck his head out and yelled, "Hey, man, you need a ride?"
"Thanks," said Patrick, lugging his stuff over and dumping it in the back seat. "My car's pretty much done for."
"What happened?" asked Dirty after Patrick had settled himself in the passenger seat. "Pete was, like, freaking out. You get in an accident?"
"Not really," Patrick said. "Some guy hit my car with his truck."
He didn't feel much like talking about it, so he was grateful when Dirty let it go after sighing loudly and saying, "Bummer, dude." They spent the rest of the trip back to Decaydance listening to one of the new bands on Pete's label and occasionally singing along.
Patrick scarcely made it out of the limo before Joe, Pete's head of security, was running out of the house. "Dude," he said, "You've got to get Pete to stop messing with these people. They're such con artists, it's not even funny."
Patrick sighed. It wasn't like Pete didn't have enough money. Pete had more money than God, so Patrick didn't get why he spent so much time and put up with so many liars looking for get-rich-quick schemes—-paranormal get-rich-quick schemes, no less. But ever since high school, Patrick had made a living getting Pete what he wanted, even if it made no sense at all. He hoped to God those kids today had been the real deal, and Pete would be satisfied, and they'd never have to deal with all the goddamn scam artists again.
"Hey!" Pete said as Patrick walked in the door. "Check it—apparently the number of groups of three and seven words in a Bible verse can tell you—what was it, the positive vibrations of your birth sign or something?"
"Not exactly," said a tight-faced man in an ill-fitting suit.
Patrick looked from the tight-faced man to the jovial-looking man next to him—-his partner, probably-—and then to Pete. Someone who hadn't been working for Pete for the past seven years might not be able to detect the brittle mockery under his apparent good humor. Patrick could, and he gave the two strangers a polite smile.
"I'm Mr. Wentz's personal assistant," he said. "Thank you so much for your time, but I'm afraid Mr. Wentz has an appointment in fifteen minutes with one of his producers and he needs time to prepare. Would you like me to call the limousine?"
"That'd be great," said the cheerful man, looking a little less cheerful. The tight-faced man looked like he wanted to put up a fight, but his partner elbowed him in the side. In a matter of a minute or so, Joe had managed to hustle both of them outside.
Pete shot Patrick a sharp grin before his expression collapsed into one of exhaustion. "Jesus Christ," he muttered, sending a glare towards the entrance to the kitchen, in Andy's direction. "Those guys weren't after my money or anything."
"I told you they were probably con artists," Andy said calmly. "You said it was worth hearing them out. Remember?"
"Yeah, yeah." Pete rolled his eyes and then sank into the couch, throwing his feet up on the chrome and glass coffee table. "Come sit by me, Patrick," he said. He patted the seat beside him, and Patrick sat down and let Pete lean on him. "How about you, you okay?" Pete asked softly.
"Yeah. My car's done for, but…." Patrick shrugged philosophically. "Couple of kids made sure I wasn't in it at the time."
Pete straightened up and gave Patrick a look of keen interest. "What are you saying?" he said. "Did someone intentionally total your car?" Patrick didn't miss how his eyes shot over to Joe, who'd come back in to settle on the armchair, or Joe's own reassuring look in response.
"Not to my knowledge," said Patrick. "No, what I'm telling you is…." He paused. What was he telling Pete? "These kids. Three of them. They came up to me, and told me that one of them got psychic impressions, or something, and that he had a bad feeling about my car, so I shouldn't get into it."
"Seriously?" Pete's curious gaze grew sharper, hungrier. "You sure they weren't playing a joke or something?"
"Hell of a coincidence if they were," said Patrick. He thought back on the way the short kid had been all but dragging him across the street, the weird intensity in the way the other kid had told him that his brother's feelings were always right. "I don't think they were joking," he said.
Pete leaned back in the couch with wide eyes. "Holy shit," he said. "You think they're the real deal?"
Andy stepped forward with a frown. "Pete," he said, "we just kicked one bunch out. We're not talking to two groups of scammers in one day. I'm putting my foot down."
Patrick frowned. He got where Andy was coming from—did he ever get where Andy was coming from—and maybe it was just the almost near-death experience shaking him up, but this felt different from all the other times they'd dragged palm-readers and fortune-tellers up to Decaydance. "I don't think these kids were scamming me, Andy," he said. "It's not like they asked me for money, or picked my pocket, or…I don't know. I guess they could have been freaking me out for kicks, but seriously, like, moments after I walked them back to their bus, a truck came out of nowhere and slammed into my car."
"Whoa," said Joe, blinking slowly. "That's crazy, man."
"And it wasn't just a one-time thing?" Pete said eagerly. "Like, you think this kid could predict other stuff? Stock market developments and what's gonna sell well and stuff?"
And this was why Patrick had been a bit hesitant to bring it up in the first place. "Jesus, Pete, I don't know! He was just a kid—I don't even know if he'd know what a stock market development was. And it's not like I could ask him about the psychic stuff without seeming totally creepy."
"Did you get his name at least?" There was an edge of frustration in Pete's voice now.
"Yeah." Patrick pulled the folded sheet of paper out of his pocket and held it for a moment, wondering if he was doing the right thing. Probably not, but it didn't matter. "The psychic kid is Mikey Minnelli. He's got an older brother, Gerard. After the thing with my car, I got their address from the guy that runs the orphanage so I could write to them and thank them." He handed Pete the piece of paper.
He took it without even seeming to notice. "Whoa, whoa, hold up," Pete said. "You're telling me your psychic kid's an orphan? Oh, shit, Patrick, this is great!"
"Yeah, kids not having parents always brightens my day," said Joe dryly, and Pete made a face at him.
"Dude, you don't get it. I thought I was gonna have to go to this kid's parents and convince them I wasn't, like, Michael Jackson or something, and then get them to let their kid come over and work for me. But orphans! I can work with orphans."
"Oh, God." Andy rolled his eyes. "You're gonna make me do something illegal, aren't you?"
"Uh, no," said Pete. "Why would I-—Look, this kid saved Patrick's life, so why would it be so weird if Patrick decided to return the favor and, like, adopt him?"
Maybe Patrick should've been expecting it, but the idea still struck him with enough shock to take his breath away. "Adopt him?" he said incredulously. "Pete, what the hell? I can't raise a kid!"
Pete gave him a shit-eating grin, and Patrick felt an unreasonable urge to punch him in the face. "Aww, Patrick," Pete said, "I think you'd make a great dad."
"Seriously, Pete, there's no way."
"Well, it can't be me—the press would be all over it," Pete pointed out. "You're the only one who has any reason to even give a shit about this kid in particular, you know? And it's not like I'd actually make you, I don't know, go to PTA meetings or whatever. You'd just have to get the kid here, and I'd take care of him."
"Oh, goddammit, Pete," said Joe with a groan, "you're not actually doing this, are you? This is a kid we're talking about, not, like, a ficus."
"What, you don't think a kid would want to live here?" Pete gestured around: towards the glass-walled patio leading out towards the pool, to the door of the home theater, to the shelves full of CDs and band memorabilia. Patrick had to admit, it would be a pretty tempting prospect for a kid. It had been for him, anyway.
"It's not like they just let you walk in and take a kid, Pete," he said, and then gave himself a mental kick in the ass. He was already thinking about the technical obstacles to Pete's plan, rather than the fact that he was seriously not into the idea of adopting some psychic kid so Pete could get supernatural financial advice.
"But--" Pete began.
Andy cut him off. "No. Really. You can't buy a kid. Don't tell me that's not what you were thinking."
"I wasn't gonna say that," said Pete, giving Andy a dirty look. "Jesus. What I was gonna say is, we can do a little research, find out what kind of papers and shit you need to adopt a kid, and then…." Pete waved a hand in Andy's direction. "You can make it happen."
"Did I or did I not say that you were gonna make me do something illegal?" Andy sighed and went to sit on the ottoman, shoving Joe's legs aside.
"Pete, do you even know anything about raising a kid?" asked Joe as he kicked absent-mindedly at Andy. "I mean, how old did you say this kid was, Patrick, like, ten or eleven?"
He hadn't said, but it was a pretty good guess. Maybe Joe was psychic, too. Patrick nodded. "Yeah. His brother was a little older, maybe thirteen or fourteen."
"And that's another thing!" Joe pointed at Pete with both hands. "No way in hell that kid's gonna want to go anywhere without his brother. So, okay, let's say maybe the brother's psychic, too, so you've got two psychic kids living here. They're gonna have to go to school, or get tutors, or something, and, I mean, teenagers are always fucked up, but orphan teenagers who can fucking tell the future and shit? Dude, Pete, it takes me and Patrick and Andy together to get you to take care of yourself without bringing in two kids who are probably gonna have some major issues."
"Dude." Pete actually looked kind of hurt. "Okay, first, I can deal with teenagers, all right? I mean, how old were you when I hired you again?"
"That was different," said Joe, but he'd taken to picking at a scab on his arm rather than look Pete in the eye.
"Right, sure, Trohman. And also, I'm aware that this—-or, you know, these kids might have some issues. I'm not stupid, okay, and I've known a hell of a lot of teenagers with issues. And I know I have some issues, too, but maybe that means I could help these kids in a way, you know, Mike and Carol Brady or whatever couldn't."
Patrick snorted at that and said, "Mike and Carol Brady had some issues of their own."
Pete shot him a bright white grin, and Patrick couldn't help but smile back. "Plus," Pete added, "it's not like I can't afford to take care of two kids or whatever. And admit it—having actual psychic kids would be awesome."
Patrick paused for a moment to think about it. He couldn't picture himself as a father, not even in this crazy-ass pipe dream they were talking about. But it wasn't like he disliked kids or anything. It'd mean a thousand stupid things to add to his agenda, but on the other hand, if the whole psychic thing worked out, that would mean a thousand stupid things that Patrick didn't have to do, and taking care of a couple of kids had to be less embarrassing than calling up the fucking Psychic Friends Network and inviting them over to meet with Pete. And maybe Pete was right—maybe they really could help these kids.
"I don't know," he said finally, and he turned to Andy. "How much fucking around with paperwork would we have to do?"
Andy sighed and Pete crowed triumphantly. "Hey," Patrick said sharply, "I didn't say yes." Who was he kidding, he thought glumly. He was going to say yes. Shit, he was actually going to go through with this. One of these days, he was going to ask Pete just how he managed to get him and Joe and Andy to agree to these dumbass schemes. It wouldn't at all surprise him if Pete turned out to have some kind of psychic power of his own.
Mikey had the dream again. It never made much sense, just random flashes of grainy images, like old movies, but they were enough to scare him. He and Gerard were little kids, floating in an endless black ocean. It was cold, so cold Mikey couldn't feel his arms or legs, and someone was talking to him in another language. He didn't understand what the man was saying, but the words sounded vaguely familiar. His starcase was resting on the piece of driftwood they were clinging to.
And then they were in a field—not any of the fields at the Home, but a different field, one Mikey didn't know, and somebody was chasing them. And the somebody had guns, and no matter how far or how fast they ran, in the end the only way out was back into the water, and Mikey couldn't hold on, he was sinking—
"Hey." It was Gerard, poking him in the shoulder. "Mikey, wake up."
Mikey sat up and just breathed in and out for a moment. He was in his and Gerard's room, and even though he'd kicked off the covers, it was so hot he was sweating. He reached out with his mind for Gerard, for that something that made him and Gerard different from everybody else. Finding it was like hugging Mama or running his fingers over his starcase. It felt like home.
"You were having a nightmare," Gerard whispered. "I was sort of getting a little bit of it. The ocean and stuff. You okay?"
Mikey nodded, and reached out with his arms for his brother. Gerard felt solid and warm, a million miles away from the dark ocean, and Mikey felt his heartbeat slow down again. He could sense Gerard's curiosity poking at his mind, so he said, I think it was something that happened when we were little, before Mama adopted us.
"Oh," said Gerard, more of a sigh than a word. He shivered, sending a chill through Mikey, too. "Were we…in a boat accident or something? I don't remember."
Mikey shrugged. Maybe he remembered more than Gerard did, but the weird flashes he got didn't make much more sense to him. I guess, he said. He thought of the strange but familiar language the man in the ocean had spoken to him, and he added, Maybe the boat was from another country.
"What, you think we're like illegal immigrants or something?" Mikey could already see the picture in Gerard's mind—-them sailing over from Cuba or something on a motorboat-—but it wasn't anything like the feeling he'd gotten from the dream. Still, there was something about the idea that…well, it didn't seem completely wrong, anyway. He shrugged again.
They sat there for a long moment, Mikey still leaning against Gerard's chest, listening to the steady in-and-out flow of his breath. "Hey," said Gerard finally, "you wanna see what I was drawing?"
You were drawing? Mikey asked. It had to be, like, three in the morning or something. Super late, anyway.
Gerard gave him a crooked smile that looked more like a wince. "Couldn't sleep," he said. He floated his sketchpad and Mikey's glasses over from the dresser, and the sketchpad landed with a quiet thump onto the pillow as the glasses fell into Mikey's lap. Gerard pulled away from Mikey to grab the pad and flipped through it, muttering to himself while Mikey put on his glasses and peered over his brother's shoulder. A lot of the drawings were characters for the comic book they were writing; some of them were of Mikey and Frank and the other kids at the Home. A few of them were of Mama. At last, he flipped to the most recent picture.
Mikey squinted at it for a minute. The moonlight falling on his bunk was pretty bright, but it took a little while for his eyes to adjust enough to take in all of the unfamiliar image. It was a house—a big one, too, like a mansion. A man he didn't recognize, short, with dark hair and a lot of tattoos, was standing in the doorway.
Where's this? he asked.
"It's where that guy lives, the one whose car got wrecked." He pointed to the man in the doorway and said, "I'm not sure who that guy is, but I think it's the car guy's boss."
Mikey didn't ask how Gerard knew all this; the same way that Mikey sometimes knew how people were feeling or what was going to happen, Gerard sometimes could draw people he'd never met or places he'd never seen. Instead, he asked, What'd you draw it for?
Gerard made a face. "I don't know. I think we're going to go there. I think maybe that's what your bad feeling was about earlier."
Mikey looked again at the mansion. It looked really cool, actually, but there was a twinge in his stomach that made him feel a little sick as he studied it. Yeah, he said. There wasn't anything else to say, because there wasn't anything they could do. Not yet, anyway, and probably not even when they knew more. Being a kid really sucked sometimes.
Neither of them felt much like going back to sleep, so Gerard got out of bed to turn on the desk lamp and they read Dracula together. Gerard kept getting distracted by the full-page illustrations and complaining every time Mikey turned the page, but Mikey didn't mind too much. It was a lot better thinking about Jonathan Harker's problems than his own.
The next couple of weeks felt like the weeks before Mama had died, like something bad was hovering around every corner.
"I don't get it," Frank said. "If you know something bad's gonna happen, why don't you do something? Like with that guy and his car?"
"What would we do?" said Gerard with a scowl. "Tell Spencer we have a bad feeling that has something to do with that guy, only we don't know what, so Spencer could…do what? It's not like we know the car guy's gonna do something bad. We don't even know if his boss is gonna do something bad. It's just a feeling."
"It has something to do with where Gerard and I come from," Mikey said, and both Gerard and Frank turned to look at him with wide, surprised eyes.
"Huh?" asked Gerard.
Mikey didn't really get it either, but why else would he be having the dreams and the flashbacks at the same time he and Gerard were having bad premonitions? Bunny agreed, lifting her head off his lap to look him right in the eye, and suggested that scratching behind her ears might take Mikey's mind off it. She was totally full of it, the little attention hog, but she wasn't wrong, so he shrugged at Gerard and took her advice.
"Maybe you guys were created in some super-secret government lab, but you got away, and this guy's one of the scientists," Frank said. Mikey wrinkled his nose; he didn't feel like a top-secret government experiment. "Or maybe," Frank said, "he's from, like, a family of supervillains that was arch-enemies with your birth family."
"Or maybe we're just weirdoes, and nothing's actually gonna happen," Gerard said glumly. He sneezed, and Bunny sighed long-sufferingly and crawled out of Mikey's lap to go sit on the roots of a tree a little ways away. Sorry, Mikey said to her.
Frank frowned. "Don't say that," he said, and he sounded genuinely upset. "This is serious shit, you guys. You guys have super powers, for Christ's sake, and if you think something bad's gonna happen, I believe you! We can't just sit back and wait for it to happen. If you don't know what's going on, just tell me what you know and I'll fucking figure it out!" His voice got louder as he went on, and he was breathing hard, red-faced, by the time he stopped.
Mikey flinched without meaning to. For just a second, Frank had reminded him of the scary kid that had intimidated him and Gerard so much when they first met him, instead of their best friend. Gerard was pretty taken aback, too, but he quickly recovered and said, "Well, I think we're leaving here to go live with the Honda Civic guy."
Frank nodded determinedly. His face looked grim. "Okay," he said, "so maybe he's gonna foster you guys or something. Is he bad? You know, like hitting kids or doing sex stuff or something?"
Mikey thought back, trying to remember everything he could about the man. He'd mostly been thinking about the car at the time, and saving the guy's life, but now he tried to think of what he'd felt from the guy, emotions and stuff. He didn't remember feeling anything deep down bad, just confusion and nervousness and impatience. He shook his head at Frank. "I don't think so," he said. "I mean, I wasn't trying to read his mind or anything. But he didn't seem like a pervert or anything."
Frank made a thoughtful face. "How about the boss Gerard drew?"
"Well, how are we supposed to know that?" Gerard asked, rolling his eyes. "We've never met him."
"You drew the guy, and you'd never seen him before," Frank pointed out. "It's not like you guys don't do impossible shit all the time, so I was just wondering." It was a good point, thought Mikey. He didn't realize he'd been projecting the thought until Gerard scowled at him.
"The point is," Gerard said, "even if we knew something bad about this guy or his boss, what difference would it make? It's not like we can tell Spencer we have a bad psychic feeling about them."
Frank chewed on his lower lip anxiously and scratched at his neck, and Mikey didn't even have to poke at his mind to see how hard he was thinking. Mikey felt kind of bad for making Frank worry for nothing, because he was pretty sure Gerard was right—there wasn't anything they could do. But he didn't want to say that to Frank, who was only trying to help, so he said to Bunny, Hey, you want a pipe cleaner? I stole a couple from the art room.
Bunny definitely wanted a pipe cleaner, so Mikey took out his starcase, where he'd put the pipe cleaners and some string for safekeeping. As he slid the lid back, he felt his heart stop in his chest for a second. He hadn't noticed it before, but one corner of the front of the starcase was actually slipping off. It must have gotten broken when Bunny had knocked it out of Paul's hands.
Bunny mewed unhappily. She was sorry—-she hadn't meant to break it, only to get it away from Paul. It's okay, Mikey said unhappily. God, though, if the starcase was actually broken, it would suck so much. It was the only thing that he had from…wherever it was he and Gerard had come from. It wasn't fair, that it could survive a stupid shipwreck or whatever just to get broken by stupid Paul.
Gerard broke off staring worriedly at Frank to stare worriedly at Mikey. "You okay?" he asked.
Mikey didn't trust his voice—he wasn't into crying in front of people, even if they were friends—so he said, as calmly as he could, I think my starcase is broken.
"It's broken?" Gerard said aloud, distracting Frank.
"God, Mikey," Frank said, "would it kill you to carry on a conversation out loud like everybody else?" He didn't seem mad, though, and he scooted over closer to Mikey, apparently not caring that he was getting dirt all over the seat of his shorts. "What's broken?" he asked.
"His starcase," said Gerard, and he reached over to touch it. "Looks like this front part's coming off."
"Lemme see," said Frank. Mikey handed him the starcase, and he peered at it. "Huh," he said. "It looks like there used to be a little screw here. Maybe if we just slide it back, it'll hold until we can find another screw." He pushed at it, and it made a noise like rusty door hinges. Frank winced. "Oh. Shit. Sorry, Mikey."
Had he broken it? Mikey jumped up and snatched it back. What did you do?, he yelled, forgetting to do it out loud so Frank could hear him. It didn't matter, though, because Gerard said the exact same thing, looking about as irritated as Mikey felt.
Frank looked sheepish, but Mikey couldn't bring himself to care. The whole front was totally off, now, hanging on by only one corner, and underneath was…huh. There was a little map under there. "Hey, look at this," said Mikey, his anger forgotten.
Gerard and Frank clustered close to him to look at it. It was a detailed map, with delicate little mountains and trees and rivers etched into the metal. It had place names like "Cork Valley" and "Molasses Creek" and "Wolf Mountain" that Mikey didn't recognize, with some weird writing in another language underneath each name. "Whoa," Gerard said softly, his breath warm against Mikey's neck.
"Was that always under there?" asked Frank, and without waiting for an answer, he said, "Dude, a hidden map. Kick-ass."
The weird, heavy feeling of foreboding in Mikey's stomach grew so much that he felt dizzy. He didn't even need Gerard to say it: "I think we're gonna go here."
"Is it where that rich dude lives?" asked Frank, running a careful finger along Molasses Creek.
"No," said Gerard. "But I think maybe it's where we came from, originally."
That didn't make any sense. Why would they have been in a boat accident if they were coming from the place on the map? There wasn't an ocean or lake or anything on it, and the names didn't seem weird enough to have come from another country, or even a secret government lab. But Mikey got the same weird familiar sensation look at it that he'd gotten from the man speaking in a foreign language in his dream, so he nodded.
"That's it!" said Frank. "That's what we can do, then! We can look this place up in the library, and maybe get Spencer or Brendon or someone to take us there! The Honda Civic guy can't take you if you've got a home somewhere else."
Mikey couldn't help thinking that, if they actually had family in Cork Valley or wherever, they were really crappy family who'd never even tried to find Mikey and Gerard after the accident. But still, it was better than nothing, and it was kind of exciting to think that maybe, just maybe, there were people out there like Mikey and Gerard, who'd understand what had happened when they were little and could explain why they could do such weird stuff.
As it turned out, they barely had time to do more than strike out in the library's atlases before the things they were afraid of started happening.
Spencer and Brendon and Jon had pretty much given up on trying to make Mikey and Gerard socialize, since Frank had mostly taken over in that capacity. It was surprising and kind of alarming, then, when Jon walked over to the breakfast table Mikey and Gerard were sharing with Frank and some of Frank's friends.
"Hey, guys," he said, putting his hand on Mikey's shoulder. Mikey usually liked it when Jon put a hand on his shoulder, because Jon was the kind of person who managed to be comforting without being totally awkward about it, but today his hand was stiff, almost nervous, and Mikey felt queasy. "Spencer wants to see Mikey and Gerard in his office," said Jon.
"Why?" Frank said, glaring at Jon. Jon raised an eyebrow but didn't look too surprised.
"Relax, Frank, they're not in trouble. It's a good thing, promise."
Frank didn't look very convinced, and Mikey couldn't blame him. This is it, he said to Gerard, who nodded solemnly. They stood up, pushing their trays to the end of the table, and Gerard gave Frank a reassuring half-smile. Mikey wished, once again, that Frank could hear him if he just said It'll be okay without speaking out loud.
They walked down the hallway with the library and the offices. Bill and Adam were leaning against the wall across from Spencer's office, peering curiously through the half-open doorway, but they ducked into the library when Jon gave them a look.
Spencer and Mr. Ross from Child Protective Services were sitting in the office. What should have been more surprising, but wasn't, was that the Honda Civic guy was there, too, sitting awkwardly in a chair in front of Spencer's desk and tapping his fingers on his knee. When Jon brought Gerard and Mikey in, he stood up and gave them the same uncomfortable smile he'd given them when they had told him to stay out of his car.
"Hi," he said. "Gerard and Mikey, right?" They nodded, and he said, "I'm Patrick, Patrick Stump. I was kind of too surprised at the time to be polite, but I'd really like to thank both of you for making sure I didn't get in my car. I'm pretty sure you guys saved my life."
Mikey felt himself flushing, and he looked at his shoes. He'd never really felt like a superhero before, but thinking that he'd actually saved someone's life…well, it felt pretty cool, despite his nervousness around Mr. Stump.
Gerard seemed pretty pleased, too, and he said, "Aw, it was nothing. We're just glad you're okay."
"That was a pretty lucky day all around," said Spencer. "You guys wanna sit down?" He motioned to a couple of folding chairs over by Mr. Ross, and they went to sit. "I know this is pretty soon," Spencer continued, more gently than usual, "and you've never been in a foster home before. But Mr. Stump and I have had a lot of conversations about this-—and he's taken all the classes, and done all the paperwork, and we've done the background checks and everything, so you don't have to worry about us not knowing anything about him—-and, well, he'd like for you guys to go and live with him."
Mikey had a weird feeling, then, like watching a movie he didn't remember he'd already seen, so everything that happened was both surprising and familiar. It wasn't like he hadn't seen this coming, but the knowledge that he was actually right this time filled him with a weird sense of his own power. He looked over at Gerard, hoping for something that was normal and comforting. Instead, he was greeted with Gerard's own disorientation and uncertainty, rolling out in waves that shook both of them.
Mr. Stump seemed kind of worried by their silence, and he said quickly, "You shouldn't feel obligated or anything—-I mean, obviously, if you'd rather stay here, that's totally cool. Just, I feel like you guys really helped me, and I kind of want to help you back. I'm not, like, the world's most experienced parent, and I wouldn't try to take your mom's place or anything, but I just…." He made a funny face, twisting his mouth up in a knot on one side and making his glasses slide down his nose a little. "I'd do my best to do right by you, you know?"
Spencer leaned forward on his desk, fixing them with a serious look. "No pressure, seriously. You've only been here for two months, and we'd all understand if you weren't up for moving again so soon, or if you wanted to wait and get to know Mr. Stump a little better first. Totally up to you guys."
There wasn't anything bossy or mean or smarmy about Spencer's voice—he meant what he said. But underneath it, maybe not even in his voice but in his mind, he was desperate. Mikey had a sudden vision of him and Brendon and Jon and Mr. Ross sitting around a table, going over long boring financial papers with grim expressions, Brendon offering to take a pay cut, Jon suggesting that they ask schools and stuff for donations, Mr. Ross saying that he'd try to explain that it was a home for hard-to-place kids, so of course they weren't making that many placements, but that the state was cutting its budget.
Mr. Stump's boss, the one with the mansion, had offered them money, and a lot of it. A donation, he said, not like a bribe or anything, and they still thought it was kind of weird, but they needed that money if they were going to be able to keep taking in new kids, or even stay open for too much longer. Also, there wasn't any reason not to think that, if Gerard and Mikey did well at Mr. Stump's, Mr. Stump's boss wouldn't keep supporting the Home, if only for publicity reasons, and maybe some of the other kids could wind up with decent placements, too.
No pressure, Spencer had said. Yeah, right.
"Okay," Mikey said, not willing or able to come up with something more enthusiastic.
Spencer looked surprised, but pleased, and he grinned at Mr. Stump. Gerard was kind of taken aback and gave Mikey a questioning look, so Mikey said I'll explain later. Gerard took a deep breath and made a nervous, disgruntled face for a few moments, but he finally smiled, a nervous smile with a lot of teeth, and said, "Yeah, okay."
"Yeah, okay," Mr. Stump repeated, wiping his hands on his pants and blinking, like he hadn't expected them to agree. Since Mikey hadn't been expecting to agree, either, he could understand Mr. Stump's surprise. "Wow. Yeah. If it's okay—-it'll probably be a couple of days until you guys actually move in. We've got some rooms put together for you, but-—is there anything special you guys like? You know, favorite colors or hobbies or whatever? We're trying to—-I know it's not actually gonna feel like home, but we thought we'd try and make it as welcoming as we could."
"We?" asked Gerard.
"Um. Yeah, that's…." Mr. Stump took off the hat he'd been wearing and scratched at the back of his head. "I actually live in a house with my boss and his security team and stuff. That's-—it's not as weird as it sounds. My boss is the CEO of a bunch of different companies, and he has this huge mansion, so it's not like-—my part of the house is practically its own house, you know? But my boss is really excited to meet you guys, and he wanted to help put stuff together. So if there's anything particular you'd like in your rooms…." His voice trailed off, and he smiled at them, a little less awkwardly than before.
Like what? Mikey wondered, and Gerard raised his eyebrows in what might as well have been a shrug. Mikey's ideal room would have been his room from Mama's house, only with a huge stereo system and more band posters, but he wasn't sure if that was the kind of stuff Mr. Stump had in mind, and besides, it was really weird to ask some guy he didn't even know for stuff like that.
Gerard clearly agreed, but he said, "Well, we like black. The color, I mean. And we like music and comic books and horror movies and stuff."
Mr. Stump actually laughed at that and said, "I think you guys are gonna get along great with everyone. I guess I'll see you in a few days, then." He hesitated for a moment and then stepped forward and reached out his hand. Mikey felt absurdly grateful that this guy wasn't actually going to try and hug him, and he took the offered hand to shake it. Mr. Stump smiled at him and turned back to Spencer. "Thanks so much for all your help, Mr. Smith."
"Oh, thank you," said Spencer. "I'm really happy that Mikey and Gerard are getting such a great opportunity." They shook hands, too, and Spencer went with Mr. Stump, presumably to see him off.
Jon, who'd been standing in the doorway pretty much the whole time, walked over to sit down in Mr. Stump's empty chair. "You guys okay with all this?" he said. "I know it's all happening kind of fast."
Before Gerard or Mikey could say anything, Mr. Ross said, "Kind of fast? I cannot believe how fast that guy got those papers together. I guess a little money goes a long way."
Jon frowned at Mr. Ross and said, "Dude, Ryan, we don't need to talk about that now, all right?"
Mr. Ross sighed and turned to give Mikey and Gerard a small smile. "Don't get me wrong. I think this is a great thing, and I really hope it works out. If there are any problems, though, or if you ever want to talk…." He dug into his pocket and pulled out a stack of crumpled business cards, and he handed the one on the top to Gerard. "Here. I'm still your case worker, so, you know. Call me if you need me."
Mikey tried to remember if Mr. Ross had ever said so many words at the same time to them. Even when they'd gone back to the Armstrongs' house after Mama's funeral, and Mr. Ross had been there to take them to the Smith Home and explain what being in the CPS system meant, he hadn't seemed like a super chatty guy, and he seemed to be talking more to the Armstrongs than to Mikey and Gerard.
Jon and Mr. Ross both wanted to know if they wanted to talk to Brendon, but mostly they just wanted to be alone to think about stuff and tell Frank what was going on. So Mikey let both of them hug him—and Mr. Ross was surprisingly good at it, though his arms seemed way longer than necessary—and they went off to go find Frank.
Breakfast was already over, so they went out to the playground. A bunch of kids were playing soccer, Frank among them, so they wandered over and waited for a break in the game (a safe distance away from the actual field, so no one would try to make them play). Mikey explained to Gerard about the Home's money problems, and Gerard agreed that it had been the right thing to do, and then went into a long tangent about how maybe, even though the whole thing gave them a bad feeling, they were fated to go live with Mr. Stump for some mysterious higher purpose. The sun was warm on their faces, and Mikey let himself doze off a little, taking in the comforting rhythm of his brother's voice more than the words themselves.
After what seemed like a long time, but what according to Mikey's watch was only half an hour, the game broke up and everyone went to go get water. It was promising to be another hot day.
Gerard and Mikey got up, brushed grass off their butts, and ran to catch up with Frank, who was walking with Jamia and Bill.
"Hey," said Gerard. "We were right, it was that Honda Civic guy."
"Oh, yeah?" Frank asked, raising his eyebrows at them. Mikey stopped for a second, confused. Frank looked calm enough, but he was radiating enough anger that it actually freaked Mikey out a little, and he stepped back involuntarily.
Gerard frowned. "Yeah, it turns out he--"
But Frank wasn't even listening; he and Jamia and Bill kept walking. Jamia was the only one to look back, frowning confusedly before returning her attention to whatever bad joke Bill was telling.
"I don't get it," Gerard said. "What did we do?"
Honestly, Mikey was too worn out with weird changes and unsettling feelings to do more than sigh unhappily. At least Frank hadn't hit them or anything, and it wasn't like they weren't used to being alone, even if it totally sucked.
They spent the rest of the day sitting in a patch of cool shade, Gerard drawing and Mikey petting Bunny, both of them figuring that whatever Frank was pissed about, it'd blow over by dinnertime.
But it didn't. When they sat down by him at lunch, and then at dinner, he didn't even look at them, like they weren't even there. And what was really weird was, Mikey was pretty sure that Frank and his friends had been talking about them before they'd sat down both times, because Greta and Darren kept shooting them odd, curious looks.
The next morning, they sat by themselves at their old table in the corner and watched Frank and Jamia and Bill and Greta talk and laugh and throw cereal flakes at each other.
"It's weird," Gerard said. "I never used to get this lonely and stuff, but I think it makes it worse when you had a friend, but now you don't anymore."
Yeah, said Mikey glumly. He couldn't decide what the worst part was—that he didn't even know why Frank was mad, and he was the psychic one, or that now he maybe wouldn't ever learn more than the C and A and G chords on the guitar, or that they were gonna leave in just a few days and they wouldn't even get to say goodbye to Frank, or if they did, he wouldn't say goodbye back.
As the day went on, Gerard got madder and madder. "It's not fair," he said. "If someone makes you mad, you should tell them so they can fix it, and not just give them this silent treatment crap."
I give people the silent treatment all the time, said Mikey.
Gerard rolled his eyes. "Yeah, but that's not the same at all. You're just quiet. This is like if you were pissed at me, so you never said stuff telepathically to me either, so I couldn't ever figure out why you were upset."
You want me to try and read his mind? Mikey asked. He'd tried a couple of times already, but he'd only gotten a bunch of confused thoughts like Fuck them, anyway and I'd totally do something and I gotta get new people for my band now.
"No," said Gerard. "It's not fair if he doesn't tell us."
It didn't seem like he was ever gonna tell them, but Mikey just said, Okay.
Gerard stood up. "No, seriously, I'm kind of pissed off now. I'm gonna go find out what the problem is, and I don't even care if he breaks my arm." And with that, he stalked off towards the jungle gym where Frank was swinging upside-down by his knees, throwing handfuls of gravel at Jamia and Greta. Mikey scrambled after him, saying to Bunny, Keep close, in case you have to scratch somebody again.
When they got over to the jungle gym, Frank did a little flip thing that ended up with him landing on his knees in the gravel.
"Ew, you're bleeding," said Jamia. She gave Gerard and Mikey a kind of dubious look and said, "Hey, Frank, Minnellis at two o'clock." Frank hadn't even looked up from his skinned knees.
"What is your problem?!" Gerard said, and Frank actually looked up. "If you're pissed off at us, the least you could do is tell us why! I mean, we're leaving in, like, two days or something, and then it'll be like-—it'll be like when you're mad at someone and then they die, and so you never get to tell them that you loved them, and then you feel bad for the rest of your life."
Frank stared at Gerard, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, like he'd just broken into song and dance right there on the playground. Mikey considered being embarrassed on his brother's behalf, but since Gerard's rant seemed to have finally shocked Frank into paying attention to them, embarrassment just seemed pointless.
"All righty then," said Jamia, rolling her eyes. "Greta, come on and get band-aids with me while they kiss and make up." They were really cool, Mikey thought as they ran off towards the main building. It was too bad they'd never really gotten to be friends.
The three boys stood in silence for a long, torturous moment by the jungle gym before Frank said, sounding kind of irritated, "So, I heard they asked you if you wanted to go live with that guy, and you said yes. I mean, after all that shit about the bad feeling you got, and how there wasn't anything you could do, you actually get a chance to say no and stay here, and what do you do? You go right along with it!" He was actually yelling, now, and Mikey had to make himself stay there and keep looking at Frank instead of running back to grab Bunny and go sit in the woods. "What the hell?!" Frank went on. "I mean, I thought we were friends and all, but what, you're gonna give up our band and being superheroes and stuff so you can live in a mansion with a pool and shit like that?"
"It isn't like that," Gerard began, softer than before, but Frank cut him off.
"The hell it isn't! Even I know how to get out of a foster home when I know it's gonna go to shit, and you guys have fucking super powers, and you just do nothing!" He waved his arms around in a huge, upset gesture.
Mikey didn't want to talk right now, he wanted to hide in his bunk with Bunny and Gerard and never open his mouth again, since the last time he'd talked had caused so much trouble, but he couldn't not explain stuff to Frank. "They gave the Home a lot of money," he said. "Spencer's having a lot of money problems and they were maybe gonna have to shut down or send some kids away or something, but Mr. Stump and his boss gave them a lot of money, and if we didn't go, maybe they were gonna take it back."
Frank put his arms down and looked at Mikey with big, serious eyes. "No shit?" he said.
Mikey nodded solemnly. "No shit."
Frank broke out in a watery smile. "Oh," he said. He was silent for a long moment, looking between Mikey and Gerard, before saying, "Well, I guess that's a pretty good reason." He stood on his tip-toes and gave Mikey a noogie. "Sorry for being a dick," he said. "It's just…you guys are, like, the coolest people I've ever met, even when you're being total dorks, and…you know, maybe I'll never see you again." The corner of Frank's mouth quivered, and Mikey felt alarmed. Frank didn't seem like the kind of kid who cried much.
"Why wouldn't you see us again?" Gerard asked. He looked ready to cry, too.
"I don't know," said Frank, rubbing at his eyes with the shoulder of his dirty tee-shirt. "You'll probably go live with rich people and use your powers to be, like, the richest people in the world, and then you'll forget all about me."
"No, we won't," said Gerard firmly. "That's stupid. You're the best friend we ever had, and superheroes don't forget about their friends just because they get money or get adopted or whatever."
Frank shrugged and said, "People do all kinds of shit." But his voice was stronger, and he looked happier, and Mikey felt warm in a way that had nothing to do with how the sun was beating down on the back of his neck or his hot, sticky Smiths tee-shirt.
"We'll still be friends, and we'll still make an awesome rock band," he said. "I've got a feeling." Honestly, he didn't really have a feeling about it one way or another, but he figured this was one of those times where you didn't see the future, you made the future.
"Yeah," Frank said, with a smile that seemed a lot quieter than his usual grin. He sighed happily before saying, "Hey, you guys wanna come with me and watch Brendon pour alcohol on these?" He pointed to his skinned knees. "Seriously, it foams up and makes noise and stuff—it's awesome."
Gerard said, "Okay," and Mikey nodded. Sure, they were still going away in a couple of days, and who knew what was gonna happen then? But at least they'd have a friend when they left.
Mr. Stump came three days later in a big black limousine. "It's my boss's," he explained, sounding a little embarrassed. "I'm still working on the insurance stuff on the car that the truck hit, so I haven't gotten a new one yet." Whatever, Gerard thought, riding in a limo was totally cool.
Mikey disappeared as soon as Mr. Stump arrived, and returned with a suspiciously lumpy backpack. A suspiciously lumpy backpack that squeaked when Mikey dropped it on the bed.
"Oh, Mikey," said Gerard. "You're not…."
I can't just leave her, said Mikey defensively. I left it a little unzipped on one side so she could breathe, see?
Gerard peered at the bag, and wondered what would happen if Bunny got carsick. "This is a really bad idea, Mikey, seriously," he said. "We didn't ask Mr. Stump if we could have pets."
Bunny's not a pet, Bunny's my friend, and she's awesome. Mikey sat on the bed with the backpack in his lap, glaring at Gerard with his glasses slipping all the way down his nose.
Sometimes, Gerard thought, Mikey could be really mature, and other times it was like he totally forgot all the weird feelings they'd had in connection with Mr. Stump and his boss and the dreams, and he just wouldn't let go of what he wanted, even if it might cause trouble later. On the other hand, Bunny was pretty good in a fight, so maybe she'd come in handy after all. "Whatever," he said. "Just don't let Mr. Stump see her. We have to pack."
He got a weird feeling of smug, almost mocking pleasure that didn't seem to be coming from Mikey, and wondered when the hell he'd become Dr. Doolittle.
"Mikey," he said, "your cat's making fun of me."
Serves you right, Mikey said, rolling his socks into little balls and stuffing them in the corner of his suitcase.
Spencer and Brendon came in after a while and helped Gerard and Mikey take down all their drawings and pack up their stuff. When they were finished, the room looked almost as blank and boring as it had when they'd arrived. Looking around, Gerard felt homesick sadness twisting his stomach for the first time in a while. Mikey reached out to grab his hand, and Gerard squeezed back gratefully. Having a brother who really knew how you were feeling was pretty awesome.
Most of the kids watched them carry their stuff downstairs with expressions that couldn't have said "Good riddance" any more clearly than if they'd said it out loud, but Jamia and Bill and Greta and Adam actually came to help with their suitcases.
"Jesus, Minnelli, what do you have in this thing?" said Adam, who'd grabbed Gerard's backpack.
"Comic books," he replied.
Jamia, who was helping Mikey with his big suitcase, looked over her shoulder at Gerard and said, "Frank's coming, don't worry. He just had to get something."
It didn't take long to get everything downstairs, especially with six people (and some help from Brendon and Spencer, who occasionally had to reach out to keep someone from tumbling down). Before long, they were all standing by the front door, staring at each other a little awkwardly.
"Well…." Greta said. "Good luck, I guess."
Bill nodded. "Yeah. You should totally throw a party sometime and invite us—I bet those rich people know how to rock."
Spencer narrowed his eyes at Bill and said, "Why don't you give them a chance to get settled in a little first, huh?" He let out a long, slow breath and gave Mikey and Gerard a small smile. "Sorry to get all mushy," he said, "but…" He hugged them both. "I know you guys weren't here very long, but it was really nice to have you while we did, and I hope everything works out." Gerard felt himself choking up a little bit, and distracted himself by hoping that Bunny didn't freak out when Spencer hugged Mikey, who had his backpack on.
Wait, Mikey said when Spencer had pulled away. We're not leaving before Frank comes, right?
Gerard shrugged. He hadn't been worried, especially after what Jamia had said, but Frank was cutting it pretty close.
Mr. Stump helped them carry their stuff to the car and then looked between them and the group from the Home, seeming pretty out of his depth. "So. Um, are you guys ready to go?" he asked.
Can't we just go to Frank's room and say goodbye? We don't have to wait for him, right? Mikey asked, and for what was probably the millionth time in his life, Gerard wished that he didn't have to do all the talking for both of them.
"Um," he began, but before he'd even begun to think of a nice polite way to say that they wanted to find Frank first, the loud clatter of stomping footsteps on stairs came from behind them, and a smile spread across Mikey's face.
"Wait!" Frank said, dashing breathlessly outside and practically throwing himself on Mikey and Gerard. "Sorry—-I wanted to give you something before you left." He held out a well-worn book with a picture of a guitar on the front of it. "I got it from one of the families I stayed with, and it's way too easy for me now. I thought maybe Mikey could use it, if he can find a guitar to use."
"That shouldn't be a problem," said Mr. Stump, smiling at Frank.
Frank smiled back, the kind of quick polite smile Gerard was used to seeing him give strange adults, and then turned back to Mikey and Gerard and flipped the book open to the back. "They put a lot of blank sheets back here," he said, "so I wrote down the chords for a bunch of songs—there's some Smiths and Black Flag and Green Day, and stuff, and harmonicas use the same chords as guitars, right? So you guys can practice together, and then we'll all sound good when we start a band."
Gerard felt himself choking up a little again. Nobody'd ever given them such a cool present before, except for Mama, and it sucked, because who knew when they'd see Frank again, but it also ruled, because it'd be a reminder at Mr. Stump's house that they actually had a friend somewhere. "Thanks, Frank," he said, and he hoped he didn't look too teary-eyed.
Mikey nodded gravely and took the book from Frank like it was made out of solid gold.
Frank grinned. "It was nothing," he said, but he looked pretty pleased, too. "See you guys around, I guess."
Gerard nodded. "See you around." As he walked to the car, he tried not to look back at Frank and Spencer and the Home too much, since there wasn't any point in making himself unhappier than he already was, but he couldn't help it. Frank was waving, and Gerard watched him until they drove out of sight of the Smith Home and Frank turned into a tiny spot of color before vanishing altogether.
The car trip to Mr. Stump's house was a lot like that first car trip with Mr. Ross to the Home—awkward and quiet. It wasn't as hot, though, because the limo had individual climate controls for each seat, and Mikey and Gerard entertained themselves for a while with all the buttons.
It wasn't a terribly long trip. The longest part of it, it seemed, was the distance between the gate (which had a sign with "Decaydance" written on it in fancy script) and the actual house. Mr. Stump, or his boss, or whoever, had a really, really big yard.
"Why do you have a sign that says 'Decadence' spelled wrong outside your yard?" Gerard asked, talking over the vaguely familiar punk-rock playing over the radio.
Mr. Stump looked at him in the rearview mirror and smiled wryly. "That's what Pete-—my boss-—calls his house. It's kind of a pun. He owns a record label and stuff, so. It's like a joke."
Gerard thought it was both a weird pun and a weird thing to call your house, but it wasn't like it was his house, so he didn't say anything.
Who names their house? asked Mikey irritably. Bunny wasn't liking the car ride too much—she wasn't making noise, but she was obviously complaining to Mikey, who in turn was complaining wordlessly to Gerard.
"British people name their houses," said Gerard. "Like, in Pride and Prejudice, the houses all have names like Pemberley and Netherfield and stuff."
Mr. Stump, who had no reason not to think Gerard was talking to him, said, "Yeah, I guess that's right. I think Pete was going more for 'eccentric rich person' than '1830s British person,' though."
Well, whatever kind of crazy rich person Pete was, his yard was incredible. There was more forest here, it seemed, than at the state park Mama had taken them one summer. Gerard smiled to see a mother and baby deer eating in a clearing as they drove by, and he thought he saw a little creek trickling among the trees. Gerard wasn't, like, Mark Trail or anything, but he knew cool nature when he saw it.
Screw nature, said Mikey. Look at this house!
Gerard scooted over to look through Mikey's window. His throat suddenly felt dry, and he swallowed uncomfortably. Pete's house looked exactly like it had when he'd drawn it a few weeks back, and it was huge. Like, bigger than Gerard and Mikey's old school, bigger than the shopping mall in Monroeville, probably bigger than Professor Xavier's mansion, and that dude ran a crime-fighting force of mutants out of his basement. "Wow," said Gerard.
"Yeah," said Mr. Stump. "It's a pretty cool place." He pulled the limo to a stop, and three guys came out onto the (huge) front deck. The first guy, Gerard recognized as Mr. Stump's boss, but the other two, one with a mass of curly brown hair and the other with a reddish-brown beard and glasses, were unfamiliar.
"Holy shit, Patrick, is this them?" said Mr. Stump's boss—Pete—as soon as they got out of the car. "Oh, man, could they get any cuter? They're just like little balls of teenaged angst!"
Mikey raised an eyebrow and gave Gerard what was probably the most confused expression Gerard had ever seen on his face. Is this guy for real? he asked.
"Um, Pete," said Mr. Stump, "you are aware that they're standing in front of you and can hear everything you're saying, right?"
"Dude, being cute is nothing to be ashamed of! A lot of guys would kill to be that cute." Pete ran up to them and hugged them, and Gerard couldn't help being a little weirded out. He wasn't so into the personal contact with strangers thing, and people had been hugging him a lot over the last few days. Mikey endured the hug with a stoic expression and woodlike stiffness.
"Hey," said Pete. "So, I'm Pete Wentz. Your—-well, you know, Patrick works for me."
"Okay," Gerard said, because what else was he supposed to say?
"He's my gentleman's gentleman. My Jeeves, the peanut butter to my jelly, the pepper to my salt, the wind beneath my wings…"
"Oh, God, Pete, shut up," said Mr. Stump, rolling his eyes. "Sorry about him." He turned to the other two guys on the doorstep and said, "Guys, these are Mikey and Gerard. Mikey and Gerard, this is Joe, Pete's head of security"—the guy with the huge hair—"and this is Andy, his business manager"—the bearded guy with the long hair and glasses. Gerard wondered if Mr. Stump wanted them to call him Patrick; they all seemed like a pretty informal bunch.
"Nice to meet you," said Andy, and he and Joe walked down off the deck. Andy shook their hands, and Joe waved dorkily. They both had really cool tattoos on their arms, and Gerard kind of wanted to sit down and look at the colors, which seemed a lot brighter than the colors in most tattoos he'd seen, but he figured that was a kind of weird thing to ask two guys he didn't really know.
"So," said Joe, with a noticeable lisp, "you guys wanna see your rooms?"
Mikey nodded. After that, he said to Gerard, we gotta find a place to let Bunny out. She's gotta go to the bathroom.
Great. Just great. Gerard said, "That'd be nice, thank you," with his best polite smile, and hoped Bunny could hold it in for as long as it took these guys to leave them alone.
They didn't go in the front door. "My wing's got its own entrance and driveway and stuff," Mr. Stump explained. "I parked here this time because the guys wanted to meet you." Gerard wondered if Joe and Andy lived here, too, and if they had their own wings, or if that was reserved for Mr. Stump, who Pete seemed to have a huge man-crush on.
Mr. Stump opened a door on the left side of the house, and all six of them walked into a huge open living room with a big screen TV, a huge stereo system, and a shelf with more DVDs and CDs than Gerard had ever seen in his life.
Whoa, said Mikey, and Gerard agreed. Being Pete's 'gentleman's gentleman' must have paid pretty well.
They walked past a small but cool, futuristic-looking kitchen and a bedroom, its door half-closed. "That's my room," said Mr. Stump. "Just, FYI. I'd rather you guys didn't go in it without me, just a privacy thing, but if we're home and you need me, that's the place."
After that, they were in a side hallway whose only door was at the end. It was a weird claustrophobic little corridor that didn't seem to go with the open space in the living room, and it had clearly been remodeled recently. The paint was fresher and cleaner than anywhere else in the place.
Joe stepped forward to push open the door, and they walked inside.
Oh my God, said Mikey. I can't believe I was having bad feelings about this.
It was—it was like if someone had picked Gerard's brain for the perfect room, his dream room, and then gone out and gotten it. There was a big, soft-looking black leather sofa in front of a plasma TV. There was another stereo system in the corner, not as big as the one in the living room, but still nicer than Gerard had ever had before. There was a bookshelf that, Gerard could see from here, was full of comics and graphic novels, and a media case with a shitload of horror movies and comic book adaptations. There was a Batman poster on the wall, and a refrigerator, and a pinball table.
"Um," Mr. Stump said, "We weren't sure if you guys wanted your own rooms or not, so we set up this sort of common area in the middle and put rooms for each of you on either side, so it'd be like…you were sharing a room but both had your own space. I hope that's okay."
"Oh my God, there's more?" Gerard said without really meaning to. Pete laughed, and Mr. Stump reddened. Gerard ran over to one of the little doors leading off from the center room, and stared. A black wrought-iron bed, just like the one he'd had at home. An actual easel, with actual art supplies. A paperweight with a stuffed bat in it. It was like he'd died and gone to heaven.
Gerard, said Mikey, and he sounded so quavery and shocked that Gerard ran back to the other side of the main room, where another little door led to another bedroom. This room was a little smaller, with a shelf full of books and CDs, and on the bed was an acoustic guitar. They got me a guitar, Gee, Mikey said. I don't…it's like they read my mind.
And the fact that it was Mikey talking about other people's mind-reading made Gerard laugh.
"So, do you like it?" asked Pete eagerly.
"This is so great," said Gerard, feeling inadequate to the task of expressing just how great this setup was. "Seriously. Thank you so, so much. You didn't need to go to all this trouble."
Pete dismissed that with a wave of his hand. "Don't worry about it! We all just wanted to make you guys feel at home."
As far as Gerard was concerned, 'at home' still meant the sunken-in old couch in the living room, watching Mama rehearse for her next show and eating Spaghetti-Os out of the Ninja Turtle bowls Mama had gotten at a garage sale. But this was pretty cool, too.
The next week or so was one amazing thing after another. Pete had a huge music collection, and Mr. Stump's—Patrick's--was even bigger, and they'd offered to burn a copy of any CD Mikey or Gerard wanted for them. Apparently, Patrick done some research on the trouble Mikey and Gerard had had in school. He said, if they wanted, he'd be willing to hire them a tutor once the summer was over, which would mean they didn't even have to worry about being forced to 'socialize.' They watched a movie together with Patrick and Pete and Joe and Andy pretty much every night, and the movies were always awesome. Joe was a sci-fi fan, so they watched Star Wars one night and Blade Runner another. Pete liked eighties movies, so they watched Heathers and The Breakfast Club and The Lost Boys and all kinds of awesome stuff. Besides being big business people and stuff, the four adults were also heavy into music. They had an actual studio in the basement—-apparently Patrick produced some of the bands on Pete's label sometimes, when he had the time—-and sometimes they sat around and played music, and they let Mikey and Gerard play along.
Mikey and Gerard were doing a pretty good job of keeping their powers under wraps, too. It wasn't like they had to use them in fistfights or anything anymore, and Mikey did his best to talk out loud more so that it didn't look like Gerard was talking to himself all the time. He was having a slightly harder time keeping Bunny under wraps; it turned out that Pete was allergic to cats, and she had taken an irrational dislike to Pete's dog Hemingway. Mikey tried to keep her outside as much as possible, but she liked Mikey and Gerard's new rooms as much as they did.
They were actually spending a fair bit of time outside these days, though, a lot more than they had at home. For one thing, Pete's yard was like the size of a small country. For another, he had horses, and a guy named Dirty who took care of them. And they actually got to learn how to ride them.
Mikey was possibly eight million times more excited by this than Gerard, who was kind of freaked out by horses. "Um," said Gerard, staring at a huge mare called Penny, "she's pretty big, isn't she?"
Dirty, who didn't seem to pick up on Gerard's fear, said, "Yeah, but she's a big softie. Totally perfect for someone just learning to ride." Penny pawed the ground with one hoof, jerking her head to one side, and Gerard gulped.
She's totally fine, Gee, just kind of bored, Mikey said, but he wasn't actually paying too much attention. He was distracted by the most beautiful horse in the world, who was galloping around in a fenced-off area some ways away.
He was pure white—-or he would be, if he were cleaner, anyway-—with a wise look in his dark eyes. Well, he looked mostly pissed-off at the moment, but under the irritation, he looked super wise. Mikey knew unicorns weren't real, he'd read all about those stupid hoaxes where people would stick fake horns on goats and stuff, but if unicorns were real, they'd totally look like this white horse.
"What's that horse's name?" he said, pointing.
Dirty paused from helping Gerard onto Penny's back and looked over his shoulder. "Oh, that's Snowball. I wouldn't get near him, though-—Pete just bought him, and he's pretty pissy."
Snowball, thought Mikey, and he wandered over in Snowball's direction while Dirty was distracted with Gerard and Gerard was distracted with trying not to fall off Penny.
Hi, Snowball, Mikey said, drawing near to the horse's pen. Snowball told him to go away, because he was sick of humans coming in there and messing with him.
I'm not gonna mess with you. Mikey stepped a little closer. I think you're awesome. I think you're the coolest horse I've ever seen.
Snowball was pretty flattered for a moment, but then all of his doubts came flowing back. Mikey was just saying that, he said, so that he could come closer and stick something in Snowball's mouth, or strap something on his back, or hit him.
No, I'm not. He was close enough now to smell the sweat dampening Snowball's white hair, almost close enough to touch. I wouldn't do something like that. I wouldn't ever hurt you.
Snowball admitted that Mikey did seem pretty different from most of the other humans he'd met. Where did he come from? Snowball hadn't seen him around before.
I just moved here. I hear you're new here, too. Mikey reached a trembling hand out to stroke Snowball's side. The horse inhaled sharply, but he allowed Mikey to pet him. He was smooth and warm and sweaty, and he was surprised to find out he actually liked the feeling of Mikey petting him. See? Mikey said. I'm not so bad.
Snowball snorted, but grudgingly agreed, and suggested that if Mikey wanted to climb on his back, it wouldn't be terrible. He wouldn't throw Mikey off the way he'd tried to throw the last person.
Mikey straightened up to look Snowball right in the eye and asked, Are you sure?
Snowball made a noise like a laugh, and said he was sure, that he probably wouldn't even feel somebody as small as Mikey on his back. He even lowered the front half of his body and said that if Mikey wasn't too short or too scared to jump, he should get on before Snowball changed his mind.
It was kind of hard to scramble onto the back of a sweaty horse without much of anything to grab onto, and Mikey really wished he could jump like Gerard could, but somehow he managed it. When Snowball stood up again, though, and he was suddenly a lot higher off the ground than he'd been a minute ago, he felt a little nervous, and he grabbed Snowball's neck and gripped it as tight as he could without annoying the horse.
He didn't have to worry; Snowball was actually just amused at this point. He hadn't realized Mikey was so young, for a human. Could Mikey hold on while he walked around the border of the fence?
Mikey took a deep breath and sat up straight. Yeah, he said. Go ahead. Snowball started to walk.
It was at this point that Dirty, who'd finally managed to get Gerard in a place where he wasn't actually falling off the horse, noticed Mikey and Snowball. "Oh, holy fuck!" he yelled, and he dropped Penny's reins to run over. "Mikey, get down! Get away from that horse!"
"I'm okay," Mikey said. This is so awesome, he added to Gerard. Did you ever think we were gonna get to ride horses and stuff when Patrick came?
Gerard glared at him, looking kind of nauseated. Mikey and Snowball just laughed. It was a pretty great day.
That night, Gerard came into Mikey's room and sat at the foot of his bed with a troubled expression on his face. "That was really dumb, Mikey," he said. "You're the one who's always telling me not to do weird stuff in front of people, and that was pretty weird. Dirty told Pete he'd never seen anything like it."
Mikey shrugged. I'm good with animals. I told them.
Gerard rolled his eyes. "Yeah, but that's not just being good with animals. That's being, like, the Horse Whisperer. And sometimes I feel like…." He paused. Mikey could feel his emotions collide with each other in confused whirls—irritation, reluctance, hope, fear—and it was the last that concerned him more than anything Gerard had said, and he sat up straight and put his glasses on. "I feel like Pete's waiting for us to do something," Gerard went on. "I mean, Patrick had to have told him about the whole car accident thing and how you predicted it, right? And sometimes I see him looking at you like…I don't know, like he's expecting you to do something like that again. And what do you do? You go and charm his horse or whatever."
Mikey swallowed uncomfortably. He felt embarrassed—-after the first couple of days, he hadn't really been paying that much attention to the feelings he got from Pete and Patrick and Andy and Joe. He'd been too distracted by all the cool stuff around him, like suddenly getting everything he'd ever wanted and more made him stop paying attention. "I'm sorry, Gerard," he said, out loud so he could get back in the habit. Gerard wasn't supposed to have to worry about this stuff alone. It was always supposed to be the two of them protecting each other.
"Don't be." Gerard sighed and leaned into Mikey's headboard. Mikey scooted up close to him, and he put an arm around Mikey's shoulder. "Just be careful," Gerard murmured. "I know everybody here's really nice, but we don't get bad feelings for nothing, right?"
"Right," Mikey muttered.
They slept together in Mikey's bed. Mikey dreamed about the boat wreck again. The details weren't as fuzzy this time—everything was colder, sharper, darker, scarier. The man who was floating on the driftwood with them said, "Hold on to your brother" to Gerard. He didn't say it in English, but somehow Mikey knew that was what he meant, and he gripped Gerard's hand more tightly in the dream.
The next day, Pete and Andy had business meetings and Patrick had to arrange for some contracts to be signed. Joe told Gerard and Mikey they could go hang out in the yard if they wanted, as long as they didn't go so far that they got lost or that Joe couldn't get to them if they needed help, but they decided to stay inside and work on their long-neglected comic book, instead.
The main characters, Jeff and Todd, were orphans like Mikey and Gerard, whose parents had been killed by the evil Dream-Thief and who fought crime to get their revenge. Recently, though, Gerard had started doing sketches of a new character named Jack, a little guy with super strength who looked a lot like Frank.
"See, like, he's fighting crime, too, but he doesn't know about Jeff and Todd except what he hears from the police," Gerard explained, "so he doesn't know if they're fellow vigilantes or maybe supervillains trying to lure him into a trap or something."
"Do they show up at the same crime scene one time and start fighting each other?" Mikey asked. "Because that'd be a pretty kickass way to meet."
Gerard frowned. "Yeah, but why would they start fighting each other?" He started doodling stick figures on his sketchpad. "Maybe…maybe the real bad guy knows about both of them, so he tricked them both into showing up and thinking that the other one was the bad guy."
"That'd be cool," said Mikey. "Can I color in the fight scene?"
"Once I draw it, sure," said Gerard. He scowled at his sketchpad and erased one of his stick-figure doodles. "I suck at drawing people fighting, though," he said. "Nobody looks like that. Jack's fist looks bigger than his head, the perspective's all wrong."
It looked okay to Mikey, but then, Mikey's own drawing skills were pretty limited, which was why he did the tracing and coloring. "Too bad Frank's not here," he said. "He could act out the fight scene and you could draw it."
Gerard's eyes lit up. "Hey, that's a pretty good idea," he said.
"What? You think Joe and Dirty would act out the fight scene?" Joe and Dirty didn't look anything like any of their characters, but maybe Gerard could draw on new faces after he'd gotten the fight moves down.
"No," Gerard said, wrinkling his nose. "I'm not asking them, they're busy. Plus, they'd want to see the comic, and it's totally not ready for people to look at it yet."
Gerard hadn't seemed to mind much when they'd showed the comic to Frank, but Mikey could understand wanting to keep it a secret-—showing stuff like that to adults was a totally different thing. But they still didn't have models for the fight scene. He asked, "What was your idea, then?"
Gerard pointed to a shelf full of models and action figures Patrick and Pete had bought for them. "Some of those things have movable limbs," he said. "So maybe we can act it out with them. Not the really expensive ones, though."
"Aren't we too old to play with action figures?" Mikey asked. It wasn't exactly like he knew what was popular with kids his age, but he was pretty sure acting out fight scenes with kid's toys wasn't it.
"It's not like we're playing with them," Gerard insisted. "We're using them for artistic purposes."
Mikey shrugged. "You're the artist," he said, and he floated Batman and Wolverine down from the shelf. The memory of their conversation from last night struck him suddenly, though, and he dropped the figures on the floor. Is it okay to…you know? he asked.
"I don't see why not," said Gerard. "I mean, we have to look out in case Joe comes back here, but everybody's gone now, so…." He pulled his harmonica out of his pocket. "What's a good song for a fight scene?"
"'Eye of the Tiger,'" said Mikey. "Duh."
Gerard rolled his eyes, but he started to play "Eye of the Tiger," and Mikey settled back to watch.
It took Gerard a little while to get the hang of coordinating two figures at once, but pretty soon Batman and Wolverine were throwing punches at pretty much the same time, circling around each other and dodging and weaving like in the movies. The figures weren't flexible enough for, like, karate, or whatever you called the fighting they did in The Matrix, but it looked pretty good for a comic book fight. And Mikey had totally called the song. As if there were any other option for an epic showdown.
"Hey," said Gerard, pulling his harmonica away, and Batman and Wolverine fell to the ground. "You take over for a little--I think I've got a good picture in my head."
Mikey sucked at directing the kind of little organized movements it took to make action figures fight-—his brain just didn't work that way—-but Gerard didn't seem to care too much, grabbing his pencil and scribbling furiously. "Okay, make Wolverine punch him," he'd say every once in a while, "but Batman jumps back, so he misses." Or, "Okay, now Batman knocks Wolverine down, and Wolverine punches him in the face." Mikey did his best, sneaking a glance every now and then at the figures his brother was drawing.
After a while, Mikey's head started to hurt. "Are you almost done?"
"No," said Gerard shortly without even looking up.
Mikey poked him. It was totally time for lunch, anyway. He dropped the action figures and said, Gee, seriously, my head hurts.
Gerard made a disgruntled noise and put the sketchpad down. "Oh, all right," he said. "I guess I can work off of these."
Mikey leaned over to look. He'd expected to see Batman and Wolverine fighting, or maybe just figures without any faces at all. But he'd drawn in Jeff's and Jack's faces, with little details like Jeff biting his lip as he sized up Jack, and Jack's manic grin as he jumped on Jeff. There was a whole series of drawings for various stages of the fight, and they all looked really cool.
"These are really good," he said, leaning his head on Gerard's shoulder.
"You think so?" Gerard said anxiously. "I'm gonna have to redo that one, Jack's head looks flat."
"Does not." Mikey stood up and pulled at Gerard's arm. "Come on, I'm hungry."
"When did you get so bossy?" Gerard floated the action figures back to their shelf and stood up, and they went to go find Joe. As they left, Mikey had a weird feeling that he was being watched, but he dismissed it. He didn't feel anybody else around, and really, who'd be watching them, anyway?
"Holy shit," said Joe, stretching out a hand to touch the television.
Patrick would have said the same thing, if he could have gathered enough presence of mind to talk.
On the screen, Gerard played his harmonica while a pair of action figures acted out a well-choreographed fight scene. Then, after a few words to Mikey—"Here, you take over for a little"—Gerard started to draw, while the action figures continued to fight, more clumsily now. Presumably, Patrick thought, Mikey was controlling them now. With just the power of his mind. Which pretty much led Patrick back to "Holy shit."
It wasn't like he hadn't seen way cooler examples of things moving without people actually moving them—but they were in movies, with special effects and stuff. Some part of his brain insisted that Gerard and Mikey were somehow doing this with strings, or stop-motion, or something, but another part (Patrick was hesitant to say "the rational part") dismissed the idea. Why on earth would two kids go to the trouble of making it look like they could move things with their minds when, to their knowledge, nobody was watching them?
And that brought Patrick to another point. "You put video cameras in their room, Pete?" It wasn't really a question—Pete was the one who'd dragged them all out to his living room to watch this.
"That's a special kind of creepy," said Joe, who hadn't looked away from the screen yet.
"What the fuck is with you guys?" Pete said irritably. "It's not like I'm watching them in the shower or anything—and fuck, did you see that? They're not just psychic, they're fucking…magic or something." He rewound the tape back to Gerard and the harmonica and pressed play.
"I don't understand," Andy said. "That…that shouldn't be possible. I mean, seriously, I took physics in high school, and there's nothing about that that's possible. How the hell do you make things move just by playing a harmonica?"
Patrick agreed. The psychic thing, he sort of got. It was weird and all, but Patrick had had irrational hunches that had turned out to be right before, and it wasn't like that kind of stuff was completely undocumented. Even Mikey being able to talk to animals or some shit wasn't totally incomprehensible. He was the quietest kid Patrick had ever met, so it made sense on some level that he had an easier time dealing with animals than people. But this…this was a whole new level of weirdness.
"God, if they can do this, what else could they do?" Pete said. "I mean, think about it. They can move shit with their minds. Imagine if you took them to Vegas and had them play the roulette tables. Or, like, a baseball game—they could totally control who won. They could be fucking superheroes, you guys. I don't even--" He shook his head, looking kind of dazed.
"Hey," Andy said sharply, jerking his gaze away from the television, "let's not jump directly into ripping off casinos, okay? These are a couple of kids we're talking about."
"You're right," Pete said, nodding. "Kids can't even get into the gaming part of casinos until they're…what is it, 21?"
Andy sighed. "That's not really what I meant."
Patrick sat on the couch, trying to straighten out his thoughts. "They're really nice kids," he said, and they were. He hadn't been a fan of the whole "adopt some kids" plan, and he still didn't feel like their dad or anything, but Mikey and Gerard were a couple of comic book nerds who were into music and horror movies and drawing, not faux-psychic assholes out to make money by cheating Pete. They seemed pretty happy at Decaydance so far, and they deserved to keep being happy there. "Let's not…let's not make this a thing where we're just using them to get shit."
Pete was silent for a long moment, staring grimly out into space. Patrick chewed on his lower lip and tried not to look too worried. He'd known Pete for a long time—the guy was ambitious, maybe a little ruthless, but he cared about shit, too. The problem was knowing just what it was Pete was going to end up caring about.
"You're right," said Pete finally. "Shit, you're right. They're kids, we're, like, their guardians. But Jesus Christ, you guys. They're probably the only people on the face of the fucking earth who can do this. And if all they do with it is play with action figures and talk to horses, it's such a goddamned waste I can't even think about it."
"With great power comes great responsibility," Joe muttered. Patrick rolled his eyes. Spiderman? Seriously? Joe caught his look and frowned. "Hey," he said defensively, "it's totally relevant. I mean, at the very least we ought to sit down with these kids and have a little talk about psychic ethics. Not using your powers for personal gain and stuff."
"Fuck that," said Pete with a wave of his hand. "It's like any other talent—-they can use it for personal gain if they want. But I'm thinking, like, maybe we should see how much they can do. I mean, we haven't really asked them about this stuff, but if Mikey can seriously tell the future or read minds or whatever the hell it is that he does…shit, I don't know, maybe he should start coming to board meetings with me, tell me if my deals are gonna work out or not. It could be, like, a chore—-I'd give him an allowance and everything."
"And people aren't gonna think it's weird that you have an eleven-year-old vetting your deals?" asked Andy, his face stuck in an expression of forced-looking calm.
Pete shrugged. "I can tell them he wants to be a big executive like me, and I'm taking him under my wing. And this shit with Gerard and the harmonica…dude, I'm thinking television."
"What?" Patrick felt like his brain was moving in slow motion. "Television? Pete, what the hell are you talking about?"
"Like reality TV or something. Except, no, if everybody knew about Gerard and the whole superpower thing, they'd think it was super weird to have Mikey in the office during meetings." Pete scrunched up his face and scratched at his chin. "I don't know. Do you think getting help from a psychic kid counts as a trade violation? You think we could do it openly?"
Joe turned to look at Pete, suddenly serious. "Fuck, Pete, do you know what kind of trouble it'd be if people actually believed you had two kids with superpowers living here? I mean, take all the trouble you get with stalkers and the media and shit and fucking triple it. You're gonna get weirdos asking to get their fortunes told, and scientists who want to test it, and hell, probably the government snooping around and stuff. You do not want this to get out, not unless you want to give me a hell of a lot more money for security around here, and maybe not even then."
"Plus," said Patrick, the thought occurring to him even as he spoke, "I can't imagine Mikey and Gerard would be too keen on having every tabloid journalist and his mother interested in them." They were pretty shy kids—-the guy in charge of the Smith Home had said that they didn't have a lot of friends, and that large groups of people tended to freak them out. Patrick couldn't even imagine how they'd react to being publicly outed as…whatever it was that they were.
"You don't think they'd think it was cool?" Pete asked.
Patrick rolled his eyes. "Even you don't think it's cool. Not all the time, anyway," he hastened to say, cutting Pete off. "I don't know, Pete. Ask them for psychic pointers if you want—that's the whole reason we did this—but I really…I'd be a lot more comfortable with this if I thought they were gonna get to have at least relatively normal lives."
"Patrick, I hate to break this to you, but they're pretty fucking abnormal kids," said Pete, but his face softened.
Patrick wondered if they were having the same thought; Patrick wouldn't know a normal life if it bit him in the ass. He'd spent his own teenage years skipping school to hang out in Pete's mansion, learning how to read and write contracts, making connections, helping Pete mold his father's businesses into his own. And God knew Gerard and Mikey's lives hadn't exactly been an episode of Leave It to Beaver so far, and Decaydance wasn't the most normal place to grow up. But damn it, Patrick thought, suddenly determined, those kids had saved his life, and ruining theirs was a shitty way to repay them. "It's getting late," he said, though it was only half past eleven. "Why don't we leave this until tomorrow? We can eat lunch with the kids, and tell them what we know, and find out what they want to do."
"Awesome," said Pete, surprisingly quickly. He leaned in close on the couch, pressing his face against Patrick's shoulder. He mumbled, "I don't know what I'd do without you," his voice muffled by Patrick's sweatshirt. "You're, like, my conscience. Keeping me on the straight and narrow."
Patrick felt himself flush, and his sweatshirt suddenly seemed too warm. "Crazy fucker," he muttered into Pete's hair.
"Well!" Joe slapped his hands to his knees. "If we're done here, I'm gonna go do a perimeter check. And maybe, like, rethink my conception of the universe as we know it."
"No kidding," said Andy. "God, I knew those kids were gonna be trouble." He seemed more dazed than angry about it.
The next morning, Patrick slept way later than he'd intended to. When he finally stumbled out of his room, still wet from the shower, he found Mikey and Gerard already dressed and curled up on the couch in Patrick's living room, flipping through the channels on the TV.
"Hey, guys," he said, trying to smile like he didn't know they could have probably turned on the television just by the power of their minds.
"Morning," mumbled Gerard, giving Patrick a sleepy smile. Mikey just stared at him like he was a particularly confusing puzzle before his eyes darted over to Gerard. Whatever he conveyed to his brother in that glance, it clearly freaked Gerard out. Flipping off the television, he said, "Um, Mikey and me are gonna go outside, okay?" He suddenly sounded nervous.
The downside to having a couple of psychic kids, evidently, was that you couldn't keep secrets from them. "Sure," Patrick said, as cheerfully as he could. "We're having lunch with Pete in a couple of hours though, so, you know, don't wander out too far."
Gerard nodded and grabbed Mikey's hand, and the two of them ran out of the doorway leading to the back porch. Patrick sighed and watched as they ran off into the woods, unable to really categorize or describe how he was feeling.
Lunch was fairly awkward, at least on Patrick's end. Joe and Pete tried to make small talk, but Gerard answered mostly in nervous monosyllables, and Mikey seemed to have given up talking altogether. As soon as they'd all finished their sandwiches, Gerard and Mikey stood up. "Can we be excused?" asked Gerard.
"Hey, hold on a minute," Pete said. "Sit yourselves back down."
They did, exchanging unhappy glances, and Patrick wondered if it was reasonable to feel guilty for thinking whatever it was that made them so nervous.
Pete clapped his hands together. "So!" he said, his smile the bright one that reminded Patrick of armor. "How about those telekinetic powers of yours, huh?"
Andy rolled his eyes. "Subtle, Pete," he muttered.
Gerard bit his lower lip and shot his brother a look. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said slowly. His poker face wasn't exactly bad, but Patrick had had a lot of experience dealing with liars, and the way Gerard's eyes moved from one person to another without meeting anyone's gaze directly gave him away as surely as anything.
Pete raised an eyebrow. "C'mon, Gerard. You know what I'm talking about. You, with the harmonica, making Batman and Wolverine fight? Ringing any bells?"
"No," said Gerard, more firmly this time.
Joe sighed. "Dude. Pete put a camera in your room because of the thing where you predicted Patrick's car wreck. I know that's super creepy, but in the interest of fairness I ought to point out that there are actually quite a few security cameras in the house, so it's not like there aren't a ton of tapes of all of us, too. Anyway, we saw the thing with the action figures, so there's no point lying about it."
"Why would you want to hide it, anyway?" Pete leaned across the table, looking intensely at Mikey and Gerard. "You guys, you know how awesome that is? You have super powers, for crying out loud! That's not something to be ashamed of."
Gerard's mouth dropped open, and he stared at Pete like he would some alien life form. Mikey's expression was more closed-off than ever, and Patrick wondered if he was reading all of their minds, and if so, what he was finding that made him look like that.
"It's not…." Gerard shifted uncomfortably in his chair and stared at his lap, his face hidden behind a messy tangle of dark hair. "We're not ashamed," he said quietly. "Our mom told us not to tell people. They don't always like it when they find out. They think we're monsters or something."
"Well, people are dumb," said Pete decisively. He smiled again, warmer and more genuine, and said, "How do you do it? Like, what's going on in your head when you're moving stuff?"
Patrick didn't think Gerard could have looked more surprised if Pete had suddenly turned into a fish, or if the entire cast of Sesame Street had invaded Decaydance in armored tanks. "I don't…I don't know, I guess I just think that I want them to move." He shrugged awkwardly. "It works better when I'm playing the harmonica. I think it helps me focus."
"You weren't exposed to radiation or bitten by a weird spider, were you?" asked Andy. Everyone, including Gerard and Mikey, stared at him, and he added, "I just thought I'd ask. Since we're living in a comic book now, and all."
"No," Gerard said. "We could always do weird stuff. We don't know why, though. We don't do it on purpose."
Gerard looked anxious, almost frightened, but Patrick was more disturbed by Mikey's expression. For a few minutes now, ever since Pete had asked how they did what they did, Mikey'd been staring off into space as if he couldn't hear or see anything going on around him. He seemed to have totally zoned out, and given how freaked he'd been earlier, Patrick wasn't at all sure that this was a positive development. He didn't think kids could go into shock from fear alone, but he sure as hell didn't want to test that theory. "Mikey?" he said tentatively. "You okay?"
Gerard turned to his brother with alarmed eyes. He shook Mikey's shoulder, looking mildly frantic. Mikey blinked slowly a few times, and then the awareness (and discomfort) returned to his face.
"What was that?" Joe asked, frowning. "You all right, Mikey?"
"He's okay," Gerard answered. "We just don't remember a lot of stuff from when we were little kids. Sometimes Mikey has flashbacks." He made a face at Pete. "Thinking about how our powers work made him think about back then."
Flashbacks? That, and the memory loss, sounded like some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder to Patrick's admittedly ignorant ear. He tried to think back to what Smith had said about their parents, and came up blank. Or, no, actually, they'd been adopted when they were about three and five, respectively, and the mom had died suddenly a few months ago from a heart attack, but nobody knew anything about the biological parents. So whatever it was that had happened when they were little, it was bad, and nobody knew what it was, including Mikey and Gerard.
Pete looked vaguely alarmed and said, "Jesus, don't think about it, then. Forget I asked." He gave Mikey a dubious, worried look. "You gonna flash back again if I ask what else you can do?"
"Why do you want to know?" asked Mikey. His tone was flat, but Patrick chose to take it as a good sign that Mikey had remembered he could talk at all.
Patrick tried his best to look casual as he said, "You have to admit, this—-well, it's not the kind of thing you see every day. I can't speak for these guys, but I'm pretty curious."
Mikey looked at him intensely, and Patrick had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being read like a book and judged. It didn't help that Gerard was giving his brother an eager, inquisitive glance the whole time, like he really wanted to find out what it was Mikey saw in Patrick. Patrick didn't know what they expected, but he hoped he came out of their investigation not looking like a complete skuzzbucket of a human being.
After what seemed like longer than it probably was, Mikey quirked an eyebrow at his brother before looking back at Patrick and saying, "Well. We kind of do a bunch of different stuff."
"Yeah?" said Pete. "Why don't you tell us about it?"
And they did.
Gerard didn't think things had changed too much since they told Pete and Patrick and Joe and Andy about their powers. Joe still mercilessly beat them at Mario Kart on his lunch break, and Andy still recommended graphic novels to them, and Patrick still asked them awkwardly about their homework, sounding uncomfortably parental, and talked with them about music, which was much more fun.
Once they'd figured out that Mikey was the more reliable one when it came to telling the future, Pete had started bringing Mikey in to work with him for a few hours once or twice a week. Apparently, he'd just walked in and said, "You guys know Patrick, my P.A? Well, this is Mikey, his foster kid, and he's gonna come help me out around here." Mikey said the other business people had been a little weirded out, but they didn't complain. Gerard figured they were probably used to Pete doing weird stuff.
"What does he want you to do there?" Gerard asked. They were sitting on the fence to Snowball's little enclosure while Dirty took a nap in the horse barn. Bunny, who'd developed a kind of alliance with Snowball, was perched on the fence next to Mikey and occasionally looking on appreciatively as Snowball jumped particularly high or reared up on his hind legs.
Mikey shrugged. Not a lot, really, he said. After the whole video camera in their room thing, Mikey'd sort of given up his quest to talk out loud more. Sometimes he and Andy show me these big long lists of stuff they're investing in and I'm supposed to tell them how I feel about them. Mostly I don't feel anything, but sometimes I know when stuff's gonna crash or something. Sometimes one of the people who works for Pete will have some plan, and I'm supposed to say whether it'll work or not. He scratched absent-mindedly behind Bunny's ears, and she sighed contentedly. It's kind of boring, but Pete gives me twenty bucks every time.
Gerard probably wasn't supposed to feel jealous that his brother got to be the psychic stock predictor, but he kind of did. He didn't even really care about the money, but like, Mikey got to go into business meetings and do important stuff, stuff that mattered, while Gerard was stuck at home watching This Is Spinal Tap and trying to draw a decent portrait of Ash from The Evil Dead just by playing Propagandhi songs on the harmonica. Gerard was the older one. If anyone was supposed to be out doing meaningful stuff with his powers, it should have been him.
Mikey, who'd obviously been listening to Gerard's thoughts even though he'd meant to keep them a secret, said, You could ask to come in with Pete, too, if you want. It's not like you don't ever get feelings about stuff. And it's not like I have anything to spend the stupid money on anyway.
"No kidding," said Gerard, who'd just as soon talk about something that didn't make him feel like a loser compared to his little brother. "If we ever wanted to buy something, Pete or Patrick would buy it for us first." It was kind of weird, now that Gerard thought about it. Cool, obviously, but he was really used to Mama telling him to save up for stuff-—"And if you still want to waste your money on a Nintendo after all that, be my guest!" After Mama'd died, they'd had to leave a lot of their stuff behind, because it wasn't like they could take everything they owned with them to the Home. And now…now they barely even had to ask for something before it was theirs.
Mikey didn't say anything, but Gerard knew—the way he sometimes knew things about Mikey, even if he couldn't read minds the way Mikey could—that he was thinking of the beat-up old guitar lesson book Frank had given them. Despite all the stuff Pete and Patrick had given them, it was still pretty much Mikey's favorite thing, aside from his starcase. And maybe his new iPod.
Stuff didn't mean as much when it came that easily, Gerard thought, suddenly depressed by the thought. It felt like a stupid thing to complain about, but it still made him homesick. For Mama or for the Home or for Frank or for anything or anyone that felt real. Being at Decaydance was sort of like living in some magical other dimension, but it didn't feel like home.
Home. The thought seemed to trigger a whole series of images from Mikey, scary ones about floating in the ocean and running in a meadow on top of a mountain and crying endlessly over some loss he didn't even remember. The flow of feelings hit Gerard like a fist in the stomach, and he took a moment to catch his breath. "Mikey?" he said tentatively. He didn't know what it was he wanted to ask, but he figured Mikey probably did.
Mikey's mouth quivered like he wanted to cry. That always made Gerard freak out, so he reached out to pull his brother in a hug. The motion kind of messed up their balance on the fence, and they slipped off the fence into Snowball's pen, landing on their feet.
Nice going, Mikey said, but he didn't pull away, so Gerard didn't let go of him. Mikey's breath made a warm, vaguely damp spot on Gerard's tee-shirt. Or maybe it was tears. But if Mikey was crying, Gerard didn't want to see it.
I'm not crying, Mikey said. It's just…I've been having the dreams a lot, lately. Flashbacks, too.
"Yeah?" Gerard said cautiously.
Mikey nodded. I think…I think our parents died in the boat crash. Maybe other people did, too, but definitely our parents. He pulled his face away from Gerard's shoulder and gave him a frustrated look. It's so weird. There's this guy in the dream, and he's helping us not sink and grabbing my starcase so I don't lose it, and I know him, but then I wake up and I can't remember who he is or if he's alive or anything. But I think he was from whatever country we're from. Mikey sighed and wriggled from Gerard's hug, staring at the ground. Maybe he died, too.
Gerard knew it wasn't going to help Mikey feel better, but he couldn't help letting himself feel completely and utterly lost for a moment. It wasn't like he'd really thought they still had parents out there-—it wasn't even like he'd even really wanted them, after a few years of living with Mama with no signs that anyone was looking for Mikey and Gerard-—but it was still depressing to think that any family they'd had was irrevocably gone. It was even more depressing to think that there wasn't anybody left who could tell them about wherever it was they'd been sailing from, that they might as well have not had a past for all they were ever going to know about it.
Hey, Mikey said, and he pulled his starcase out of his backpack. I didn't think of it before, but we have computers now. We could totally look up the places on the map.
And suddenly, Gerard didn't feel quite so alone. Sometimes he was so grateful he had Mikey that he couldn't even breathe.
You too, dummy, said Mikey. Come on. I think I'm getting sunburn on my face.
They left Bunny and Snowball to commune with each other and went to Gerard's room to Google all the places like Wolf Mountain and Molasses Creek and Cork Valley. It was kind of anticlimactic—-obviously whoever did the websites for the Cork Valley Tourism Association didn't see the point in updating more than once every five years and didn't really understand the point of websites, because there wasn't any even remotely interesting or recent information besides the phone number listed as contact information.
"Tourism?" Mikey said aloud, his voice thick with incredulity. "What kind of tourist would go to a place like that?"
Gerard agreed. As far as he could tell by the grainy photograph on the main page, Cork Valley was a tiny little town with nothing more exciting than a bunch of woods in it. It wasn't even big enough for a school-—the Hero County website said that the kids from Cork Valley (and there probably weren't many, since the population was only 600 people total) went to school in Magnolia, the next town over. There wasn't anything at all about Wolf Mountain or Molasses Creek, except vague mentions in the "attractions" section of the Cork Valley site. The place was about two hundred miles south from Pete's house, maybe a little less from Monroeville or the Smith Home. "I don't get it," he said. "Why would there be a map in the starcase of this place?"
I guess we're supposed to go there, said Mikey. But I don't know if we're gonna be able to get Patrick or somebody to drive us there. I mean, if I can't even explain to you why we want to go, how am I supposed to explain it to them?
"No harm in asking," said Gerard. But he thought Mikey was probably right—maybe Pete would go for the psychic compulsion angle, but still, driving down to some middle-of-nowhere town was gonna be a hard sell.
They spent the rest of the afternoon playing text-based RPGs on the internet, and Gerard typed while Mikey offered suggestions. When the adults finally came back for dinner, Gerard asked Pete if he could come along the next time Mikey went in for one of the board meetings. Pete seemed surprised and pleased that Gerard had asked, and said, "Yeah, why don't you come tomorrow? Maybe you can interpret for Motormouth here." He ruffled Mikey's hair fondly, and Mikey rolled his eyes.
The next morning, Gerard woke up with the weird feeling at the back of his mind that he'd forgotten something. A dream, probably. He lay quietly on his bed with his eyes closed for a few minutes, hoping that some of the dream would come back to him, but all he got was a vague sense of disorientation, like nothing around him made sense, and the feeling that he'd been dreaming because of Pete's meeting today.
He went over to Mikey's room to flop on his bed. Bunny'd sneaked in during the night and was curled into a ball on the pillow next to Mikey, so Gerard got on the other side to poke his brother in the back. "Hey," he said.
Go away, Mikey said sleepily.
"No, seriously, Mikey, wake up." Bunny made a disgruntled noise, so Gerard scowled at her and poked Mikey again. "I had a weird dream, and I can't remember it, but I'm pretty sure it had to do with Pete's meeting."
Mikey groaned, but he sat up. Gerard handed him his glasses and he put them on, staring blearily into space. I don't get it, he said. Did something bad happen in the dream?
"No, just…." Gerard paused, trying to put the few bits of memory he had into words. "I don't know. It felt weird when I woke up," he said, feeling stupid.
Did you dream that somebody was watching you at Pete's meeting and then chasing you up a mountain? Bunny made a loud, defiant noise that sounded like a human voice protesting something indignantly and shook herself all over. Mikey ran his fingers over her head, still staring blankly ahead.
Gerard thought about it. "Yeah, actually," he said. He shouldn't have been surprised; this was Mikey, after all. It was still kind of weird.
Mikey shrugged, finally looking at Gerard. Well, that's what I dreamed last night, so I thought maybe you did, too. So, you think it means we shouldn't go today?
Mikey's words had brought back the wispy shreds of memory to Gerard's mind and filled the blank outlines in with details, so Gerard took a moment to sift through them. "I'm not sure," he said finally. "I feel like maybe if we go, we'll…know more. Maybe be prepared."
Prepared for what?
"I think...maybe someone's going to find out about us. I don't know if it's the guy at the meeting, or someone Pete tells, or what—or maybe they already know about us, and that's why they're coming to the meeting, or something. But somebody's gonna find out, and they're the ones who are gonna be chasing us through the woods. And so maybe if we go, we'll figure out more, who it is and stuff." Gerard finished and took deep breath. He listened to try and get some idea of how Mikey was feeling, but all he got was the confused static that Mikey's thoughts sounded like sometimes.
You think Pete could stop whoever's gonna be chasing us? Mikey said finally, looking at Gerard way too seriously for an eleven-year-old. I mean. He's got a lot of money. And I think Joe carries a gun and stuff. Maybe they could do something.
"Maybe," said Gerard. But Mikey had been telling him about the dream where someone was chasing him up a mountain for years, and none of the dreams had involved Pete coming in to save them. It wasn't like Mikey's dreams were right a hundred per cent of the time, but he didn't usually have the same dreams over and over again if they weren't gonna happen, either. And Gerard still didn't understand time travel enough to know if they were ever really able to change the future, or if everything that they did was gonna happen anyway, but he had a sneaking suspicion that the chase scene wasn't one they were gonna be able to avoid.
Maybe you're right, Mikey said. His cold fear seeped through Gerard like icy water in his veins, and it freaked Gerard out.
He reached out a hand for Mikey's shoulder, trying to ignore the cat hair all over his tee-shirt. "Hey," he said, "wanna help me color in the fight scene with Jeff and Todd and Jack?"
They spent most of the morning hanging out in Patrick's living room watching episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and coloring in their comic book. After lunch, Dirty drove them into the city, over to Pete's office.
"Whoa," Gerard said involuntarily. Pete worked in, like, a skyscraper. And it wasn't like he just worked in it, he probably owned it—or at least, that's what Gerard figured from the "WentzCorp Industries" sign by the front door.
Mikey, as usual, was seriously unimpressed, but then, he'd seen it before. Wait until you see the boardroom, he said.
Pete met them at the elevator in the lobby. "My favorite little dudes!" he crowed, putting an arm around each of them and ushering them into the elevator. "You guys ready to help me out?"
"I guess," Gerard said. "I mean, I'm not as good at the telling the future stuff as Mikey, but I get feelings and stuff, too."
"That's cool," said Pete. "I mean, Mikey here's been right on the money so far, so it's not like I'm hurting for good advice. Just, if you have a good feeling about something, tell Patrick, and he'll tell me."
Patrick was waiting for them when they got to the 17th floor, looking stressed. "Hey, guys," he said to Gerard and Mikey. "You want anything to eat or drink before we go in?"
"Coke Zero?" Gerard asked, and Mikey nodded.
"Coke Zero. Sure," said Patrick. "Pete, you better get your ass in there. This meeting's supposed to start, oh, about three minutes ago."
Pete grinned. "Relax, Patrick. It's not like they can start without me."
They went to the vending machines before following Pete to the boardroom. "Okay," said Patrick in a low voice as they paused outside the door. "Mikey, you know the drill, but Gerard, we're gonna sit behind Pete. When he has a question for you and Mikey, he'll turn around. You don't have to pay attention to everything happening in the meeting or anything, but you do have to be quiet. Did you bring anything to read?"
Gerard nodded. It wasn't strictly accurate; he'd brought a rough draft of a letter he was working on for Frank, since he only knew Spencer's office number at the Home and Frank didn't have an e-mail address.
"Cool." Patrick sighed and gave them a tired-looking smile. "You guys ready?"
Mikey shrugged. "Sure," he said.
Mikey didn't seem to have much trouble focusing on the Stephen King novel he'd brought, but Gerard was having a hell of a time concentrating. It wasn't like he understood a lot of what the business people were saying—-a bunch of stuff about demographics and marketing strategies and whatnot—-but it was kind of cool to watch Pete and Patrick in their element. Every time Pete needed a piece of information, Patrick had already pulled it up on his laptop and was ready with it. And Pete—-well, it wasn't like he seemed like a whole different person, because he still had the same kind of confidence and ability to make people pay attention to him that he had at home, but he was like a more serious version of himself. Gerard wondered if he'd ever be able to make people listen to him like that.
Every now and then, Pete would turn to Mikey and Gerard and say, "That guy wants me to buy out the Cab Corporation. You think it's a good idea?" And then Mikey and Gerard would think about it—-well, Gerard would try to, anyway, but he didn't get any feelings about it one way or another-—and then Mikey would tell Gerard, and Gerard would tell Pete. Gerard felt kind of like a third wheel, but Pete grinned at him as brightly as he did at Mikey, so maybe he wasn't completely useless.
About halfway through the meeting, everyone took a break. Mikey and Gerard got another couple of Cokes and stole some Entertainment Weeklys from the lounge before going back to sit next to Patrick. Pete was the first of the business people back in the room, and gradually they all started to filter back. They were so slow about it, though, that Gerard started to try to will them back with just his mind.
It doesn't work that way, dummy, said Mikey. It only goes one way with normal people-—we can get thoughts from them, but we can't send them thoughts, and we sure can't make them do stuff.
"How do you know?" Gerard muttered. "Maybe I can, and we just don't know it because I've never tried."
Whatever, said Mikey, and then his gaze seemed suddenly alert. Hey, who's that guy?
Gerard looked over to where Mikey was looking. The guy who'd just walked in didn't look that different from anyone else in the room; he was a young guy with curly brown hair and a nice suit. Gerard thought maybe he hadn't been in the meeting before the break, but he hadn't been paying that close attention.
"Mr. Wentz?" the strange guy said. "Ms. Moore had an emergency and had to duck out. She sent me as her replacement." He had an accent-—British, maybe, or Australian. Gerard felt a weird tug of something, maybe whatever had set Mikey on edge, and he sat up straight to see what Pete did.
"Yeah?" Pete said casually. "Who are you?"
"Ben Lee." The guy passed a business card down, and Pete took it with a slight frown. "Junior Vice President, Ripe Industries."
"You must be new," Pete said. His tone was light enough, but there was a hint of suspicion underneath. "We haven't met, and I've been working with Ripe for two years."
Ben Lee nodded. "I've just transferred from their Sydney branch." He shrugged. "I can give you references, if you're worried about corporate espionage or something. Honestly, though, I'm just supposed to take notes for Mandy."
Pete narrowed his eyes and turned to give Patrick a look. Patrick typed furiously on his laptop for a few seconds and then whispered something in Pete's ear. Pete leaned back and gave Ben an appraising look, and then finally he smiled. "Well?" he said. "We gonna get this meeting rolling again or not?"
As the discussions started again, Gerard leaned over to Patrick. "What'd your computer say about that new guy?" he whispered.
"Pretty much just what he said," Patrick said in a low voice. He frowned. "Why, do you have a bad feeling about him?" He looked ready to grab at Pete's shoulder in an instant.
Not a corporate espionage bad feeling, no. He looked over at Mikey.
I think that's the guy, Mikey said.
Can you tell if he's bad? Gerard scribbled on the back of his letter to Frank.
I don't…Mikey frowned, peering at Ben. I don't think so. I don't know. It's confusing—-like stuff's gonna happen because of him, but it's not like he's gonna do anything. Maybe he tells someone else about us, but I don't see how he'd even know. It's not like we're jumping on the tables yelling, "We're psychic!" Unless he's psychic, too. But I don't think he is.
Patrick was still waiting on an answer, looking concerned, so Gerard said, "No, it's okay," and watched Patrick relax. Maybe it would be okay. Mikey had a point-—they weren't doing anything particularly weird, and if they kept it that way, maybe Ben wouldn't figure out whatever it was he wasn't supposed to figure out. Plus, Gerard still thought that whatever was coming, Patrick and Pete wouldn't be able to do anything about it anyway.
Ben ripped off his tie as soon as he got into the taxi. He hated those things—always made his neck sweat. "28th and Wake Street, please," he said to the driver. As they drove, he took off his coat and unbuttoned the top of his shirt. It wasn't like he wasn't used to heat, but Christ, the humidity in this city would choke an elephant.
The headquarters at 28th and Wake looked pretty much like any one of a number of featureless brick office buildings in the area. Agent Folds had taken the time to plant some flowers in the window planters, which Ben thought was a nice touch, but that was it.
Of course, on the inside, you had to go through all sorts of security once you got past the receptionists. He waved at them as he walked through to the identification scanners, but they ignored him, as usual. At least the building was air-conditioned, he thought. A place couldn't really be hell with central air conditioning, no matter what that demon in Dogma thought.
Special Agent Carter was standing in the middle of the cubicles by Agent Kweller's desk going through a file folder. Ben debated hiding behind the corner and paging him, but sooner or later Carter would find out that he'd been trying to avoid walking up to him, and then he'd be in for another disdainful look, which, coming from Carter, somehow hurt more than any of the stupid remarks from his other coworkers. Ben took a deep breath and went to say hello.
Ben was thirty years old, and Agent Carter couldn't have possibly been more than ten or so years older, but all the same, he wanted to be Carter when he grew up. The man practically oozed confidence, competence, a certain savoir faire. He took no bullshit from anyone. Someday Ben hoped that he, too, would be in a position where his aura of authority and knowledge prevented him from having to take any bullshit. Of course, he was probably years away from that. As far as everyone in the office was concerned, Ben was just the weird hippie Australian guy. Ben didn't mind being the weird hippie Australian guy, but he would have killed for a little of Special Agent Carter's confidence.
Carter put down the folder as Ben approached. "Lee," he said. "How'd your first undercover op go? Did Wentz suspect anything?"
"I don't think so," Ben said. "The cover story worked like a charm."
Carter nodded. "Good." He jerked his head towards the hallway where the real offices were, and said, "Wanna take this to my office?"
Carter's office was nice. Ben took a moment to look around at the bookshelves (real wood!) and the desk chair (real leather!) before turning his attention back to Carter, who was doing something on his computer. "Well?" Carter said impatiently.
"As far as I can tell, everything's on the level. There were no bribes, no insider information, nothing off the sort—at that meeting, anyway. I suppose he might have more private meetings for that sort of thing, but I think it's too early to tell, really."
Carter sighed and typed something. "You might be right," he said, "but God knows Wentz is up to something. I know he's got his fingers in a lot of pies, but this latest hot streak he's got is suspicious even for him. Lee." He looked up and fixed Ben with a serious look, and Ben felt himself straighten up without even meaning to, feeling shabbily under-dressed with his missing tie and unbuttoned collar. "Did you see anything out of the ordinary? Anything at all. The smallest detail could be important."
"Well…." Ben hesitated to mention it, it seemed so ridiculous, but as long as Carter was asking, it couldn't hurt. "There was something a bit odd. There were two kids in the room—apparently, Wentz's P.A. took them in or adopted them or something—and I know this sounds stupid, but it's almost as if Wentz was taking advice from the kids."
"Advice?" Carter said, raising an eyebrow.
"Well, you know. He'd be about to make a decision about buying a company out or something, and he'd turn around, and the kids would say something, or nod, or gesture, or whatever." Ben shrugged. It wasn't as if he suspected a couple of pre-teen boys of insider trading, but he couldn't help how it had looked.
Carter leaned back in his comfortable-looking desk chair and frowned. "What are you telling me, Lee?"
"Nothing, I suppose. Unless the kids are secretly cutthroat businessmen, or psychic or something, I don't see how they could possibly be affecting Wentz's business success."
"Psychic?" Carter sat up abruptly.
Oh, hell no. Ben knew he had a reputation for being a bit of a New Age guy, but Carter couldn't possibly think he was suggesting that Pete Wentz was using psychic powers to get ahead. "It was just a joke, sir," he said.
"Maybe to you." Carter typed something furiously, frowned at his computer screen, and then folded his hands together on his desk. "Shut the door and sit down."
Ben obeyed, completely confused. Carter leaned forward with an intense expression on his face. "Before I moved to Corporate Fraud two years ago, you know where I worked?"
Ben shook his head. He'd only been in the States a year, and it wasn't like people were dying to fill him in on office gossip.
"Now, Lee, this is strictly classified, so I don't want to hear that you've been spreading this around the office." Carter waited for Ben's nod before he continued. "Well, a lot of people don't know this, but the FBI has a division for Paranormal and Extraterrestrial Phenomena."
What? "Like the X-Files?" Ben blurted out.
Carter chuckled drily. "Something like that. Now, as you can imagine, the field work in that department is 99% bullshit. But every now and then, you get something real." He looked Ben over appraisingly, and said, "You know Area 51?"
"You're not gonna tell me it's real, are you?" Ben wondered a bit hysterically if this was a practical joke. If it was, Carter had a hell of a poker face.
"No, I'm not gonna tell you that," said Carter. "But I am gonna tell you that alien spacecraft have landed on American soil, on more than one occasion. And I am gonna tell you that we have genuine cases of criminals, domestic and otherwise, making use of ghosts and magic and psychic powers and all that shit to do everything from steal candy to smuggle nuclear weapons."
"And you think Pete Wentz is using a couple of psychic kids to increase his profit margin this year?" It was almost too ridiculous to contemplate, but Carter looked deadly serious, and God knew the man had seen a lot of shit in his tenure at the FBI. Even Ben knew that.
Carter shrugged. "I don't know. That's not my department anymore. But the circumstances of how those kids came to be living with Pete Wentz are pretty damn odd. Wentz made a charitable donation-—and I'm talking a lot of money-—to the Smith Children's home a week before Patrick Stump signed the custody papers. And Stump requested those two kids, Gerard and Mikey Minnelli, specifically."
"Maybe they hit it off," Ben offered. "You know, sometimes people just click."
Carter gave him a withering look. "I'm not talking about any goddamned parent-child bond between Stump and these kids. I'm talking about Pete Wentz using his money to get Stump approved as a foster parent faster than ought to be legally possible. There was clearly something about those kids that Wentz fucking wanted." Carter pulled a plain business card out of his desk and handed it to Ben.
Maja Ivarsson, FBI was all it said, with a number and an e-mail address underneath. Ben stared at it for a while, though, as if something on it would make any of this make sense.
"Now, I've worked with Ivarsson before," Carter said. "I want you to call her office and set up an appointment, and then you tell her everything you can remember about these kids. And when you talk to her, tell her Shawn says hey." With that, Carter went back to going through the file he'd been looking at earlier. Ben figured that was his cue to leave, and he stood up, grabbing his tie and stuffing it in his pocket. As he opened the door, Carter said, "Hey, Lee. Good job on this."
There wasn't any real reason for Ben to feel giddy as a schoolboy just because his boss gave him a compliment, but, Ben figured, there wasn't any reason for him not to.
Getting an appointment with Maja Ivarsson was like getting an appointment with the Pope—or at least, like Ben imagined getting an appointment with the Pope would be. It was a week before her office even called him back, another before he could get in, with nothing but mountains of fucking paperwork to do in the meanwhile.
When the day of his appointment finally came around, though, it was a bit like Christmas. Ben could barely stop himself from shouting, "Area 51's a fake, and I know it because I've got an appointment with the Aliens and Psychics division of the FBI!" as he walked down the street. This was the kind of shit people back home had teased him about when they found out that he was moving to America and becoming a federal agent, the kind of Al Capone, JFK assassination mystery stuff that Ben had given up on ever being included in.
The offices for the Division for Paranormal and Extraterrestrial Phenomena were located in a depressingly boring little white stucco building (although Christ, the security was really something). As Ben waited for the receptionist to lead him to Ivarsson's office, he looked around. There were taupe walls with generic pictures, greyish carpet, piles of Time and People magazines on the press-board end tables. Who'd have thought that this was where people investigated some of the greatest mysteries to ever plague mankind?
"Right this way, Agent Lee," said the bored-sounding receptionist.
Ivarsson's office was at the end of a well-lit, almost cozy hallway. The receptionist left without announcing him, and Ben hovered outside the doorway for a moment before raising his hand to knock.
"Come in," said an accented voice.
A lovely blonde woman was sitting behind the desk, and another woman and a man, both dark-haired were sitting with bored expressions against the wall. "You must be Agent Lee," said the blonde woman. She had a vaguely Scandinavian accent, Ben decided, and he felt oddly pleased to meet another non-American in the Bureau.
"Yeah, I am," he said, holding out his hand. "Are you Maja Ivarsson?"
"Yes," she said, and she shook his hand with a rather cat-like smile. She gestured with her other hand towards the man and woman by the wall, who as yet remained silent. "These are Agents Palmer and Viglione."
"Nice to meet you," said Ben. Agent Palmer-—or possibly Viglione—-well, the woman raised her eyebrow. The man sighed. Ben decided not to take it personally—Special Agent Carter aside, it probably took an odd sort of person to work in this particular division.
"Well, shall we get down to business?" said Ms. Ivarsson, sitting down again. "Agent Lee, I want you to tell me absolutely everything about these children you saw at Mr. Wentz's meeting." Seeing Ben's surprised look, she smiled again. "Special Agent Carter sent me most of the pertinent information. From you, I want only the most specific physical details of the actual event."
"All right," said Ben, and he tried to describe them as best he could, considering it had been two weeks ago and he hadn't exactly been devoting all of his attention to the kids.
He felt terribly inadequate, and the disdainful looks from Palmer and Viglione didn't help much, but when he was finished, Ms. Ivarsson said, "Thank you very much. You have been very helpful."
Ben waited, but apparently nothing more was forthcoming. He couldn't really blame them for being reticent or busy, but he was still disappointed not to know whether or not he'd really helped them in their investigation, and if so, what kind of investigation it was. He stood up with a sigh. "Well. Nice you meet you, Ms. Ivarsson," he said. He was about to turn to leave, but…after all, it wasn't as if he was about to get another invite back to this place anytime soon. "Can you tell me…are those kids really…."
"Are they really what, Agent Lee?" asked Ms. Ivarsson with a frown.
"Are they really psychic?"
Agent Palmer laughed, and Ms. Ivarsson's frown relaxed into an easy, confident grin. "I believe they are, Agent Lee," she said. "I believe they are also probably aliens."
Ben's afternoon meetings were excruciatingly boring, nothing but facts and figures about the cash flow from Pete Wentz's various bank accounts. He spent the whole day thinking about aliens, Ms. Ivarsson's words repeating on an endless loop in his head.
Agent Viglione frowned at the blueprints in front of him. "Is there a back door into this wing?"
Agent Palmer stubbed out her cigarette and pointed. "There," she said. "That hallway in the back's been remodeled, though."
"Right," said Agent Viglione with a nod. "Christ, how much money you think Wentz makes?"
"I believe the technical term is 'shitloads.'" She leaned over the table, tracing a finger thoughtfully along the floor plan. "There'll only be one or two guards on duty," she said. "And I've got Katie on the security system."
He smiled. "Good," he said, and then he added, "You really think Wentz'll fight us on this?" His tone was casual, but the thread of eager interest underneath was obvious to anyone who knew him.
"Doesn't matter," she said with a shrug. "All alien life forms are property of the United States Government. You sure as hell can't adopt them, not even if you're Pete Wentz's personal assistant."
It's another stuffy night, hot even at two in the fucking morning, and his shirt is sticking uncomfortably to his back. The back door pushes open easily, though, and the air conditioning inside is like walking suddenly into a refrigerator, chilling the sweat and drenching him in cold clamminess. He looks around the luxurious living room. The hallway should be past the kitchen—-even though the hallway itself has been rearranged, it's still in the same place, and he walks quietly through a messy breakfast nook.
Shit. He stops in his tracks and sneaks a glance over his shoulder. It's Wentz's head of security—-Trohman, he remembers.
"What the hell are you doing?" says Trohman. "No, wait, don't answer that. Get on the floor right the fuck now. And I have a gun, so don't try anything funny."
"All right," he says. "Okay, just don't…." He can't even decide what he wants to say. Don't worry? Don't do anything stupid? Don't make me laugh? No time for witty rejoinders, though, and before Trohman can get impatient, he reaches into his holster. The gun's out in a flash, and before Trohman can say anything, it's firing.
The silencer muffles the shot, softens it into a low hiss, but just in case, he stands still for a moment to listen for movement within the house. Nothing. He turns down into the small corridor past the master bedroom, leaving Trohman to bleed out on the carpet.
At first Mikey didn't realize it had been a dream. He woke up in his bed, soaked in sweat, with his whole body trembling and his stomach wracked with dread. GERARD! he yelled, putting the whole force of his mind behind it. Bunny, blinking irately at him from the other pillow, asked him what was wrong. He ignored her and yelled for his brother again.
It was just a dream, he told himself. Joe wasn't really dead, and there wasn't really a guy in the house sneaking towards his room. Just a dream. The frantic terror seeped out of his mind, but the cold sick feeling in his stomach didn't.
Gerard appeared at the doorway, rubbing at his eyes. "What is it, Mikey?" he asked through a yawn. "Bad dream?"
Gerard, we have to go. We have to go NOW. Mikey still wanted to puke, but he forced himself out of his bed and ducked under it to pull out his suitcase. They could still stop it. They could. He wouldn't have dreamed it if they couldn't do anything about it, right?
"Wait," said Gerard. "What? Why? Where do we have to go?"
Why couldn't Gerard have just dreamed the same thing, the way he sometimes did, so Mikey wouldn't have to try to explain? He tried to force the whole horror of the thing into compact images and send them to Gerard, hoping it would be enough, and Gerard would start moving.
"Wait, wait, wait." Gerard clutched at his head with one hand and reached out for Mikey with the other. "I can't-—it's too much, Mikey. Slow down. I'm getting…some guy in the house? With a gun?"
And he shoots Joe! Mikey pulled away from Gerard and went over to pull a handful of underwear out of his dresser drawer. He's gonna shoot Joe because he's breaking in here to look for us, but if we aren't here, maybe he won't come. And we gotta warn Joe, we gotta tell him— He broke off and tried to gather his scattered thoughts.
Gerard's eyes were huge. "What?" he said. "Who is this guy? Why's he looking for us? Why does he shoot Joe?"
Mikey took a deep breath. I don't know, he said. But he was looking for us because that Ben Lee guy told him about us. He glanced at the digital clock on his dresser. It was 2:45, and Joe was still alive, watching the South Park movie on his iPod--Mikey could hear him if he focused his mind and listened. The guy wasn't coming tonight.
"I don't understand," said Gerard. "What, is it like a business thing, where, like, we're helping Pete, so he wants to kidnap us so we can help him? Or is it the government or something?"
They were wasting way too much time. Does it matter? Mikey asked, going to the closet to pull out his favorite tee-shirts. They'd have to travel light, so he couldn't take all of them.
"I guess not," Gerard muttered. "Okay. We leave, the guy doesn't come and shoot Joe. I'm with you. But if his whole point is to get us, won't he follow us if we leave now? Can't we wait until morning and get Pete to, like, fly us to Hawaii or something?"
That made sense. But it didn't feel right. Mikey cast his mind back to the dream. He'd been totally confident in the dream. Nobody could stop him from getting what he'd come for, and he didn't care what he had to do to get it. He'll kill Pete, too, he said. Something occurred to him, and he added, I think there's more than one of them. You don't get it, Gee, they'll do anything to get us. It's like you said before, Pete and Patrick and Andy and Joe can't stop it. It wouldn't do anything--we'd just be putting them in danger, and superheroes don't do that.
He knew he'd gotten Gerard with the superhero thing. Gerard took that stuff really seriously. "Okay, yeah," he said finally. "We can go to that place on the starcase map. It's out in the middle of nowhere—-whoever this guy is, he's not gonna look for us there. But how are we gonna get there?"
We could call a cab, Mikey suggested.
Gerard shook his head. "No cab's gonna pick up two kids at a quarter to three in the morning. And we're not gonna get anywhere walking. I mean, it's like two hundred miles to Cork Valley."
I don't know, Gerard! Mikey could feel his eyes burning, but he closed his eyes before tears could fall. He wasn't a baby, and this wasn't the time for crying. I just know we gotta go before this guy comes and just, just takes us, okay, so we have to think of something!
Gerard brought his hand to his mouth and started biting at the skin around his fingernails, a bad habit Mama'd always scolded him about, staring at Mikey with serious eyes. For the first time in a long time, Mikey couldn't tell what his brother was thinking. "I think I maybe have an idea," Gerard said slowly. "I mean, God, this is so stupid, because I'm the worst horseback rider ever, but…."
Snowball? Mikey hadn't even considered that possibility, but Snowball was a pretty fast horse. Still….Snowball can't run two hundred miles, he said. That'd kill him.
"Yeah, I know," said Gerard, nodding. "But he could probably get us back to the Smith Home. Because I was thinking, you know who'd be really good at running away? Frank. Doesn't he seem like somebody who'd be really good at this stuff?"
You think Frank can help us get to Cork Valley? Mikey was kind of dubious. Frank was a year younger than Mikey, even, and he sucked at keeping quiet and under the radar. Then again, though, he was super tough, and it'd be awesome to see him again. Mikey looked regretfully at the guitar Patrick had given him, leaning sadly against the wall in his closet. It sucked that he couldn't take it with him. Frank would have loved it.
Gerard nodded. "Why not? Lemme go get some stuff, and we can go." He turned to leave, but before he got to the doorway, he turned around and gave Mikey another serious look. "This is crazy. You know that, right?" He shook his head. "Assassins after us, and running away on horseback—totally crazy."
Mikey didn't say anything. It wasn't like their lives had been that normal to begin with.
He finished packing. It didn't take that long, really. Pete and Patrick had given him a lot of stuff, but none of it felt like his, so it wasn't hard to pick out his worn jeans and old tee-shirts and leave just about everything else behind. He took the iPod, though. He hoped Pete wasn't pissed. But he'd gotten it up past 5,000 songs, and who knew when and where he'd ever have access to that much music again.
Bunny made a small, uncertain-sounding noise from the bed. Surely Mikey wasn't going to leave her behind?
Mikey stuffed his starcase into his front backpack pocket and scooped up Bunny into his arms. Of course not, he said. Bunny grumbled, said he wasn't holding her back side up enough, but her rumbly little purr gave her away.
Gerard poked his head in. "Hey, you ready?" he said in a whisper. Mikey didn't know why he was whispering now; he hadn't seemed to be worried about being heard during their earlier conversation.
Just about, Mikey said. He looked around his room, the room Pete and Patrick had picked out and furnished just for him. The urgency of his fear had gone, leaving only sadness behind, and he said, Hey, you have a piece of paper?
"Sure," said Gerard, pulling his sketchpad out of his backpack and tearing off a sheet. "Why?"
I wanna leave a note. He dug a pencil out of his pocket. "Dear Patrick and Pete and Andy and Joe," he wrote. After a moment's thought, he added, "and Dirty. I'm sorry we're running away, and I hope you don't worry. But there are bad guys after us and we didn't want you to get hurt. Thank you for the iPod and the rooms. You guys are awesome. Love, Mikey and Gerard." He passed it over to Gerard. Is that okay?
Gerard bit his lower lip as he read, and his eyes got suspiciously wet. "Yeah," he said thickly. He ducked his head so his hair hid his eyes—as if Mikey didn't know he was tearing up—and pulled a crumpled-up wad of paper out of his pocket. "MapQuest directions," he explained, though Mikey hadn't asked.
It wasn't hard to sneak out. They just walked past Patrick's bedroom into the living room. Gerard left the note on the coffee table while Mikey opened the patio door. The security system was the easiest thing in the world to turn off. Mikey just had to concentrate on it for a minute, and then they were out on the patio. It was actually kind of chilly, which made Mikey feel strangely better about things. It had been hot in his dream.
Snowball was asleep when they walked out to his shed. Mikey felt kind of bad about waking him, but he was pretty sure Snowball would agree that this was an emergency. Snowball, he said, I need a favor.
Snowball was pretty pissed off about being woken up, but when Mikey told him about the people after them and Joe getting shot and stuff, he got how serious it was. Or, well, he asked why they thought he cared about any of the stupid humans at stupid Decaydance, but he let them both onto his back, without even snorting or threatening to bite Gerard too much.
It felt weird, riding off into the dark night, Snowball's hooves clacking on the pavement while Gerard clung for dear life to Mikey's back. Weird, and a little bit dangerous. But it also felt right in a way that nothing had for months, and Mikey couldn't stop himself from smiling a little. It wasn't like anyone could see him.
Frank didn't believe his eyes when he woke up at some ungodly hour of the morning, like, five or six or something, to see the Minnelli brothers hovering over his bed. This had to be another weird-ass dream, because what the hell would they be doing in his room this early?
"Hey, Frank," Gerard whispered, smiling in a way that didn't look like a smile at all and darting his eyes over to where Bill and Adam were asleep in their bunks.
"Mrgh," said Frank. Because there was no way this wasn't a dream—he totally felt asleep.
Mikey stared at him solemnly, Bunny curled up against his chest and peering at Frank with big reflective eyes. "Frank," he said quietly, "you gotta wake up. We need your help."
Frank rubbed a little grit out of his eyes and blinked at them, and then he looked around the room. His room seemed the same as always, from the Henry Rollins poster over the desk to the pile of dirty laundry in front of the closet to the soft sound of the Butcher snoring from the top bunk, all of it way too detailed for a dream. Some of the sleep-fuzziness cleared from his mind, and it hit him—-this was real, and Gerard and Mikey were totally hanging out in his room.
"Oh, man! You guys!" He forgot to whisper, and they winced.
"Shh," said Gerard.
"Sorry," said Frank, lowering his voice. "God, you have no idea how glad I am to see you. It's been so boring since you left. Jamia got sent to live with, like, this doctor and his wife, and Bill shoplifted a Playboy from the gas station and now all he and Adam and the Butcher do is, like, jerk off all the time, which is totally lame." He grinned at them, because there were lots of things you could say about the Minnelli brothers, but you could never say they were boring. "What are you guys doing here, anyway?" He asked.
Gerard fidgeted with the cuffs of his hoody uncomfortably. "Um. We're sort of running away."
Frank jerked up straight in his bed. In his experience, kids ran away from foster homes all the time. Sometimes for better reasons than others—-Frank remembered running away a couple years back because he had to share a room with an annoying little kid who watched professional wrestling videos all the time. But he knew kids who'd run away for other, scarier reasons, and he had a sneaking suspicion that Gerard and Mikey weren't the type to run unless it was important. "Did those rich guys do something? Did they hit you?" Because if they had, all the money in the world wouldn't save them from Frank Iero kicking their asses.
Gerard shook his head. "No. Patrick and Pete were cool. But…." He shot a look over at his brother, and they did their weird psychic message exchange thing before Gerard turned back to Frank. "This guy found out about us, and then Mikey had a dream that somebody was gonna come kidnap us, and he had a gun-—the guy in the dream, not Mikey-—and he was gonna kill anybody who got in his way. And I don't know what he was gonna do with us, but it wasn't good."
Jesus Christ. Frank looked from Gerard to Mikey and back again. He didn't think they'd make up this kind of stuff, but maybe they'd misunderstood something and were getting freaked out for nothing. It sounded kind of…out there. On the other hand, they were…whatever it was they were, superheroes or mutants or aliens or whatever, and Frank had seen enough movies to know that the government and other assorted bad guys were always interested in using super powers for their own twisted ends.
"What do you need me to do?" Frank asked. Because that had to be why they'd come. Two months of friendship with Mikey and Gerard had taught him that they knew a lot about music and horror movies and books, but not a whole lot about stuff like feeding or defending themselves. Frank actually felt a little honored that he was the guy they'd come to for stuff like that-—not just anybody could say they were a mentor to a pair of superheroes.
Mikey shrugged a little with one shoulder. "We thought maybe you'd wanna come, too."
Frank was so overwhelmed by the thought for a second that he couldn't even talk. "Oh, shit," he finally managed. "That would be so fucking awesome!"
"Yeah?" Gerard smiled again, hesitant but real this time. "You sure? 'Cause I mean, it's probably gonna be super dangerous and stuff, and we're going to this total nowhere on the starcase map to hide out, and it's pretty cool here, and…."
"Dude, shut up," said Frank, but not meanly, because he wasn't pissed or anything. "I'm totally going with you." This was seriously the most exciting thing that had happened to Frank in forever, like suddenly life had dropped him in the middle of a Bruce Willis movie. And sure, the Smith Home was awesome for a group home, and Spencer and Brendon and Jon and Ryan were all super nice, but living there wasn't like helping Gerard and Mikey because they were on the run from a killer who wanted to kidnap them because they had psychic powers. Plus, Frank was a pain in the ass—he was an honest kind of guy, he could admit it—so he'd probably be making everyone's life at the Home a lot easier if he left.
And then Mikey smiled at him with his big goofy toothy smile, and then Gerard smiled at him with his big goofy toothy smile, and Frank was more sure than ever that he was making the right decision.
He got out of bed to go over to the dresser and get his stuff together. He didn't have much, just some old clothes and a few books and…oh, shit. "I can't take my guitar on the run, can I?" he said.
"Well," said Gerard, scrunching up his face on one side, "I dunno."
Shit, shit, shit. Frank bent down to dig it out from under his bed and ran his hand over the worn leather case. It wasn't like a rock star guitar, he knew, and it wasn't even in good shape, and who took a guitar on the run with them? You couldn't run with a guitar, and it took up space in a car if you hitchhiked. It wasn't even like his case had a shoulder strap. But it was his grandpa's.
"You should take it," said Mikey. Frank and Gerard both looked at him, and he stared back earnestly. "I still have some room in my backpack," he said, "so you could stuff some of your stuff in there, and maybe put some of it in Gerard's, so then you wouldn't have to take your backpack and you could take your guitar instead."
"What about food?" asked Frank, not willing to get his hopes up yet. "You got room for food?"
Mikey shrugged. "Not really," he said, "but I have some money, so we could buy stuff."
It was a dumbass idea, Frank knew. But he fucking loved that guitar. And it wasn't like he couldn't ditch it later, if it was slowing them down.
He ducked into the bathroom to change out of his pajamas and grab his toothbrush, and Mikey and Gerard were waiting for him when he got out. "We gotta go," said Gerard nervously. "It's gonna be light soon." He frowned as if remembering something and added, "Shouldn't you leave a note or something? So Spencer and Brendon and Jon won't worry?"
Frank rolled his eyes, because Spencer and Brendon and Jon were clearly gonna worry anyway, but he scribbled out something about helping Gerard and Mikey find their family on a piece of paper ripped from his math notebook. "Happy now?" he asked. "We can leave it under Spencer's office door when we go downstairs."
"Okay," said Gerard, looking relieved.
Sneaking down the stairs quietly wasn't easy, but Frank had actually gotten some experience doing it over the eight months he'd been living at the Home, for night games of Capture the Flag and stuff, and Gerard and Mikey were surprisingly good at creeping quietly through the creaky old house.
When they got past Spencer's office, down to the front door, there was an honest-to-God horse waiting for them by the porch. "Holy shit," said Frank, unable to believe his eyes, "did you guys actually ride a horse over here?"
Mikey smiled. "Snowball," he said, as if that explained everything. He did his mind-meld thing with the horse for a moment and then frowned. "He's tired and thirsty," he said, "And there's no way he can carry all three of us."
Frank couldn't help but be a little disappointed; he'd never ridden a horse before. But Gerard seemed to take it pretty well. "We were gonna have to leave him anyway," he said with a shrug. "We're going too far."
"So where is this place, anyway?" Frank hadn't had much luck searching for the places on Mikey's starcase after the Minnellis left, not least because he couldn't remember what they were called.
"It's, like, 200 miles away," said Gerard.
"Jesus." Well, there was no way they could walk, then, especially if hitmen were after them. And it was almost sunrise, so they were gonna have to haul some ass if they wanted to make it to the highway to hitchhike before Spencer woke up. "Let's go to the gas station on 4th Street," he said. A lot of truckers went through there to refill their tanks and get coffee, and maybe they could get a ride with one of them.
"Just wait a minute," said Mikey, walking over to the horse and gazing into its eyes. That damn kid and his animals, thought Frank, and he was no psychic, but it looked like Gerard was thinking the same thing.
"Mikey…." Gerard said nervously.
Mikey sighed loudly. He dropped Bunny on the ground and pulled a water bottle out of his backpack, and then he gave it to the horse to drink while rubbing its nose. Finally, he pulled away, looking sadly at Gerard. "I know. We gotta go. I just had to say goodbye."
"So wait, we're just leaving the horse?" Frank said. "Boy, Spencer's gonna be surprised when he wakes up and finds a horse at his front door."
Mikey shook his head. "Snowball knows his way home."
Well, whatever. This wasn't The Incredible Journey or whatever that movie was, the one with the dogs finding their way home after their family moved without them, this was real life. "Come on, guys," said Frank. "We gonna run away or not?"
Frank had pretty much figured it was gonna suck getting to the gas station—neither Mikey nor Gerard was exactly next in line for Athlete of the Year or anything. But he was pleasantly surprised. They more or less managed to keep up, and maybe Gerard complained a little bit and Mikey made a lot of faces, but they were still making pretty good time.
It was 8:20 by Frank's watch by the time they made it to the gas station. There weren't any big truck rigs yet, but it was still early, and there was a van parked next to the pumps that could be promising. "Guys, guys," he said, because he was getting super hungry. "Let's go in and get some snacks, and then we'll come back out here and try to get a ride."
"Oh, yeah," said Gerard. "I'd kill for a Coke right now." He wiped some sweat off his forehead with a big, dramatic gesture which Mikey immediately copied, and Frank couldn't help but giggle a little. Their musical theater mom might not have been actually related to them, but she'd definitely managed to pass something on to her sons.
They walked in, ducking around the racks of cigarettes to the aisle with the chips and Hostess pastries. There was a big blond guy at the counter, talking to the gas station guy, but neither of them seemed to notice the three kids. Which was probably for the best, Frank thought, if they were gonna try to be incognito. Green Day was playing over the radio, and it made Frank super glad he'd decided to bring his guitar.
"Oh, man, Twinkies," Mikey was saying, gazing at the Hostess pastries as if they held the key to ultimate happiness.
Gerard frowned. "I don't know, Mikey," he said, "shouldn't we maybe try to get something healthier, like a sandwich or something?"
"Fuck that," said Frank, grabbing for a bag of Doritos. "When I Come Around" switched off the radio, and the DJ started talking.
"We should at least get some milk," said Gerard, but Mikey's whole body had gone stiff, and Frank suddenly found himself very uninterested in the box of granola bars he'd been contemplating.
"What is it, Mikey?" Frank asked. If Mikey was already getting bad feelings, Frank didn't have a whole lot of hope for this venture.
Mikey scowled. "Shh! Listen!"
Frank didn't understand what he was supposed to be listening to, but he obligingly shut his mouth. The blond guy at the counter and the attendant had stopped talking, too, and the DJ's voice piped through the gas station.
"…according the nice folks at the Smith Home and Mr. Wentz's representatives, people should be on the lookout for three boys, one about 4 foot 1 with bleached blond hair, one about 4 foot 8 with brown hair and glasses, and one…" Oh, fuck.
"Jesus," snorted the gas station attendant, "how far could three kids who can't even drive get?"
"Maybe they called a cab," said the blond man wryly. "Dude, how much for all this stuff?"
Shit, they had to move fast—once the blond guy was gone, there'd be nothing distracting the gas station attendant from the fact that the three missing kids were hanging out in the back of his store. "Drop the Twinkies, Mikey!" Frank hissed. Mikey obeyed, his eyes huge, and Frank grabbed both him and Gerard by the sleeves and dragged them back around the corner of the aisle, so they could watch for the right moment to duck out.
"Frank," Mikey whispered. Frank shushed him, but Mikey said, "No, Frank, do we need a distraction?"
Well, a distraction would be pretty fucking handy, but they sure didn't have time to come up with an elaborate plan right then and there. Frank would have somehow communicated this to Mikey by means of facial expressions and pointed gestures, but Mikey was already letting go of Bunny, who sauntered primly into the middle of the gas station.
"What the--" the attendant said, staring. "Where the hell did that cat come from?" The blond man turned around to look, and Mikey grinned at Frank before slipping out the door.
That kid. Frank followed, Gerard on his heels, and they were out. "Now what?" said Gerard, looking a little frantic.
They didn't have a lot of options—Bunny wasn't going to be able to keep those guys distracted long enough to give them time to get to the highway, and now they'd have people looking for them. Frank's eyes lighted on the van parked by the pumps, and he ran over to test the doors. "Fuck!" he said, frustrated. "They're locked."
"That's not a problem," said Gerard. "Are we gonna sneak in the back?"
"That's the plan, yeah," Frank said, doing his best not to get irritated. He knew Gerard and Mikey had brought him along to be the brains, but Christ, hadn't they ever seen a movie? "But first we gotta--"
"Try the locks again," said Mikey.
Frank stared for a moment, then pulled at the back door of the van. It came open easily. Of course, Frank thought. Of course, fucking Mikey Minnelli could open locks with his fucking mind.
Gerard smiled briefly before he twisted his mouth with worry again. "Don't we have to, you know, hurry?"
Mikey gave Gerard the psychic message look again, and Gerard sighed. A moment later, Bunny came running out of the gas station, jumping into Mikey's arms, and Frank honestly didn't know they could move that fast, but in the blink of an eye, they'd pulled him, guitar and all, into the back of the van and Gerard glared at the door fiercely until it closed.
"Christ," said Frank, amazed at how quickly it had happened. Gerard and Mikey gave him another worried look in unison, like they were acting with one brain, and he grinned so hard he could feel the corners of his mouth ache with it. This was so much better than being in a Bruce Willis movie.
"Shit," Agent Viglione said, turning up the radio. The DJ continued blithely along, rattling off contact information and wondering aloud what might make two kids who'd, for all intents and purposes, been adopted by a multimillionaire want to run away. "This is just fucking excellent."
Agent Palmer frowned thoughtfully, one hand on the steering wheel. "No, no," she said. "This could be good." Off Agent Viglione's disbelieving look, she said, "Yeah, yeah, law enforcement and a moving target, I'm aware. And I know this way you don't get to do any of that special ops shit you're so fond of. But think about it. If we get to the extraterrestrials before the cops do, we don't have to deal with any of the shit Wentz was gonna give us, we don't have to worry about a publicity leak-—we just take them, and it's another tragedy where something terrible happened to those poor runaway children."
Every line of Agent Viglione's face radiated doubt. "What about the third kid?" he asked. "What are we supposed to do about him?"
"Jesus, Brian," said Agent Palmer, rolling her eyes. "Let's use a little creativity here, hmm? We knock the kid out, or we convince him that if he spills his guts, the government'll arrest him, or hell, you distract him and I'll grab the other two. We just have to find them, first."
Agent Viglione leaned back in his seat. "Well, if you were twelve or whatever, no car, where would you go?"
"Twelve?" Agent Palmer snorted. "I'd fucking steal a car."
"Okay, say you're twelve and an alien and you don't want to go down in a hail of gunfire. Then what do you do?"
"I don't know." Palmer took a long drag on her cigarette with her free hand and shot a quick look at Agent Viglione. "You got a map in the glove compartment? We've gotta figure out what's around the Smith Home that they'd wanna get to."
"There's nothing around," said Agent Viglione. "There's a gas station a couple miles down the road, and that's it. Place is in the ass end of nowhere."
Palmer made a quick, darting gesture with her cigarette hand and smiled hugely. "Ooh!" she said. "That's something. I mean, these backend country roads don't get a lot of traffic, but maybe these kids figured they could hitch a ride at the gas station. Worth a shot, right?"
"Better than nothing," said Viglione with a shrug. "I'm game for checking it out."
"Excellent," Palmer said, stubbing out her cigarette and shifting gears. "Let's see how fast this thing can go."
Bob sighed as he opened the passenger door to dump his stuff and went around to get into the driver's seat. He thought that guy was never gonna stop talking to him. He must have found his job incredibly boring, if stuff like radio announcements and cats got him chattering away to complete strangers for fucking-—how long had it been? Twenty minutes?
The whole point of this little trip had been to avoid spending all his time talking about stupid shit with people he didn't know or like.
He turned the radio on as he pulled out of the gas station parking lot and let himself relax. The guys on tour probably would've given him a hard time about the poppy girl singer he was listening to, but one of the nice things about being on his own was that he didn't have to give a shit. Although whoever mixed this song could have done a much better job, he thought. The bass line was rendering the singer almost inaudible.
He turned onto the highway and drove with the strange, freeing disorientation of having no particular goal. There were a ton of beaches along the coast; maybe he'd stop at one of them for lunch, when he got hungry, but it wasn't like he had any place to be.
The morning passed in a comfortable, uneventful monotony, and the quiet of it settled Bob, soothed the lingering irritation from the misadventures at the gas station and let his mind drift from thought to thought without ever having to attach to anything. He sang along to the pop music on his radio, occasionally drumming on the dashboard, and pondered what he would eat for lunch, and wondered what Bert and Dan and Jepha and Quinn and everyone were up to. But not too hard.
Around noon, he started to feel hungry. He pulled off at the nearest exit to a parking lot on the side of the road, just a stone's throw away from the beach. It was such a nice day, Bob was afraid he'd have to fight some mom and dad and their 2.5 adorable children for space, but this particular stretch of beach seemed empty as far as Bob could see. As he stepped out onto it, he realized why-—it was one of those beaches made of jagged bits of shell and rock rather than smooth warm sand. Well, Bob had shoes, and he liked the quiet, so he pulled out the ready-made sandwich he'd bought at the gas station and settled down on a relatively not-sharp patch of ground.
Over the crunch of lettuce and the sound of waves splashing onto the rocky shore, he heard a soft rustling sound coming from behind him, and he swallowed, listening. Another rustling sound, and then a tiny, unhappy-sounding mew. Bob turned around to see a dark tortoiseshell kitten stalking towards him on skinny little legs, mewling pathetically and staring at his sandwich like it was the key to curing all his or her woes.
"Hey, there," Bob said with a smile, tearing off a small piece of ham and holding it out to the kitten. He or she-—Bob was gonna go with she, just because-—took it, licking his fingers and staring at him with big eyes. He reached out to scratch under her chin, and she leaned into the touch, purring. Bob felt his smile get even bigger; he'd always had a soft spot for cats. He rubbed the top of her head with his other hand and said, "You're a good girl, aren't you?"
She mewed as if in agreement, and Bob laughed. She looked kind of familiar, almost like the cat that had appeared in the gas station earlier. Maybe it was the same cat, and she'd been hitching a ride this whole time, Bob thought with amusement. "Well, you," he said, glad there wasn't anyone around to hear him talking to a cat, "I have some milk in the van, if you're interested."
She mewed again. God, it was like having a conversation. "Aren't you a smart girl?" Bob murmured, carefully picking her up. She didn't scratch at him or try to bite, just made a small squeaky sound and curled into his chest. Bob wasn't a mushy guy or anything, but it was maybe the cutest thing ever.
As he opened the passenger door to grab the milk though, though, he heard the sound of whispering. Coming from the back of his van. Shit. It stopped a second after he opened the door, but he'd heard it—somebody, or more than one somebody, was in his van. All warm and fuzzy feelings immediately vanished, and he put the kitten down. She darted away somewhere, mewing piteously. "All right," Bob said loudly. Whoever it was couldn't be too big if he or she had managed to squeeze in among all the sound equipment and luggage and random crap in the back of the van, and Bob was pretty confident about his ability to kick some ass. "Whoever the fuck you are, if you don't get the fuck out of my van in the next three seconds, I'm gonna kick the shit out of you. One…two…."
"Wait! Wait!" a young, high-pitched voice said, and then three boys, all of them maybe between ten and fifteen, crawled out of the back and huddled against the open door of the van, staring at Bob with expressions of utter terror.
Well, Bob sure as shit wasn't going to raise his hand to a bunch of kids. But seeing as how they had somehow crawled into his van at some point without permission, he didn't see a problem with letting them be freaked out for a few more moments while he looked them over. The littlest one was tiny, though he didn't look much younger than the other two, with bleached hair that looked like it had been shaved into patterns but was growing out thick and black. The middle one had wispy brown hair and big thick plastic-rimmed glasses. The biggest one had a round, pale face and dark hair hanging into his eyes.
Bob might not have been paying too much attention to the radio, but it didn't exactly take a genius to guess that these were the three missing kids he'd heard about at the gas station.
"Ah," he said. "You guys must be the runaways."
The biggest one nodded unhappily.
Bob nodded. "Right. So, I'm gonna call the police now."
"No!" said the littlest one. "You don't understand! If you call the police, the guys that are after Mikey and Gerard'll find them, and they'll end up being dissected in some government lab or something!"
Bob had no idea how he was even supposed to respond to that. God, he hated kids.
"Way to keep a secret, Frank," the biggest one said, giving the other one a frown. Turning to Bob, he said, "I know it sounds crazy, but there really are people after us. I mean, obviously Pete and Patrick and the police and stuff, but there are these other guys who wanted to kidnap us, and they were gonna kill anyone who got in their way. And we couldn't let anything bad happen to them-—to Pete and Patrick and Andy and Joe, I mean-—so we decided to go back where we came from. If we ever find it." He gave Bob a really earnest look, with big eyes, biting his lower lip.
Jesus, these kids were totally batshit insane.
"Hey," the middle one piped up. "Have you seen a kitten around anywhere?"
Finally, a question Bob could answer. Maybe this kid was the sane one. "Yours, huh? I guess it was the cat from the gas station." He looked around; the kitten had vanished. "She was here a minute ago. She's gotta be around somewhere."
The kid nodded and frowned as if in concentration. Bob waited for him to say something else, but he seemed to be carrying on an in-depth conversation with himself. So much for his being the sane kid.
"Okay," said Bob, "So, I'm back to calling the cops now. I mean, I don't know what kind of game you kids are playing, but you have people worried about you. You have to go home."
"We left a note," muttered the middle one, apparently done talking to himself.
The biggest one sighed. "See, that's the thing," he said. "We don't really have a home. The guys at Decaydance are great, but they're not our family or anything. We're trying to figure out where we come from."
Bob vaguely remembered hearing that the three of them were orphans or something, and he thought maybe he understood what the kid was talking about a little more. He seemed a little young to be doing the whole search for identity thing, but then, it had been a long time since Bob was a kid, and it felt like longer every day. Bob wasn't an orphan, but he thought he could get the desire to want to figure out yourself by finding out where you came from. But still…. "If you want to find your birth parents," he said, "you should ask your—you know, the people who take care of you. Foster parents or whatever."
The littlest one-—Frank, probably--rolled his eyes. "Dude, my parents are dead. That's not the problem. And we can't ask anyone about Gerard and Mikey's parents because nobody knows about Gerard and Mikey's parents. They were probably visitors from outer space or mutants or government experiments or something."
Bob's intention to shut down the conversation there was suddenly derailed. "What the hell are you talking about?" he asked, then thought maybe he shouldn't have said 'hell' around a bunch of kids. Oh, well.
"Frank!" the biggest one said, sighing dramatically. "See if I ever trust you with a secret again, bigmouth."
Frank shrugged, looking pretty pragmatic for a grade-schooler. "Well, if we want this guy to give us a ride, we gotta explain stuff, right?"
Bob didn't really feel like anyone had explained anything to him, and he was about to say so, when the biggest one sighed again and pulled out a harmonica. The fuck? What exactly about this situation made the kid think it was time for an impromptu performance?
But then he started to play. Just a few notes, the beginnings of a scale, and suddenly Bob's sandwich had floated out of his hand, was hovering in midair between himself and the kids. The kid played a sloppy "Oh, Susannah!" and the sandwich started doing little loops in the air, bouncing around in a weird, almost dance-like motion.
And suddenly Frank's suggestion that his friends' parents were mutants made a whole lot more sense. Bob breathed out slowly, trying to collect his thoughts enough so that he didn't freak out in front of the kids. "Did….are you doing that?" he asked carefully.
The kid pulled his face away from the harmonica with another painfully earnest expression, and Bob's sandwich dropped onto the ground. So much for lunch, Bob thought, but he didn't say anything. "Yeah," said the kid. "I can do it without my harmonica, too, but it's a lot easier with it."
"Right." Of course. Playing the harmonica made it easier for the kid to telekinetically float sandwiches. Why wouldn't it? Bob turned to the middle kid. "Let me guess," he said. "You've got a magical kazoo."
He shook his head. "No. But I know…." He wrinkled his face up, staring at Bob. "You did sound for a band. For a living, I mean. But you had an accident. You got set on fire. And the nerve damage wasn't that bad, you could still do your job, but you got sick of people acting like you were a whole different person than you were before the accident. So you're taking a break, and you're driving alone in the middle of nowhere because you don't want to talk to anybody."
A million thoughts warred for dominance in Bob's brain. Part of him wanted to fucking shake the kid for talking about his life like he actually knew it, for rambling in an even monotone about things that actually meant something to Bob like they weren't important at all. Part of him wanted to cringe and run away—he'd never been big on people invading his privacy, and this was the hugest invasion of privacy he'd ever encountered. Fuck cameras poking around his bunk, this kid was poking around in his mind. But another part of him was scared on the kid's behalf. If he and his brother did this kind of shit all the time, Bob didn't have any trouble believing that they had unscrupulous people after them. Finally, he managed to say, "So. You know a lot about me, I guess, but I don't know much about you. What are your names again?"
The biggest one gave him a hopeful smile. "I'm Gerard, and this is my brother Mikey, and our friend Frank," he said, holding out a hand. Bob shook it tentatively, hoping the kid wasn't picking up anything he was thinking.
"I'm Bob," he said. "Bob Bryar."
"Nice to meet you," said Frank with a brilliant smile. "So, dude, which band were you touring with?"
Bob blinked. He was still trying to get his head around the super powers thing, and this conversation was going way too fast for him. "Um. The Used."
Frank nodded knowledgeably, as if he were some sort of scene expert and not a four-foot tall eleven-year-old. "Pretty sweet, man. Mikey and Gerard and me are gonna be in a band."
"Yeah?" Bob said, smiling in spite of himself.
"Hell yeah!" said Frank. "Mikey and me are gonna play the guitars and Gerard's gonna sing and play the harmonica. We still gotta get a drummer, but it's gonna be awesome." Mikey and Gerard nodded.
Bob laughed. There was something kind of hilarious about these kids—two of them had super powers, they were on the run from (they said) some kind of killers, and they still got distracted by the idea of being in a rock band. He was fairly sure he was going to regret this—-he didn't know much about business, but he knew Pete Wentz was a pretty powerful guy-—but he asked, "Where were you guys planning to go to get away from…whoever it is you think's chasing you?"
Mikey scowled, his eyebrows pulling together into a thick dark line over his glasses. "We don't just think they're chasing us," he said. "I saw them shoot Joe in my dream, and I'm really good at telling the future." He pulled something out of his backpack-—a little square box, it looked like, made of metal and wood—and pulled back a panel on the front of it. Underneath was a tiny map. "We're pretty sure we're supposed to go here," he said, handing the box to Bob.
The print on it was really little, and not all of it was even in an alphabet Bob recognized, so it took a moment before he could make out any place names. "Hey," he said, "Cork Valley! I know where that is."
All three kids perked up like he'd told them he had a box full of candy in the back. "You do?" Gerard asked. "Will you take us there?"
"I'm not taking you anywhere," said Bob. "Pete Wentz is made of money. You tell him what you told me—and showing him the whole super powers thing probably wouldn't hurt—and I guarantee you, he'll have a whole army keeping these guys away from you."
"Pete already knows about us," said Gerard, rolling his eyes. "That's how the bad guys found out about us in the first place. We were at Pete's office, helping him buy stocks and stuff, and this guy who wasn't supposed to be there saw us."
Bob could feel himself frowning. "Hold up," he said, "Wentz was using you guys to make money in his business?" That was exactly the kind of shit the guy ought to be protecting these kids from, Bob thought.
Mikey shrugged. "He gave us twenty bucks." A thought seemed to occur to him, and he said, "Hey, if we pay you, will you take us to Cork Valley?"
"I'm not taking your money," Bob said automatically. He wanted to tell the kids to shut up a minute so he could think, but they seemed to get what he was thinking (and hey, if they were psychic, why wouldn't they?) and stood quietly looking at him with mingled hope and fear in their faces. Well. Whoever it was that was after them, the kids clearly didn't think Wentz's money was going to keep them away. Beside, Bob was not at all sure at this point that they weren't being used by Wentz as some sort of school-aged money-making machines. On the other hand, he wasn't too eager to get arrested for kidnapping. From what he understood, Frank was a perfectly normal kid, missing from a group home where, as far as Bob knew, he wasn't in any kind of danger. There wasn't any reason he shouldn't go back there. And, supernatural displays aside, he didn't have any proof that Gerard and Mikey were right or telling the truth about people being after them.
"Hey," Frank said, breaking into Bob's reverie, "how 'bout this? Cork Valley's only, like, 200 miles away, right? So that's not even a whole day's drive! You take us, and if it really is just some nowhere town and we don't find Mikey and Gerard's long-lost family or whatever, you can call the cops."
Gerard scowled at Frank, but Mikey nodded so hard he looked like a bobblehead.
He shouldn't have even been considering it, seriously. This was some Grade-A moral ambivalence, here. And even if these kids were telling the truth, how the hell was Bob supposed to protect them better than a fucking millionaire with his own security force could? Or protect himself, for that matter? God, this whole thing was fucking his vacation all to hell.
And yet. He looked down at the starcase again, then back at the three kids. "Okay," he found himself saying. "But I'm seriously not gonna take any shit from you, and I'm calling the cops if--"
He found himself cut off mid-threat by, like, sixty pounds of hurtling eleven-year old. "Yeah, yeah," said Frank, wrapping his arms around Bob's middle. "You're the man, Bob!"
"Yeah!" Mikey echoed.
Gerard nodded fervently. "We really appreciate this, Bob, seriously, we'll try not to be any trouble, and we can do all sorts of stuff to help. Like, if we get locked out of the car, Mikey can pick locks, and if we're gonna drive over broken glass or something, I can move it out of the way, and--"
"All right, all right," said Bob, trying to pry Frank's arms off. Christ, the kid had a grip on him. "Just get back in the van. You guys hungry?"
Well, that got Frank off. "Man, we are so hungry, you have no idea! We were gonna have to start eating each other pretty soon!"
"I don't think we need to resort to cannibalism just yet." Bob said. "I got some chips and pretzels and soda at that gas station. Now get your asses back in the van, and let's get this show on the road before I come to my senses."
They scrambled back in, buckling themselves into the back seat of Bob's van and looking at him expectantly.
Bob sighed, went back around to the driver's seat, and tossed a bag of Tostitos to them, which they took with the single-minded glee and ravenous hunger of three growing boys. When Bob turned the ignition key, though, Mikey pulled his head up from the chips and said, "Wait."
"Wait for what?" asked Bob, wondering why he was taking orders from a twelve-year old or however the hell old Mikey was.
Mikey didn't answer, frowning into space like he was having especially deep thoughts at that moment. Suddenly, there was a small mewing noise, and Bob jumped in surprise as the kitten from earlier jumped through the open passenger side window and into the back seat. Mikey, looking calmly unsurprised, scooped the kitten into his lap and looked up at Bob. "Okay," he said. "We can go, now."
Christ, what was he getting himself into?
Patrick really hadn't been big on the idea of calling Gabe. It wasn't like he didn't like Gabe or anything—he did, he thought the guy was a lot of fun, and they'd had some really interesting conversations together. It was just that, well, Gabe and his crew were bounty hunters, and Patrick really didn't think they were the best people to go after three missing kids.
Not that Patrick's opinion on the matter ever stopped Pete when he had an idea in his head.
The Cobramobile swerved sharply to one side, and Patrick felt his stomach lurch. "Gabe!" he yelled. "Can't you slow it down a little?"
Gabe and Pete cackled from the front. "Not to worry, dude," Gabe called. "The speed limit on this highway's, like, seventy, and nobody pays attention to it, so I don't think we're getting pulled over."
"That wasn't exactly what I was worried about," muttered Patrick. Next to him, Nate looked vaguely nauseated. If Patrick himself wasn't so afraid Gabe was going to drive them over the median and into the lane of traffic driving the opposite direction, he'd spare a moment to send Nate a sympathetic glance. Apparently, he was pretty fierce when it came to the whole bounty-hunting thing, but he looked like just a miserable kid at the moment.
In the back seat, Alex hung up his cell phone and shoved Ryland's face off his shoulder. "Dudes!" he called. "We got something!"
Pete turned around in his seat, fixing Alex with an intense look, a completely different man from the one who'd been laughing at Patrick from the shotgun seat. "Yeah?" he said impatiently.
Alex nodded. "Okay, so, my man Nick says the last time he filled up his gas tank at a station about two miles from the Smith Home. He knew we were on this case, so he asked around for us. Apparently it hasn't been too busy today, but a little after eight this morning, he had a dude with a big van fill up his tank and get an oil change and stock up on junk food."
"So?" asked Victoria shortly.
Alex rolled his eyes, and Ryland sighed exaggeratedly. "So, Victoria," he said, "According to the security logs, they turned off the system at, like, three in the morning, right? So, riding Snowball, they probably got to the Smith Home, like, five, assuming they didn't get lost. Give 'em some time to get their shit together, eight's not a bad estimate for when they could've gotten to that gas station. Think about it! You're kids on the run, you see a van, the owner's inside…."
"You think they hitched a ride with this guy?" Patrick asked sharply. He didn't know whether to be relieved or not. Sure, it was a clue, but the idea of Gerard and Mikey hitchhiking with some random guy who drove around in a van made Patrick intensely queasy. Who knew what kind of shit could happen?
"Maybe," said Alex with a shrug. "It's better than nothing, right?"
"Totally," said Gabe, executing a probably illegal U-Turn. "Your man Nick get anything else about the guy? The van?"
"No plate numbers, but it was a black van heading south on J-29, and the driver was a big blond guy who toured as a drum tech with some band."
"Oh, shit," Pete crowed, "Give me five minutes, and I'll have that fucker's name."
Pete started punching keys on his Sidekick like a madman, and Patrick sighed and took out his own cell phone to text Andy and Joe. we have a clue. tell you more when i know more.
"Hey." A hand reached out from the back seat to curl around his shoulder, and Patrick twisted his neck around to look at Victoria. She was smiling at him gently. "They're gonna be okay, you know?" she said, squeezing his shoulder. "It hasn't even been a day yet, they can't have gotten too far."
Patrick felt like he was going to be sick, seriously. "I know," he said, but Christ, he shouldn't have ever listened to Pete. If he'd put his foot down, Mikey and Gerard would still be at the Home, and whoever had found out about them wouldn't have found out about them, and Patrick wouldn't have gotten to know them, which was a bummer, but at least they'd be safe. Patrick had no idea what had frightened them so badly that they'd taken off without even telling anyone, but having seen the kind of stuff they could do, he feared the worst. A competing businessman, one even more ruthless than Pete, maybe, or some crackpot who chased UFOs and was on the lookout for some proof of alien invasion, or hell, the government.
Victoria was still smiling at him, and he tried to smile back, but it felt pretty feeble. Victoria had no idea. He shot a look over to the front, where Pete was still furiously typing away, and tried to quell the rush of conflicting emotions he felt. He was still insanely pissed at Pete—and at himself, because seriously, they could've brought some of those decisions home and not exposed Gerard and Mikey to whichever fucker had spilled the beans—but at the same time, he could see the dark circles under Pete's eyes, the slightly unfocused expression he had when his brain was a million miles away from whatever was going on around him, and he knew that Pete was killing himself over this.
He wished that he and Pete were alone. If they were alone, they could snap at each other and fight over stupid stuff, like if they could've come up with psychic-proof locks or screened people at the meeting for suspicious interests in the paranormal, and maybe they could also reassure each other that the whole thing wasn't entirely their fault.
Pete paused, and for a moment Patrick thought he was going to turn around, like maybe they were having the same thought right then. Instead, he ducked his head unhappily again, and Gabe turned around to give them all a huge grin.
"Exit to J-29's thirty-six miles ahead," he said. "How fast you think I can get us there?"
"Oh, God," said Victoria, burying her face in Ryland's shoulder. Nate popped up in his seat, straining at his seat belt.
"Eyes on the road!" he shouted. "Motherfucker, don't you dare crash this car!"
Gabe raised his eyebrows. "Whoa there, Nate my boy. Settle down. Think of your blood pressure. Nobody's crashing anything—I'm a fucking awesome driver. Matter of fact, I bet I could do this with one hand. No hands, even!" He waved his arms in the air, to cheers from Alex and Ryland and angry shouts from Victoria and Nate.
It was going to be a long trip.
"Yeah? Yeah?" Agent Palmer said into her phone. She gestured at Agent Viglione, and he turned their convertible to the right. "Guy's name is Bryar? What's the license number again?" She scribbled it down, holding the phone between her jaw and her shoulder. "South on J-29? Awesome. You're a queen among women, Katie." She shut her phone with a snap.
"So," said Agent Viglione, "they've found themselves a ride?"
"Apparently." Agent Palmer smiled grimly. "You know what I'm thinking?"
"No. What are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking, if these two are from the '99 crash, and they're seeking more of their kind…." She wriggled her eyebrows at Agent Viglione, making him smile. "We could be stumbling onto the colony here."
"Fuck," Agent Viglione breathed, stretching out the word past the point where it had any meaning. "Maja's gonna fucking flip."
Agent Palmer smiled again, satisfied. "Yeah. Now all we gotta do is catch up with them, and get rid of this Bob Bryar, whoever the fuck that is."
Agent Viglione fingered the gun at his side. He hadn't even gotten a chance to take it out of his holster, yet. "Shouldn't be a problem," he said.
"And then I got him right in the face, like smash! And believe me, that fucker went down!"
Bob wasn't sure whether he ought to be amused or disturbed—Frank cussed more than any almost-eleven-year-old Bob had ever met before, and apparently he had a long history of getting into fights and playing pranks that'd probably get Bob sent to prison if he tried them. The Minnellis, though, seemed completely in awe of Frank's tales. It was kind of adorable.
"Wow," said Gerard. "Okay, so once this guy called me a sissy and shoved me up against a wall in the art room, and I was gonna dump a can of paint on his head, you know, with my mind, but then the teacher pulled him off and sent him to the principal's office."
Frank grinned. "That would've been awesome, with the paint," he said. "I wish I'd been friends with you guys back when I was living with the Dirnts. Between my mad skills and your thing, we would've kicked some serious ass."
Mikey grinned, and Bob, who'd never been the type to find kids cute or at all appealing, forced himself to turn back to the road.
He had to admit, though, as far as hitchhiking runaway kids went, he'd hit the jackpot. Mikey'd asked early on if he could play his iPod through Bob's speakers, and Bob was kind of amazed at how awesome Mikey's taste was. He was pretty sure he'd been listening to nothing but crap when he was Mikey's age. Mikey was a pretty quiet kid, too, from what Bob could tell—-no fighting for space in the seat, no "He started it!", no whining about how long they'd been in the car. He just sat, occasionally smiling at something one of the other boys had said, and petting his cat or looking at his starcase.
Frank and Gerard weren't exactly quiet, but they weren't particularly whiny, either. Frank had more energy than any kid Bob had ever seen, and Bob was half tempted at times to stop the car just so the kid could stop wriggling in his seat and run around for a little on the side of the road. Gerard, on the other hand, was a talker. Bob hadn't yet come across a topic Gerard wouldn't talk about, at length, with expansive, dramatic hand gestures. Bob had a hard time believing that this was the same kid who, according to Frank, spent most of his time at the group home hiding from the other kids.
At a gesture of Gerard's, a can of Coke flew from the front passenger seat to the back, and Bob remembered soberly why these kids were riding with him to begin with. Maybe Gerard being antisocial wasn't so surprising after all
"Hey," said Mikey suddenly.
Gerard paused mid-gesture. "What is it, Mikey?"
Mikey leaned his face forward, into the space between the driver's and passenger seats, and frowned at Bob. "Bob's wrist hurts," he announced. "He's been driving too long."
Bob didn't even bother asking how Mikey had known that. He himself hadn't really been thinking about it, but now that the kid mentioned it, his wrist was getting a little sore, and his lower back was killing him. It wasn't like there was anything they could do about it on the road, though-—he couldn't exactly get out his heating pad while he was driving—so he said, "Don't worry about it. I'm fine."
"Well, I'm not," said Frank. "I have to take a leak like you wouldn't believe."
"Maybe if we pulled into a rest stop," Gerard said, "we could go to the bathroom and Bob could put on his heat pad thing. You know, Mikey, it's kind of a bummer we don't have healing powers. I mean, if we were gonna be freaks, how cool would it be if we were freaks who could, like, cure cancer?"
Frank hit Gerard on the shoulder, none too softly if the sound was any indication. "You're not freaks," he said crossly.
Bob could see Gerard making a face in the rear view mirror. He felt vaguely proud he'd been able to restrain his initial freaked reaction to Gerard and Mikey's…thing. The last thing a teenage kid needed was an adult confirming his idea that he was a weirdo and no one would ever like him.
He checked the clock on the dashboard. 4:13. He hadn't planned on stopping until six or so for dinner, and even then he was only going to drive through someplace—-there wasn't any sense in exposing the boys to danger just for the heck of it. But they had been driving for something like four straight hours now, so it was a little unreasonable to expect them all to sit quietly the whole way there. Plus, now that Mikey had brought up the pain in his wrist, it was really starting to throb.
"Okay," he said, bringing the budding squabble between Frank and Gerard to a halt. "There's a rest stop fifteen miles ahead. We're gonna pull in, you guys are gonna go to the bathroom, and we're gonna leave before anyone has a chance to see you. Don't dawdle, don't wander off, just, in and out."
"Dawdle?" said Mikey. "Who says that?" Frank tittered.
"I'm serious, you guys," said Bob. "You're the ones who keep saying someone's after you, right? Well, people who have people after them don't hang out in rest stops waiting to get caught."
Gerard nodded seriously. "You think we should have disguises?" he asked anxiously. "Like, do you have any huge sunglasses?"
Bob bit back a smile, and refrained from telling Gerard that three kids wearing huge sunglasses probably weren't any less suspicious or less likely to be recognized than they would be otherwise. "Sorry," he said. "Like I said, though, if you're quick, I think it'll be okay."
The rest stop didn't look too crowded as Bob pulled in and parked the van, which was a plus. The boys scrambled in the back for shoes, and Mikey pulled his backpack on.
"Hey," said Bob, "you know you can leave your stuff in the van, right? We're coming back in five minutes."
Mikey gave Bob a solemn look, his eyes looking huge behind his glasses. "I don't know," he said. "I just…I feel like I should take it in with me." He turned around to stare at his brother for a long moment. Bob didn't know what passed between them with that look-—wasn't sure he wanted to, since it probably involved some weird telepathic mindmeld-—but whatever it was, Gerard picked up his backpack, too, and slung it onto his shoulders.
Frank looked from Mikey to Gerard and back again and, with a shrug, picked up his guitar case. Bob rolled his eyes, but he didn't say anything. If they wanted to lug their crap around the rest stop bathroom, who was he to judge?
When they got inside, the entrance to the men's room was blocked off, and two guys who looked like they might be janitors or something were sitting outside on a bench next to a couple of mops and buckets. One of them, a big guy with fluffy reddish hair, stood up when he saw Bob and the kids.
"Sorry," he said, "but one of the toilets overflowed all over the place in there. It's real nasty. The plumber's in there now looking at it."
"So, what, we just go outside or something?" said Bob, feeling simultaneously irritated and kind of like a dick for taking it out on this guy.
The guy who was still sitting snorted, and the big guy sighed. "No," he said. "You can use the women's room. No one's in there now." He gave Frank, Mikey, and Gerard a narrow-eyed look and said, "Try not to make a mess."
"How old does he think we are?" Frank grumbled as they walked into the women's room. "Does he think we're gonna, like, wet our pants and then wipe it on the floor?"
"Eww." Mikey wrinkled his nose at Frank, who laughed.
"Just go the bathroom, would you?" said Bob. He felt pretty uncomfortable being in the ladies' room, even if there weren't actually any women in there. It was a little like when he was a kid and he'd gone in his mom's room without permission.
While the kids used the restroom, Bob went out to the vending machines to restock on Coke Zero and pretzel rods. It was pretty amazing how fast those kids went through the soda and snacks.
When he got back, Mikey and Gerard were peering with interest at the road map on one wall, and Frank was pulling out tourist brochures by the handful, occasionally calling out, "Hey, you can actually pan for gold at this place, we should check it out!" or "They charge $35 for this lame-ass amusement park! I mean, like, Disneyland, I could see $35, but this rinky-dink place? I bet they don't even have a real roller coaster!" The janitors were looking at the kids, frowning, and Bob wasn't psychic or anything, but he had a pretty bad feeling about this.
"Guys. You done?" Without waiting for an answer, Bob walked up to grab Frank's shoulder and ushered him and the Minnellis towards the door.
The big-haired janitor whispered something to the other one, who disappeared, and stepped forward with a big smile. "So, you guys on vacation?" he asked, pulling awkwardly at his fingers.
Bob barely looked at him. "Yeah," he said shortly as he pushed open the door.
"That makes sense," the janitor said quickly. "I mean, school starts in, what, like, a month, so this is like the last hurrah of summer and stuff. You gonna check out all the tourist traps on this highway? Some of them are a lot of fun."
Mikey stopped and turned around to stare at the man.
Bob sighed and closed the door, his irritation sharpened on the edges by a real and unexpected fear. "Well, thanks for the tip," he said. "But we're gonna go now."
"You sure?" the guy asked. He took another step closer, his eyes darting nervously between Bob and the kids. "'Cause, I mean, we have a lot of information here, so if you don't have, like, a defined trip itinerary-—I mean, I'm not like super-qualified, but I've worked here a long time, so I'd totally be willing to go over some brochures with you."
Bob stepped forward, putting the kids behind him almost instinctively. "Look," he said, completely giving up any pretense at politeness, "thanks, but I'd really appreciate it if you'd mind your own goddamned business."
The man shot a quick, nervous look towards the back door where the other janitor had gone, and then squared his shoulders to look at Bob, looking angry himself now. "Yeah?" he said. "Well, I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me what you're doing with three kids reported as missing."
"Oh, wait," said Gerard, pushing past Bob, "you think Bob kidnapped us?"
"No way!" cried Frank.
Bob sighed. "Guys. Hush." He knew they meant well, but frankly, they weren't helping matters. The other guy must have gone to call the cops, leaving 'Ray,' as his nametag said, to keep them at the rest stop. On the plus side, Ray probably wasn't a pedophile looking to grab Mikey, Frank, and Gerard. On the downside, the cops were probably gonna think Bob was.
He should have just fucking called Pete Wentz or the cops when he had the chance. Maybe he would have been able to explain what the kids had told him, gotten them some kind of protection. Now…his best shot was probably to get them to the van, see if they could get to their safe place in the middle of nowhere before this turned into a police chase. Christ, he'd completely fucked up his life-—the least he could do was get the kids out of danger before it all went to shit.
"Guys," he muttered out of the side of his mouth, "when I say, 'go,' we're gonna turn around and run for the van."
Mikey, who'd been staring at Ray the whole time, turned back to grab at Bob's hand. "Wait."
Bob wasn't sure what the hell they were waiting for. The other janitor was running back now, breathing hard-—if they were gonna go, the time was now. Bunny was following on the guy's heels, and Mikey picked her up.
"James!" Ray said, not taking his eyes off Bob. "Did you call them?"
"I did, but…dude, there are a couple of people hanging around the van in the parking lot, and I'm pretty sure they have guns. Like, out of their holsters, ready to shoot." He looked from Bob to Ray and back again. "Christ. Weirdest day ever or what?"
"A couple of people?" Mikey drew himself up to his full height, all four and a half feet of it, looking at James with a sharpness that surprised the hell out of Bob. "A guy and a woman? What'd they look like?"
James looked at Mikey like it had never occurred to him that Mikey might be able to talk. "Um, yeah," he said. "It was a man and a woman. They both had black suits on, dark hair…the guy had, like, an old-fashioned hat on…."
"That's them." Mikey dropped Bunny on the floor to pull at Bob's hand again, looking at his brother with a wild-eyed, frantic expression, and Bob felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. "Bob, Bob, we have to go now, that's them, the ones who killed Joe in my dream. They're after us!"
"What the hell?" asked Ray. "What's going on?"
"Oh, man," said Gerard, who was rapidly working himself into as desperate a fear as Mikey's. "Oh, man, you don't get it—-Ray, you don't know about us, you're just trying to, like, do the right thing, I get that, but seriously, these people, they don't have any problems killing people to get to us. That's why we ran away, and they're gonna-—if you get in their way, they'll probably kill you, too."
"How much TV do these kids watch?" James asked, raising his eyebrows at Bob. Ray, however, frowned and pushed past Bob to poke his head out the door.
"Whoa," he said. "Um, they're screwing with your van, man."
"What?" Bob shoved him aside. Sure enough, a man and a woman dressed like the Men in Black had the hood of his van up. The woman was bent over his engine and fucking pulling on stuff; the man was leaned against the passenger's side door, smirking and stroking a huge fucking handgun. "Holy shit," Bob breathed. He hadn't exactly doubted Mikey and Gerard—-they were the psychic ones, after all-—but the sudden realization that there were people here willing to kill him hit him hard.
"Oh, man," Frank said, breathing quickly like he was trying not to cry. "This is bad, this is so bad. Gerard, can't you, like, get the gun from him?"
Ray gave Frank a scandalized look, which almost made Bob laugh despite the situation. "Oh, hell no," he said. "I don't know if those guys are cops, or FBI agents or something, but that's some seriously suspicious behavior right there, and none of us are going anywhere near them. Especially not you guys."
"So, what?" James asked. "Do we wait for the cops, or what?"
"We gotta go," Mikey said again, softer. "Please." The look he was giving Ray would have melted Vlad the Impaler's heart.
Ray wavered for a minute, chewing his lower lip and staring at the floor. Every muscle in Bob's body, every nerve strained to do something, to grab the kids and run out the back door. But being impulsive wouldn't help anyone now, so he waited, restraining the urge to shake Ray and tell him to make up his damn mind.
Finally, Ray sighed. "We gotta get the hell out of Dodge," he said. "Those guys in the parking lot seem like bad news. James, did you drive today?"
"Okay, then, why don't you grab Matt and go to the police station?" Bob's face must have shown his confusion, because Ray said to him, "Matt's the plumber. So, where were you guys headed?"
Before Bob could answer, Mikey pulled out his starcase to show Ray the map. "Here," he said. "We're trying to find more people like us."
"Like you?" asked Ray, one eyebrow raised. Wordlessly, Gerard made the brochures Frank had knocked to the floor fly back to their holders. Ray's eyes got huge, his mouth fell open, and he looked at Bob as if to say, "Did you just see that?" Bob shrugged. At this point, he was less concerned with Mikey and Gerard's particular brand of weirdness than what the people in the parking lot were gonna do to them—-and him-—because of it.
Ray closed his mouth and made a decisive-sounding noise in the back of his throat. "Okay, then. Um, I've got a camper parked out back, so I guess I could give you guys a lift."
Bob could scarcely believe what he was hearing. "Really?"
Ray shrugged. "I'm probably going nuts, but…you know, I think I might as well go with it. Beats being shot by secret agent men in the parking lot."
"Well, come on then," cried Frank, picking up his guitar as if he expected to have to use it as a weapon. "Let's go before they come in here."
A part of Bob protested at the idea of leaving his van-—his van, for Christ's sake, the one he'd bought with money he'd saved from his first couple of touring gigs, the one with his fucking sound stuff in the back and his iPod on the passenger seat. On the other hand, losing the van kind of paled in comparison to losing his life, and time was kind of of the essence here. So he gave Ray a tight smile, said "Thanks," and started ushering the kids towards the back door.
"Weirdest day ever," James repeated, darting into the bathroom. Bob couldn't really disagree.
"Hmm," Gabe said, leaning over the front of the van. Somebody'd done a real number on it—the frayed end of wires, pulled apart, were spread everywhere, the oil was drained, and the engine actually seemed detached from the car.
"So…this is Bob Bryar's van?" Patrick asked. His heart had been in his throat since they'd found the van, abandoned, in a rest stop parking lot, and now he was almost afraid to breathe.
Ryland, who'd pressed his face to the back window, straightened up. "Probably," he said. "The back's full of sound equipment."
Victoria made a scornful noise in the back of her throat and jerked a thumb towards the license plate. "Plate numbers match, dumbass. It's definitely Bryar's."
"Well, what the hell happened to it?" Pete asked irritably. He walked back and forth, peering through the windows as if there was some clue in the van as to where its passengers had gone.
"Hell if I know," said Gabe with an elaborate shrug. "I mean, even if the guy switched vehicles, why would he trash his own van?"
"To throw us off the trail?" Nate suggested, but Gabe shook his head.
"How would that throw us off the trail? We already know it's his van, we already know he was traveling with the kids." He frowned. "I don't know, maybe he gets himself another car and then somebody else trashes the car, but why? That sound stuff in the back's worth something, but they didn't take any."
There are bad guys after us, Mikey and Gerard had said in their note. As far as they knew, Patrick thought, Bob Bryar might not have even known the kids were hitching a ride, and there was no way that Mikey and Gerard would have gotten into a "bad guy's" van. "Maybe…," he said slowly, "whoever the boys thought was after them wanted to stop them from getting away."
"You really think someone's after them?" asked Gabe, one eyebrow raised.
At this point, Patrick really didn't know what to think. He just hoped that whoever the boys had been frightened of hadn't taken them from Bryar's van, leaving the van as a mocking reminder of Pete and Patrick's own complete incompetence at finding a couple of pre-adolescent boys.
"Hey," Alex said, "whether someone's after them or not, I say we get local law enforcement involved." He pulled out his cell phone. "I know people."
"Jesus Christ, Suarez," said Pete. He sounded impressed, but his fake smile wasn't too convincing. "You really get around, don't you?"
"You know it," Gabe said, draping an arm around Alex. "The Cobra never misses its man. Or kids, as the case may be."
Alex shrugged Gabe's arm off. "Not now, dude," he said, holding the cell phone to his ear. He turned to speak into the receiver. "Yo, this is Alex Suarez. Put Chief McCoy on. Hey, Travis! Dude, this is gonna sound a little nuts, but I need a favor."
"Fuck!" Agent Palmer slammed her hand into the dashboard.
Agent Viglione, disappointed on his own account but familiar enough with his partner's rages to know when to stay quiet, sent a quick text message to Ivarsson, updating her on the pursuit.
"Did the fucker steal a car?" asked Palmer, her tone deceptively conversational. "Is he suddenly buddies with the fucking rest stop attendants? Did a spaceship come down and take them all back to the mothership?" Her voice was getting progressively louder. "Maybe he's an alien, too, and he teleported their asses out of there! In fact, I think that must be it, because otherwise, I can't think how a man with three small children and no working vehicle could fucking vanish from a rest stop in Bum Fuck, New Jersey!"
"You done?" asked Viglione.
Palmer took a deep breath. "Yeah," she said in a more normal tone of voice. "They must have taken off from a vehicle in the back lot, but I didn't get a look at any of the cars back there."
"I did, while you were looking under the hood of the van. A green Ford sedan and a beat-up old recreational vehicle."
She rewarded him with a brilliant smile. "Brian, you are the man."
"I know," said Viglione with a smirk. "What say we call the local law enforcement and set up a roadblock or two?"
Palmer frowned thoughtfully. "A little old-school," she said. "But sometimes I guess that's the best way to do it." She grinned and pulled the car back into Drive.
Gerard had never thought he would ever hit a point where he'd be too tired to be scared, but as he and Mikey curled up on one of the bunks in Ray's camper, he couldn't muster any thought more serious than that Ray had really good taste in music.
Frank was clearly thinking along similar lines. "Yo, Ray," he said, "what CD is this? It rocks!"
"This?" Ray said, sounding a little startled. "Um. It's Iron Maiden, The Number of the Beast. You a metal fan?"
Frank shrugged from his position on the floor. He looked even littler than usual, his knees against his chest as he leaned against the wall by the bunks. "Not really," he said, "but this is pretty good."
"They're music connoisseurs," said Bob dryly from the passenger's seat. Gerard thought he was probably making fun of them, but it didn't sound terribly mean, and Gerard was way too tired to protest.
"Hey," he said, poking Mikey in the back. Mikey'd been a silent lump on the bunk for the last half hour or so—even when Gerard reached out mentally, Mikey felt a million miles away. It was weird.
Mikey rolled over and blinked, dazed-looking. Are we there yet? he asked.
"No," said Gerard, then he raised his voice. "Mikey wants to know when we're gonna get there."
Bob and Ray exchanged looks in the front seat, like they were still sort of figuring each other out. "Well," Ray said, "I know you guys have a specific destination in mind, but I'd kind of like to keep those guys from figuring out where you're going, if they're following us. So…."
"Bert and Quinn—-some guys I know--have a cabin around Cork Valley," Bob broke in.
Ray nodded. "Lotta people do, for fishing and stuff."
"I'm pretty sure that's not what they do up there," said Bob with a snort, but he looked back at Mikey and Frank and Gerard and shut his mouth. His friends probably had sex up there, Gerard thought. That was the kind of thing that adults always tried and failed to hide from kids, as if they didn't know what people did in bed.
Mikey was getting a sort of spaced-out look again, and Gerard made a mental note to ask him what he was seeing after he figured out what was going on. "So," he said, "do you guys wanna go to the cabin and hide out or something?" This whole thing was only supposed to take a day, he thought with vague disappointment. Still, better late than never.
Ray shot Bob a look. "If it's okay with you," he said.
Bob shrugged and said, "I'm not the one on the run." He twisted around in his seat to look at Mikey and Gerard. "Are you guys gonna be okay not figuring out the whole map thing until you get some psychic message that those people aren't following us anymore?"
"I guess," said Gerard, but he wasn't really paying attention anymore. Mikey was getting that look on his face that always meant he was remembering something Gerard couldn't. He poked Mikey in the shoulder again. "Mikey! Snap out of it!"
Frank perked up. "What's he doing?"
"Ouch," said Mikey, putting a hand to his shoulder. "You didn't have to poke so hard."
Gerard sighed. "Sorry."
"I was just thinking…well, Ray was talking about fishing, so I started thinking about fishing—-I mean, not that I've ever been fishing, but the idea, you know. And…I remembered being in a boat."
"The one that crashed?" asked Frank.
Mikey shook his head. "No, this was afterwards. It was, like, a Coast Guard boat. They were pulling us out of the water and wrapping us up in blankets, because we had frostbite or something. And they kept asking us stuff, but we didn't understand what they were saying, and we just kept saying our names were Mikey and Gerard Way."
Gerard blinked. "Wait, our last name's Way?" That was more useful information than anything else Mikey'd remembered so far.
"Well, that's the thing," said Mikey, pushing his glasses up his nose. "I don't think it is. I think we couldn't pronounce whatever our last name was, so we just said it was Way because we could pronounce that."
"Why wouldn't we be able to pronounce our own name?" asked Gerard. Even if they hadn't been able to speak English, which seemed to have been the case, it didn't make a lot of sense. Gerard had been, like, five years old—that was plenty old enough to know his own name.
Mikey shrugged. "I don't know. That's all I remembered."
"That's pretty trippy," said Ray from the driver's seat. "So, wait, you guys are trying to find your biological family, but you don't know their name?"
"It's complicated." Gerard sighed. All he really wanted to do was take a nap, but he was terrified that if he closed his eyes, he'd wake up to find that the people chasing them had caught them, and something terrible had happened to Frank and Bob and Ray.
Mikey blinked and gave him a crooked little half smile, leaning against Gerard's chest. I think it's okay, for now at least.
"Hey, Mikey," Bob said, "can I see your starcase for a minute? I'd like to show Ray that map again."
Mikey groaned, but he pulled himself out of the bunk to hand it to Bob without complaining. Gerard supposed he could have floated it over, but his head was starting to hurt.
"Look at this," Bob said, pointing at something. "You see this line here? I've been looking through your atlas here, and this line isn't a road or anything. I'm thinking it's a trail."
"Well, there are a ton of trails in those mountains," Ray said, leaning over to peer quickly at the starcase before returning his attention to the road.
"That's what I thought," said Bob. "So why mark this one, unless it's the one we're-—I mean, the boys are supposed to take?"
Ray looked over at the starcase again. "So, wait," he said, as if Bob hadn't said anything. "Lemme get this straight. You've had this thing, this starcase, what, how long, Mikey?"
"Forever," Gerard answered, too tired to explain about the whole memory loss thing.
"Okay, and you never asked to go to the places on this map before? Why now?"
"We just found the map a couple months ago," Frank piped up. "The starcase got broken in a fight, and we were trying to fix it."
"What are you getting at?" Bob asked, frowning.
"Just, I mean, isn't it kind of weird to hide a map like that? Why do you even have this starcase? Who'd put a map in there for you to follow and then hide it?"
Gerard's brain felt fuzzy with exhaustion, but he struggled to think. "Maybe whoever gave it to us wanted to keep it a secret," he said. And it made sense, because if they came from people as strange as Mikey and Gerard, those people would probably want to keep under the radar. "And…I don't know, maybe they just figured we'd find it out or that we knew where it was, but they didn't want anyone else to know about it."
"Yeah, but…" Gerard had buried his face in the pillow, so he couldn't see Ray, but he could picture him biting his lip. "It seems like an awful lot of trouble, doesn't it? To carve a little map, and hide it so well that you only found it after nine years…." Gerard could hear the swishy sound of Ray shaking his head. "I mean, God, I'm getting really curious as to what we're gonna find out there."
"The mothership," Frank said cheerfully, and Gerard felt a weird shiver run down his spine. Of course, it'd probably be better to find out he was an alien than find out he was from a bunch of bee-worshipping cultists like in The Wicker Man, or the Children of the Corn or something. Still, it was pretty weird to think about.
I'm holding out for the lost island of Avalon, said Mikey. Maybe we'll find out Merlin was our grandpa or something.
"Avalon's in England, moron," Gerard said, the last word distorted by a huge yawn. Plus, he maybe didn't remember things as well as Mikey did, but something told him that they weren't from King Arthur's court or something like that, they were from someplace stranger than that. Someplace that should have felt unfamiliar, but that was hovering around the edges of his brain like something he should have been able to remember. He sighed in frustration, which made him yawn again.
"Hey," said Bob, "if you guys wanna take a nap, we've still got a ways to go. We'll wake you up if anything interesting happens."
Frank scrambled into the bunk with Gerard and Mikey. "Awesome," he said. "Hey, is it okay if I crash here?"
As if they were really gonna kick him out, seriously. Plus, it wasn't like Frank took up that much space. Gerard yawned again, feeling like keeping his eyes open was really way too much effort, and said, "I don't care." He rolled over against the wall to make more room for Frank, and Mikey scooted over with him.
I've got a good feeling, Gee, said Mikey. This is gonna work, I know it.
Gerard tried to hold on to the warm feeling of Mikey's reassurance in his mind as he slipped into darkness.
It wasn't as if the whole day hadn't been one weird thing after another, Bob thought, but somehow riding in the front seat with Ray in total silence while the kids slept in the back was a new and special kind of awkward.
"So," he said, trying to break the silence, before he realized he really didn't have anything to say to Ray. 'How's being a rest stop janitor working out for you?' Or maybe, 'So, how about those guys with guns who're probably still following us?' He finally settled on, "Thanks again for giving us a ride."
Ray shrugged. "Oh, sure!" he said with an enthusiasm that seemed sincere, if a little strained. He had a kind of high voice for a guy, Bob thought.
"Well, you didn't have to, but we really appreciate it."
Ray smiled. "Not a problem, man. I mean, I felt kind of bad for giving you such a hard time earlier."
"Eh," Bob said. He really couldn't blame Ray for thinking he was some kind of creepy kidnapper. That's probably what he would have thought in Ray's place. "You were just trying to do the right thing. I probably should have called the cops when I found them—they snuck in the back of my van and hitched a ride," he explained when Ray gave him a curious look. "But the whole psychic thing's kind of out of my range of experience, you know, and if they're really getting chased by the government or whatever…." Bob trailed off. He still wasn't sure why he'd chosen to believe a couple of kids over every shred of common sense telling him that they were probably making it up, and even if they weren't, the police would do a better job handling it than Bob would. "I didn't want anything bad to happen to them," he finished, hoping Ray wouldn't ask him to explain.
"No, I get it," Ray said, nodding earnestly. "They seem like really nice kids."
Bob looked quickly over his shoulder at the bunk. All three boys were crammed onto it in a pile of skinny limbs and dark clothes, Mikey snoring against Gerard's chest and Frank draped across the Minnellis like a blanket. Bob smiled. "They are," he said.
The conversation kind of fell into a lull, and Bob found himself following the yellow lines on the asphalt with his eyes. As a result, it took him what was probably an embarrassingly long time to figure out that Ray was looking at him.
"What?" he asked gruffly. He probably looked like a bum, he knew—-it'd been a long fucking day, and it wasn't like he got dressed up to just drive around by himself and be alone. But it wasn't like Ray could really talk, with his stained jumpsuit and his crazy hair.
To his surprise, Ray kind of reddened and looked back at the road. "Nothing," he muttered, sounding more uncomfortable and unsure than Bob had ever heard him sound in their admittedly brief acquaintance.
Whatever. It wasn't like Bob was gonna go into a big long chat about whatever the hell Ray's issues were. So instead, he said, "Iron Maiden, huh?"
Ray grinned with one side of his mouth. "Yeah, my brother was a total metalhead, kind of passed it on to me. You a fan?" It was a casual enough question, but Ray seemed to be awaiting its answer with a disproportionately eager interest.
"Sure," said Bob. "It's been a long time since I've heard them, though."
"Well, sure, it's like the music of our youth," Ray said. "Man, this album totally brings me back to high school, hanging out in my basement and figuring out all the chords to 'Run to the Hills.'"
"You play the guitar?"
"Not in a long time." He sighed and drummed his fingers on the dashboard. "I used to play all the time when I was a kid, though. I was pretty sure I was gonna be the lead guitar in a huge metal band, be a big rock star, all that."
Bob tried to picture Ray, with his earnest smiles and awkward stares, as one of the musicians on his last tour. He'd be good at it, Bob decided—he wasn't a douche, and he seemed pretty responsible, and he really liked music, if his enthusiasm for Iron Maiden was any indication. "That's cool, man," he said. "Did you ever end up playing in any bands?"
"I was in a metalcore band for a while," Ray said. "We kind of sucked, but it was fun, you know? 'Course, then I came out to them, and it was totally awkward. So. That was the end of that."
Ah. What exactly did one say in response to that? "That sucks," Bob said slowly.
"It happens," said Ray, matter-of-fact. "So, how about you? What do you do, when you're not rescuing kids with super powers?"
Bob could feel his face redden, just a bit, though whether it was with pleasure or embarrassment he couldn't tell. "I wouldn't really say I rescued them," he said. "They could have caught another ride, maybe one that would've worked out better."
Ray made an amused snorting noise in the the back of his throat. "I doubt it," he said. "I mean…." He shot Bob a sidelong look, not nervous exactly, but a little hesitant. "If I step out of line here, feel free to shut me up, but seriously, if I didn't know they were orphans on the run, and you told me you'd adopted those kids a year ago and you were taking a family road trip when some weirdos with guns trashed your van, I'd totally believe you."
"Uh-huh. Whatever you say," Bob said. Still, he couldn't help feel a little…hell, what was he feeling? A little protective, a little proud, and pretty damn ridiculous, because he'd known these kids for about six hours total.
"See!" said Ray, shaking a triumphant finger in Bob's direction. "There you go again, with the dad-face!"
Bob shook his head. "Dude, seriously."
"No, I'm not kidding!" Ray said with a laugh. "You get this expression on your face that's just…." He shook his head and muttered, "Pretty hot."
Bob froze, and turned his head from Ray to look out the window, at the striped pattern of shadows the pine trees threw onto the road. So that was what the staring earlier had been about. "Look, Ray," Bob said, doing his best to ignore the voices in his head shrieking, Dude, and now you have to ride together! With the kids! Awkward! "I really, um, you've been really great, and I really appreciate it, just. I'm straight."
Ray flushed so hard that he looked like a tomato with an especially fluffy wig. "No, dude, I—-yeah, I know. Sorry. Just." He waved a hand in a vague motion. "Forget I said anything."
The silence that followed was as thick and awkward as any Bob had ever experienced, and he felt a little nauseated. Part of it was probably the fact that he'd taken to counting the shadows on the road, and the trees whipping by were going too fast for that to be a comfortable habit to fall into, but he thought part of it was the claustrophobic sense of being trapped in this completely insufferable tension. "So. You asked earlier--I'm a roadie," Bob said, willing at this point to say absolutely anything to break the silence. "Drum tech, specifically. Well, I used to be, anyway. I think I'm technically on a leave of absence at the moment."
"Oh, yeah?" Some of the interest in Ray's voice was probably forced, but it sounded pretty genuine. "Is that as awesome as it sounds?"
They talked comfortably enough for a while about Bob's job, and the music scene, and then about various jerks and idiots they'd worked with before. Bob felt the tension in his stomach loosen, and Ray's face was finally beginning to relax, when the sight of a white and black car up ahead filled Bob with such a sudden and unexpected fear that his head swam and a weird buzzing drowned out the sound of Ray's voice.
"Shit," he said. "Is that a roadblock?"
"Looks like it," said Ray, peering ahead. "It, you know, it probably doesn't have anything to do with us, but…you think some super powers might be able to help us out here?"
Using the kids' powers to get themselves out of police roadblocks seemed like a pretty unethical and shitty thing to do, but it wasn't like they had many other options if being caught by the cops meant that Mikey and Gerard and Frank were gonna get sent back to wherever they'd come from. Bob unbuckled himself from his seat and went to the back of the camper to gently reach out for the first shoulder he encountered.
It was Mikey's. He blinked up at Bob, looking vaguely disoriented, with his glasses hanging crookedly from one ear.
"Hey," Bob said softly. "Sorry to wake you, but there are some cops up ahead. We aren't sure if they're looking for you guys or not, but…."
Mikey nodded and put his glasses on properly, and then he turned to shake his brother awake.
Gerard groaned, rolling over. Frank, who was shoved off Gerard and onto the edge of the bunk in the process, coming dangerously close to falling off, woke up with a loud grunt. "What? What's going on?" Frank asked, looking way more alert than Bob had expected.
"Cops," Mikey said shortly, and Frank's eyes widened.
"Shit," he said concisely, and despite the gravity of the situation, Bob wanted to laugh.
Whether it was Frank's rolling over, the word 'cops,' or something Mikey had said psychically, Gerard muttered, "All right, I'm up." He sat up and rubbed his eyes, yawning.
"Um, guys?" said Ray from the front, sounding a little frantic. "They're, like, searching cars. This isn't good."
"What the hell?" said Frank, sounding frustrated. "Cops can't just search your car like that! Don't they need warrants and stuff? I've seen Law & Order!"
"They don't need warrants if you give them permission," Ray said, "and I bet if you don't give them permission, they get suspicious." He craned his neck, looking at the rapidly-shrinking line of cars ahead of them. "Guys, we don't have a lot of time here. If we're gonna do something, we gotta do it now."
Gerard frowned, looking like he was concentrating on something really hard, and then sighed. "Distraction," he muttered. "That's what we need. But I don't think Bunny's gonna cut it, and I don't wanna…." He shot Bob a worried glance. "I'm trying to think of something that doesn't involve, like, moving cars, 'cause I don't think I could do that anyway, or the cops' guns. I don't know. I guess I'm not that good at distractions."
"I maybe have an idea," Frank said, "but it's kind of lame."
"Let's hear it," said Bob. At this point, he was willing to hear any and all suggestions—the only thing he'd come up with thus far was driving right through the checkpoint, and that probably wasn't going to fly.
Frank shrugged. "Well, they probably can't see us from here, right? We could just duck out into the woods, walk a little ways, and then jump back in when they can't see us anymore."
"Holy shit, that's brilliant!" said Ray. "Next time I'm on the run, Frank, I'm totally calling you for advice."
Frank blushed with pleasure and ducked his head, making him look even younger than he was. "I watch a lot of action movies," he said.
"How far should we go?" asked Gerard, who hadn't lost his worried expression. "And how are we gonna find you again? It's not like we can walk as fast as you can drive."
Bob turned to Ray. "You got a cell phone?"
Ray nodded, and dug one out of his pocket to hand it to Bob.
Bob quickly programmed Ray's number into his own phone and his number into Ray's. "Here," he said, handing the phone back. "You call us when you've found a place to stop, and we'll catch up with you."
Mikey blinked up at Bob. "You're coming with us?"
You're the psychic, Bob thought. You tell me-—you really think I'd leave the three of you on your own? Out loud, he said, "Of course I am."
He didn't know whether Mikey had heard his thoughts or not, but the kid's smile, warm and slow, made him think that at least the sentiment behind the thoughts had been understood.
The camper had already slowed to a crawl in the sluggish line of cars leading to the road stop, but Ray stopped it entirely. "I'll call you as soon as I think it's safe," he said. "You guys watch yourselves. I haven't seen those guys with the guns following us, but…be careful."
Bob nodded. He grabbed Mikey with one hand and Frank with the other and helped them down out of the camper. Gerard followed, with a quiet "Thank you" to Ray as he stepped down.
"No problem," Ray said, giving Bob a tight smile.
Mikey frowned at Bunny, who was still curled up in the corner where she couldn't wreak havoc on Gerard's allergies, snoring softly. He sighed and said to Ray, "Take care of Bunny, okay?"
"Will do," said Ray.
They dashed into the woods on the side of the road, going far enough in that Bob thought they probably couldn't be seen from the road. There wasn't a lot of brush to hide them, but the trees got thicker deeper in, and though there wasn't a trail, the ground was pretty level and easy to navigate.
"I hope Ray doesn't go too far," said Gerard. "Think about how much walking we've done today!"
Frank rolled his eyes. "You can't be tired!" he said. "We just slept for, like, hours!"
"It's not the same if you don't get a full night's sleep. That's when your body goes in and fixes stuff-—it can't do that when you're just napping," Gerard said with an air of great knowledgeability.
"Hey," Bob said, absently wondering if Gerard watched the Discovery Channel, "less talking, more walking."
They hiked on for a while in silence, more or less, broken only occasionally by Frank pointing out something he thought was awesome in the woods, or Gerard responding to something Mikey had said to him psychically. Bob was pretty sure they'd passed the road stop, but it was hard to tell—they were far enough in the woods that the noises from the road were faint and sounded too distant to really interpret.
It was kind of a comfortable rhythm, Bob thought, the kind of relaxing isolation from people that had been the whole point of his trip to begin with. Sure, the circumstances weren't ideal, but it was a pretty day, not too hot, and it had been a long time since he'd just listened to the birds and the rustle of leaves in the woods.
Gerard seemed to be listening to something, too, but whatever it was didn't make him very happy. "Did you hear that?" he said, stopping in his tracks and looking around him nervously.
Bob's every sense kicked into high alert. "What was it?" he asked.
Gerard made a face, twisting his mouth into a focused, frustrated expression. "I don't know, just…." He turned to his brother. "Did you hear it?"
Mikey stopped walking and turned his head from one side to another, like he was a satellite picking up signals, and Bob wondered if he was just listening, or if he'd opened some senses that most people didn't have, taking in information that passed by the rest of the world. It was kind of fascinating to watch. After a long moment, though, he closed his eyes, and his face crumpled up like he was trying not to cry.
Oh, shit, thought Bob, just as he heard the cracking of a stick behind him.
He could have guessed that it wasn't going to be anything he wanted to see, but he turned around anyway. It was a cop, a young guy with an abundance of tattoos that reminded Bob more of the bands he toured with than law enforcement officers. Bob could have taken some reassurance from the fact that the cop looked as nervous as Bob felt, but given that the cop had his hand visibly on the gun in his holster, it wasn't actually that comforting.
"Are you guys Gerard and Mikey Minnelli and Frank Iero?" the cop asked.
Frank sighed, looking so bored that Bob wanted to poke him and tell him to take this seriously. "If we said no, would you believe us?"
"Um," the cop said, looking like he wasn't sure whether to actually answer that or not. He decided on not, apparently, because he turned to Bob and asked, a lot more hostile, "Who are you?"
"My name's Bob Bryar," said Bob, making sure the cop could see that both of his hands were empty. "I know this doesn't look good, but--"
"Running from a police checkpoint with three missing children?" The cop laughed, somehow managing to sound anxious and scornful simultaneously. "You bet it doesn't look good. Until I figure out what the hell your deal is, you're under arrest."
Great. Just fucking great.
"So that's when Nickelodeon went downhill, when they ditched the real stories for this sitcom bullshit." Travis looked over to the desk next to him, where Disashi was rummaging through the drawers. "You even listening to me, man?"
"Sure," said Disashi. "No stories, sitcom bullshit, downfall of Nickelodeon. Got it. Aha!" He pulled out a big bottle of what looked like some kind of lotion from the drawer. "I've been looking for this for weeks. I knew I left it at work somewhere."
"Dude," said Travis, leaning forward so that for once, all four legs of his chair were on the floor at the same time. "What is that?"
Travis shook his head. "How metrosexual are you?"
"How 2002 are you?" Disashi shot back. "'Metrosexual,' Jesus. I know this is gonna come as a surprise to you, but most ladies like men who don't smell like old sweat socks."
"Old sweat socks? I'll show you old sweat socks, you--" And then the phone rang. "Saved by the bell, sucker," Travis said, though it probably applied more to him than it did to Disashi, since he didn't really have a clever comeback ready, and Disashi knew it, damn him. "Hero County Police Department," he said.
"Yo, Travis?" It was Matt, which meant maybe something interesting had happened at the road stops after all. Travis sat up straight.
"Well, Tyga thought he saw some guys walking around in the woods, so he went to check it out, and—-get ready for this-—it was all three missing kids, and some guy was with them."
"You're shitting me!" They didn't have a lot of major crimes in Hero County, especially not ones the goddamned FBI was involved in, and this was the first missing persons case Travis had ever worked on. Still, he'd always gotten the impression that runaway or kidnapped kids were pretty hard to find. He'd never been so glad to be proven wrong.
"Nope," said Matt. "Tyga's sitting with the kids, and Eric's with the guy—the guy's name is Bob Bryar, FYI, if you want to look him up, see if he has a record."
"Gotcha." He put a hand over the receiver. "Yo, yo, Disashi, you got a paper and pencil or something over there?" Travis probably had some kind of writing implement in his desk, but he was so not in the mood to dig through his crap right now.
Disashi rolled his eyes, but he tossed over a pad of paper and a pen. Travis hurriedly scribbled down the name—he was pretty sure he'd spelled 'Bryar' right. "You gonna bring 'em in?" he asked.
"Sure," said Matt. "On our way now."
"Awesome," Travis said, and he hung up the phone. "Dude!" he said to Disashi. "I feel so Lenny Briscoe right now. No joke, Matt and Eric and Tyga found those missing kids, and maybe some dude involved in kidnapping them or something."
Travis felt a little smug-—it wasn't often he got a chance to put an expression that dumbstruck on Disashi's face. "Seriously."
They looked up Bryar-—no priors, but his running through the woods with the missing kids was suspicious enough that Travis started filling out a report on him. Usually he hated doing paperwork, but then again, usually he was writing up people for hunting with an expired licence or driving with a broken taillight. This was some serious NYPD Blue shit. He was gonna have to send Alex Suarez a six-pack or something. Maybe a bottle of wine-—Suarez was a classy motherfucker.
They called the number given for Pete Wentz, and got an intense-sounding guy named Andy Hurley who thanked him and hung up before Travis could ask just what they were supposed to do with the kids.
It was another half hour before Matt, Eric, and Tyga walked in, herding a disgruntled-looking blond man and three scared-looking kids.
"Oh, thank God," Eric said, shutting the door behind him with one hand while grabbing on to the collar of the shortest kid's shirt with the other. "Longest car trip ever."
The biggest kid wriggled out of Tyga's grip, looked from Travis to Disashi and back again, and said, "Are you the chief?"
"Uh, yeah," Travis said. "Are you okay?" The kid looked stressed, but not as freaked out as Travis thought a kid who'd been kidnapped would probably look.
The kid nodded. "I've been trying to explain it—-look, see, Bob didn't kidnap us, he was helping us get away from these people who were trying to kidnap us. He didn't do anything wrong, so you should let him go."
Ah, shit, this sounded like it was actually gonna be pretty complicated. "Can't do that until I've figured out what's going on," Travis said, doing his best to sound businesslike. Disashi wordlessly handed him a blank report, and he gave him a brief smile in thanks. "Now, why don't you guys sit down and explain this all to me. You too," he added to Bryar.
Eric and Tyga deposited their charges in the chairs in front of Travis's desk while Disashi ran to get some fold-out chairs for Bryar and the biggest kid. Once everyone seemed more or less settled, Travis picked up a pen.
"Okay," he said. "Let's start at the beginning. What are your names, again?"
"Frank Iero," said the littlest kid, who'd given up trying to dart out the door but had crossed his arms, hunched over in his seat and looking hilariously sullen.
"Mikey Castaway," said the geeky-looking kid who hadn't spoken yet. Bryar shot him a strange look.
"Gerard Casta--" the big one began, breaking off mid-word and looking confused.
Well, whatever, Travis might not have a photographic memory or anything, but he was pretty sure he'd remember a name like 'Castaway,' and he didn't. He dug the missing persons report Suarez had faxed over out of a folder on his desk. "It says here your last name's Minnelli," he said. "You guys playing around with me here?"
"I don't…" Gerard shook his head and turned to his brother. "Hey-—you said we kept saying our name was 'Way,' right? Maybe 'Castaway' was the thing we couldn't pronounce."
"Well, that's a stupid last name," Mikey grumbled, before he and Gerard started apparently communicating through a series of increasingly absurd eyebrow quirks.
Travis had to agree, which brought him right back to wondering why in the hell they'd said it was their last name to begin with. "What are you talking about?"
They turned in unison to blink at him in slight consternation, like they'd forgotten he was there. "Um," Gerard began. "It's…okay, it takes too long to explain, and it doesn't really matter anyway." Mikey glared at him, and he added, "To you, I mean."
"Right." Travis turned to give Disashi an imploring look—he would have actually said, "Help me out here, man!" if it didn't compromise his image as a tough, cool police chief.
Disashi smirked and mouthed, "You're on your own, Chief!" at him. Traitor.
"Oh, for Christ's sake," Matt said, rolling his eyes. He moved from behind Bryar's chair to sit on the edge of Travis's desk, shoving his slinky aside. "Okay, guys," he said to the kids, "why don't you tell me when you decided to run away, and why. And then we'll move onto when you met up with Bob. That cool?"
It took a while, but to Travis's amazement, Matt actually managed to get the whole story out of the kids, with Travis asking a few questions every now and then for clarification. Bryar hadn't actually kidnapped them, it seemed, only picked them up on the highway, which was kind of admirable. The problem was, he'd obviously known they were missing and that the police were looking for them, or he wouldn't have been sneaking around in the woods to avoid the road stop. The kids seemed to like him, but it was crazy suspicious. Who actually believed a crazy kids' story about being on the run from secret agents instead of calling the cops?
The phone rang, and Disashi picked it up. "Hero County Police," he said. "Uh-huh. Yeah, okay. That's fine. See you then. Thanks for calling. Bye."
"Who was that?" asked Matt.
"That was Pete Wentz's assistant, Patrick Stump. He and Wentz are on their way—-they should be here in about two hours."
An unhappy expression spread over Gerard's face, and he said, "They know we're okay, right? You told them?"
"Yeah, we told them. 'Course, they'd already know you were okay if you hadn't run off like that." Travis felt kind of like a shit for guilt-tripping a fourteen-year old, but seriously, what a hell of a lot of hassle for three runaway kids, two of whom lived with a fucking millionaire.
Frank, who'd been silent a good long while now, rolled his eyes. "You don't get it," he said.
Travis shrugged; if they weren't gonna tell him anything else besides this bullshit story about running away from Mulder and Scully, he really didn't get it and wasn't likely to.
"What are we gonna do with them for two hours?" Eric said. "Seriously, it's like seven-thirty now; do we ever get to go home tonight?"
"Shit, seriously?" He hadn't realized it had gotten that late. "Well. Huh. Well, the kids have to stay nearby. You guys eaten yet?" He addressed that part to the kids, since he had no doubt the guys on patrol had gotten Subway or something.
"Not for a while," Frank said.
"Okay, then, let's grab some dinner at Hayley's next door. You kids are gonna love this place-—swear to God, anything you could think of to eat, they got it."
"What about…." Matt jerked his head in Bryar's direction.
Oh. Travis had almost forgotten about him. After all the extra effort his guys had put in today, it seemed kind of shitty to make one of them sit around and babysit Bryar. They couldn't just let him go, though, not until they'd talked to a lawyer and figured out if he'd actually committed a crime or was just kind of sketchy.
"There's always the cell," Disashi said. Sometimes they had a couple of drunks who'd been driving or being a public nuisance in there, but at the moment it was empty.
Bryar, who'd been pretty stoic throughout, winced. Well, he could just suck it up, as far as Travis was concerned; if he'd just called the police when he picked the kids up instead of leading them all on a wild goose chase, Travis would have already been home and watching the disaster movie marathon on TNT.
"Awesome," Travis said. "Make it so, Number Two!" Disashi flipped him the bird, but he went to grab Bryar by the shoulder and steer him towards the back, where the cell was.
The kids looked after Bryar with worried eyes. Travis gave them what he hoped was a reassuring smile and said, "Come on, let's get some food."
"Hey, Travie," Tyga said, "you want me to come along? Help you with the kids?"
"Help me with the kids, my ass. Eat off my credit card, more like."
Tyga shook his head. "No, seriously, you might need some help."
"Oh, come on," said Travis, feeling like Tyga was just messing with him now. He gestured towards where the kids sat, three little mini goth-punk-geek types, with their dark clothes and stupid hair. "How much trouble you think they're gonna be?"
Matt snorted, and said, "Those are some famous last words, if ever I heard 'em."
They'd been driving for hours now, following the camper and waiting for just the right opportunity to, say, run it to the side of the road, or take advantage of a gas stop to grab their prey. Hours, and nothing.
"To think," Agent Palmer said, drawing mutilated stick figures on the back of their road map, "I was actually fucking excited when we pulled this job. Christ, now I wish we'd foisted it off on fucking Cocker and Molko."
"Tracking actual extraterrestrials?" said Agent Viglione dismissively. "Those guys are extraterrestrials-—I wouldn't trust them to be objective."
Agent Palmer laughed at that. "Too fucking right," she said. "But still. I hate feeling so…useless, you know?"
"I know," said Agent Viglione, heartfelt. What he wouldn't give for a little excitement, a little danger, instead of this, the world's most boring car chase.
"And watch, we'll catch up and they'll turn out to be, like, little fakers, and not ETs at all, and we'll have just wasted all this--" Agent Palmer's head jerked to one side, suddenly, and there was an urgent note in her voice as she said, "Look at that. There was a police road stop here."
Viglione slowed the car. "Yeah?" he said.
"Yeah. Look, you can see the barriers on the side of the road. You know what that means?" Without waiting for an answer, she said, "Unless there's some bank robber on the run out here, it means they were looking for Stump's wards out here-—and the road stop's not there anymore, which means the cops found them. Where's the nearest police station?"
"You've got the map," said Viglione. "You tell me. I think I saw a sign for Cork Valley a little ways back—-you think they're big enough to merit a police station?"
"None of these podunk towns are big enough to merit a police station," Palmer said scornfully. "But let's try it."
Viglione accelerated, feeling an edge of excitement for the first time in hours.
Well, this pretty much sucks.
Gerard nodded slightly but didn't say anything. Which made sense, really, seeing as how he was sitting right next to Officer Stevenson and right across from Chief McCoy.
Frank was squirming in his seat. He'd eaten his pizza and fries as fast as Mikey had ever seen a kid eat, and now he kept looking at Mikey and Gerard expectantly, like he thought they had some kind of grand plan. It was kind of flattering, but also frustrating, because frankly, Mikey was too tired to even eat his stupid hamburger, much less come up with some big escape plan.
He felt Gerard trying to say something mentally, but as it sometimes happened with Gerard, it wasn't coming in clearly—just a vague sense of questioning, a rush of tangled emotions, and an image of Bob in what looked like a dungeon.
I don't get it, Mikey said.
Gerard rolled his eyes and said, "Hey, Chief McCoy, is anybody keeping Bob company?"
"Huh?" Chief McCoy looked away from the television, where some kind of sports thing was going on. "Oh. No, not right now, but I think he'll be okay. He's only gonna be there until tomorrow, when we can start doing our investigation."
Gerard grinned at Mikey, and his excitement was clear, even if the reason for it wasn't.
Officer Stevenson gave them a weird look. They hadn't even done anything too weird when the police were bringing them in—unless you counted Frank biting people as 'weird.' Mikey wasn't stupid enough to think that the cops would take their supernatural stuff as well as Bob and Ray had. Still, Officer Stevenson seemed kind of on edge around them, almost suspicious. Maybe it was because he was the one Frank had bitten.
The television abruptly shut off, and the rest of the people in the diner groaned. "Hayley, come on!" yelled a guy near the door.
"Hold your horses," Hayley grumbled. She stood on a chair to turn the television back on. Nothing. "Huh," she said. "Stupid thing must have blown a fuse or something."
It was at that point that the lights started switching off and on, slowly at first, and then more rapidly, and dishes started flying from tables into the air. It was also at that point that Mikey figured out what Gerard had been so excited about.
You fibber, he said, you are so good at distractions. He wasn't as good at moving stuff as Gerard was, but he figured any little bit helped, so he knocked over a pile of menus and pushed a couple of empty chairs back and forth from their tables.
"Holy shit!" Frank said. "This place is haunted!" It was a good thing Officer Stevenson and Chief McCoy were busy staring in confusion at the chaos everywhere, or they would have noticed how bad Frank was at hiding a grin.
Chief McCoy stood up. "Okay," he said, "everybody stay calm. I'm sure it's just, like, a little earthquake or something. Nothing to worry about, it'll be over in a sec…."
The TV switched back on and started flipping though channels at random, and the silverware started dancing. Hey, that's really good, Gee, said Mikey, impressed despite himself. He never understood how Gerard could keep multiple things going at once without getting distracted or developing a massive headache.
A couple of customers ran out the door. "And they didn't even pay!" Frank muttered, and Gerard giggled.
"Should we…evacuate, or something?" Officer Stevenson asked. He hadn't looked at Mikey, Gerard, and Frank since the lights had started flashing.
"Um." Chief McCoy looked freaked and indecisive for a moment and then said, "Hayley, you got a circuit-breaker back there? I think maybe we should turn everything off and turn it back on again."
"The fuck!" yelled Hayley. "My diner isn't a computer! We've got demonic possession here, not an error message!"
Come on, let's go, said Mikey. They seem pretty distracted.
Gerard nodded and stood up. "Hey, Mikey and Frank and me have to go to the bathroom, okay?" he said.
"Sure, be careful," said Chief McCoy, his brain clearly a million miles away.
Frank valiantly restrained himself from laughing until they were outside. "That was awesome," he said as soon as they were out of earshot of the diner. "Some serious super hero shit, you guys."
"Nah," said Gerard, looking at his feet with a modest little shrug. "I mean, we had to do something, right?"
Mikey shook his head. Frank's right, it was awesome. You were like something out of Poltergeist. It wasn't like Gerard wasn't always kind of awesome, but he'd actually gotten them away from the cops this time. He was totally the best big brother ever.
Gerard shrugged, flushing a little. "Yeah, well, it's not gonna matter much if we don't hurry. I figure we gotta go rescue Bob, and then we can meet up with Ray like we were supposed to."
"We're doing an actual prison break now?" asked Frank. "Excellent."
The police had locked the door to the station when they'd left, but that wasn't much of a problem; even when Mikey was tired and had kind of a headache, locks were easy. They pushed the door open and looked around.
It seemed empty, and it was a big enough open space that they probably would have been able to see any cops if they were there. Mikey reached out mentally, and found only Bob. "The cell's that way," he said, pointing to a door at the back of the room. "Let's go before Chief McCoy and Officer Stevenson get here." It probably wouldn't be long; they had to have noticed that Mikey and Frank and Gerard were missing.
"I can keep the lights and the TV flashing if you think it'll help," Gerard offered.
Frank frowned. "You can do that, even if you're not in the restaurant anymore?"
"I guess," said Gerard. "I mean, it's all mental, right? As long as I can still picture everything pretty good, I bet I can still make stuff move."
"Wow," Frank said, looking at Gerard as if he were Professor Xavier and John McClane rolled into one unstoppable force of coolness. Mikey didn't even bother feeling jealous; they didn't have time, and plus, if Gerard really could control stuff from a long ways away, Mikey thought Frank's hero-worship might not be too misplaced. He wasn't even using his harmonica—-Mikey didn't know if that meant he was getting better at using his powers, or if it was just the fact that this was really important making him concentrate on it more, but either way, it was pretty sweet.
They sneaked along the highway, trying to be quiet for reasons that Mikey didn't totally understand. When they got to the cell itself, Mikey felt his stomach drop. Bob just looked so dejected, and it sucked hardcore to see him locked up like he was some kind of bad guy.
"Hey, Bob!" Frank said in a loud whisper. "Come on! We're blowing this joint."
Bob's head jerked up, and he stared at them with wide eyes. "What are you guys doing here?"
"Didn't you hear Frank?" Gerard asked, so excited he was bouncing from foot to foot and fiddling with his hands. "We're busting you out."
"I thought those cops took you out to get dinner," said Bob.
Frank rolled his eyes. "We gave them the slip. Now come on, Bob, we gotta go before they figure out we left! Mikey, do your thing!"
Mikey obligingly stepped forward to put his hand on the cell door. He would have thought a jail lock would be different from a regular door lock, stronger or something, but it really wasn't, and the metal cylinders turned as easily in his mind as anything. The door swung open with a rusty squeak, and Bob winced.
Frank rushed into the cell to grab at Bob's hand. "Let's go! You still have your phone? We have to call Ray and tell him what happened, and get him to pick us up."
Bob stood up slowly. "Jesus Christ," he muttered. Underneath was a current of I wonder how much more prison time this is gonna get me and When did my life become a comic book?
Mikey got that Bob was stressed, too, he really did, but this was definitely not the time for him to have a mid-life crisis or whatever. "Dude, Bob," he said, "seriously. We gotta go, like, now."
Bob sighed loudly and shook his head, and when he looked at them again, he was normal, together Bob again. "All right," he said. "Let's get this show on the road."
Bob had dealt with a lot of shit on the road—asshole venue managers, crappy equipment, someone in his band getting plastered and getting into inadvisable sexual situations—but the hour he spent in a smalltown jail cell contemplating just what was gonna happen to him, and to the kids if those gun-toting Men in Black types showed up again, rated pretty highly on Bob's list of Terrible Shit.
It was almost a relief when he called Ray, who shouted, "Oh my GOD, where are you guys, did the cops get you, do I have to come bail you out, are the kids okay, are you okay?" all in one breath. Bob felt himself smiling.
"Calm down," he said. "We're fine, all of us. We're in Cork Valley—-we're hiding out behind the school. Can you come get us?"
"Can I come get you?" Ray promptly went into a long, breathless rant about how he was on his way, and he was insulted that Bob would even ask, and dammit, Ray Toro did not leave fallen men behind! Bob was laughing by the end of it, ignoring Ray's indignance.
"God, that guy," he said as he hung up the phone, and Mikey fixed him with a weird, unblinking look, the kind that always tended to remind him that Gerard and Mikey were not particularly normal kids. "What are you staring at?" Bob asked.
"Nothing," Mikey said. "Ray's cool." His expression was carefully blank, but Gerard and Frank kept giving each other what they obviously thought were subtle grins. Well, whatever, Bob thought. He didn't care if three ridiculously dorky kids thought he was a dork.
Ray showed up amazingly quickly; the guy must have been speeding down the highway. He didn't get out, but motioned hugely at them from the driver's seat. "Let's go!" he said, darting his eyes nervously around, as if he expected cops to jump out of the bushes and grab them. Not an unreasonable fear, actually, Bob thought soberly.
In a matter of seconds, all four of them were back in the camper and on the road again. After surprising Bob with a fierce hug as he climbed into the driver's seat, Ray was strangely quiet. The kids had taken to sharing the headphones of an iPod (Gerard and Mikey) and flipping through a book about video games (Frank), so Bob took advantage of the quiet to call up Bert.
"Yo, Bryar!" Bert hooted as soon as he picked up the phone. "How's the hiding out from the world going? Have you come to any deep realizations about, like, the universe and stuff?"
"Um. Not so much," Bob said. Really, this whole experience was raising a lot more questions than it was answering. "Listen, Bert--"
"Hey, guys," Bert was yelling to someone on the other end. "It's Bob!" More shouts from the background, and Bob found himself grinning. He'd needed the break, but he found himself missing the relative normalcy of touring insanity.
Quinn's voice, sounding distant and tinny, asked, "What's up, Bob?"
"Quinn, hey. I was just asking Bert, you guys know that cabin you guys have in the backwoods, near Cork Valley?"
"Shit, I knew it! He's moving out to the woods to become a lumberjack! It's the flannel, I tell you-—gives 'em away every time!" Quinn shouted to the other people in the room. To Bob, he said, "Yeah?"
"Would you guys be real upset if I used it for a day or two? I wouldn't trash it or anything, just need a place to…" Hide. "…hang out for a bit."
Bert laughed on the other end, high and scratchy. "Trust me, man, you couldn't do worse to it than we have. Be my fucking guest! There's a key under the mat for the cleaning people."
"Awesome. Thanks." He got some directions from Quinn, shot the shit with the two of them for a few more minutes, and said hi to Dan and Jepha before hanging up.
"Were those the guys from your band?" Ray asked as Bob put away his phone.
"And you didn't introduce me!" Frank yelled from the backseat. "Christ, Bob, I thought we were friends!"
Bob rolled his eyes at Frank, and Ray chuckled. "Bob Bryar, our connection to the stars," he said.
"Connection to the stars, my ass," Bob grumbled. "Hey, turn left up here. I figure we can lay low in the cabin for a little bit, figure out our next move."
"I got some gas earlier and asked the guy there about any boat accidents around here, like, nine years ago," said Ray, making the turn. "He said he hadn't heard of any, which made me think, duh, Ray, the boat accident wasn't here, it was back near where Gerard and Mikey used to live."
"Um. Yeah," Bob said. He had no idea where Ray was going with this, or if he was just talking to make conversation.
Ray kept talking as if he didn't even notice Bob's confusion. "Yeah, I know. But then he asked where I was headed, and I told him Wolf Mountain, and he said—get this, he asked if we were going to visit the weird cult people up there."
In the rearview mirror, Bob could see Mikey and Gerard take their earbuds out and sit up straight, staring intently at Ray. Carefully, feeling like they were about to make a breakthrough, Bob asked, "What weird cult people?"
"Okay, so about the same time as the boat accident," said Ray excitedly, "some religious people built a compound up on Wolf Mountain. Apparently they don't get out much, because of their beliefs or something, but they have a couple of guys who buy supplies for them every once in a while. And I mean, seriously, nobody knows where these people come from, or what their deal is, and first thing I thought was, 'Mikey and Gerard.'" He craned his neck over to look at the kids in the back seat. "What do you think, guys? Any of this sound right to you?"
Gerard made a face. "I don't know, being in a cult sounds kind of lame."
"Hey," said Frank, "didn't the empire call the Jedi a cult in Star Wars?"
"I don't remember that," Gerard said, but he looked pleased.
Mikey, on the other hand, looked like he was having some kind of out-of-body experience. He was staring blankly into space, his whole body frozen and straining. Bunny, who hadn't been farther than a few inches from Mikey since they'd gotten back on the camper, made a distressed-sounding noise, and that more than anything made Bob worried.
"Mikey, are you okay?" he asked.
He had no idea what words that came out of Mikey's mouth meant—they didn't sound like any language Bob had heard before. Whatever they meant, they seemed to take Gerard aback, and he stared at his brother with wide eyes. Finally, Mikey forced out a "Yeah. That's them," sounding like the act of speaking was a tremendous effort for him.
"Are you remembering stuff?" Frank asked seriously, scooting close to the Minnellis and leaning against Mikey's shoulder.
"I. Yeah," Mikey said, strained.
"Hey, you don't have to tell us if it's too hard," Ray said quickly. "I didn't mean to remind you of anything bad. I mean, God, maybe it's some crazy death cult, and you just escaped with your lives before, and…." Ray shot Bob a helpless look. "Sorry."
Somehow, though, Bob didn't think the trauma of escaping from some scary cult was the problem. As weird as that would have been, it didn't explain much about Gerard and Mikey and what they could do, or what language Mikey had spoken, or why both of them had told Chief McCoy their name was "Castaway." Bob turned to watch Mikey grab at his brother's hand and take deep breaths, looking like he was trying to drag himself back into the real world.
"The guy," Mikey said. "The guy who helped me save my starcase?"
Bob had no idea who that might be, but Gerard nodded, so Bob stayed quiet.
"I think—I don't know if he was actually our uncle, but we called him Uncle Brian. Or, well, we didn't call him that, we called him something that meant Uncle in our language. The one we spoke in the orphanage before Mama adopted us."
Gerard nodded again, while Frank, rapt, looked at Gerard and Mikey as if they were about to reveal some grand secret. Maybe they were, Bob thought. Gerard was starting to look a little out of it, too.
"And he was on our boat with us, the one that sank. But there were other boats, too."
Some kind of mass immigration, then, a kind of flight? From what, though? A shudder ran through Bob's body, at the thought that maybe Gerard and Mikey had survived something worse than the boat crash.
"It wasn't a boat, though," said Gerard in a low voice.
"It wasn't?" Bob said neutrally.
Gerard reached to take Mikey's starcase, and Mikey gave it up without protest. Gerard ran his fingers over the twin star signs on the metal, frowning at his hands. "Uncle Brian told me…he told me, if we got lost, to stay together, and hold onto the starcase. And tell people our last name was Castaway. That was the password. If we told it to one of our people, they'd recognize us and take us home."
"Home where?" asked Frank, breathless-sounding. "In the mountains?"
"I guess," said Gerard. "But that's not where we were from to begin with." He looked at the starcase again. "Where we were from to begin with…." His voice dropped to almost a whisper. "I think it had two suns. I'm pretty sure…it was a totally different planet."
Despite the patent absurdity of the statement, it never even occurred to Bob to doubt it. Not with these kids, and not with Gerard's face looking like it did.
There was dead silence in the car for what seemed like an eternity. Bob didn't understand why he was so stunned. It wasn't as if being an alien was any weirder than being able to open locks with your mind or move things by playing a harmonica or talk to cats. But the sudden knowledge that Gerard and Mikey hadn't evolved the way that everyone else on Earth had, that there was extraterrestrial life and it looked just like humans but was different on some fundamental level…Bob almost forgot to breathe for a moment.
Ray was the first to break the silence. "Holy shit," he breathed out, and then looked immediately embarrassed. "Excuse my language," he said, as if Frank didn't cuss a blue streak himself.
"What did I tell you!" Frank said, halfway between crowing triumphantly and gasping in awe. "It was either that or government experiments. Aliens, Christ. I knew you guys couldn't be human."
Gerard looked up at that, his face a picture of misery. "Don't say that," he said. "We…." He looked like he was about to cry. Mikey hadn't said anything yet; he was staring straight ahead again, but this looked less like a flashback and more like a scared little boy trying not to show that he was scared.
"You're as human as anybody," Bob said firmly, and even as he said it, he believed it. Maybe, strictly speaking, they had some extra genetic stuff going on, but he couldn't look at these kids in their band tee-shirts and dark jeans, Mikey's glasses sliding down his nose and Gerard's fingers stained with markers, and think that there was anything less than human about them, no matter how weird they were. "You guys. This doesn't change who you are, you know. You can still be in your rock band and draw your comics or do whatever you want." He tugged at his seat belt. "Ray, you mind if I…" He trailed off, not knowing why he was announcing his intentions to Ray-—it wasn't like he needed permission.
"Of course," said Ray, his eyes huge.
Bob unbuckled himself and went into the back of the camper to sit between Mikey and Gerard. He didn't move to touch them, not wanting to make them uncomfortable. He just sat and waited.
Gerard was the first to wipe at his eyes with his hands and lean in, burying his face in Bob's tee-shirt and hugging him hard. Mikey followed suit on the other side, the edges of his glasses pressing into Bob's ribs. Bob didn't complain.
Frank's face had crumpled by this time, and he looked as miserable as either Minnelli. "I didn't mean…." he started. "You guys are awesome. You're superheroes, right? And we're still gonna be the best band ever." He edged around Mikey to stare at all three of them with big, sad eyes. "I'm sorry."
Gerard reached out with one of his arms, his fingers scrambling to grab at Frank's hand. He pulled him into the hug, and the four of them sat like that, just breathing slowly and holding on, for what seemed like a long time.
Mikey pulled his face away, scrubbing his cheeks with a sleeve of his tee-shirt. Bob thought he'd felt a suspiciously warm wetness, but he didn't say anything. God knew if Bob were to suddenly find out that he was from another planet, he'd be pretty upset, too.
"I think," Mikey began slowly, "I was really little, so I don't really remember, but I think there was a war or something."
Gerard nodded from Bob's other side. "Yeah. And I think whatever side we were on lost, and that's why we had to find someplace else to live."
Bob shrugged, trying not to think about the fact that there was another world out there with wars and real spaceships and, apparently, a population of refugees living in the mountains in the backwoods. "Earth's a pretty good place for that, I hear."
"I guess so," said Gerard with a little, disbelieving laugh. "Unless you get the FBI or whatever following you around."
"I bet it's the Roswell people," Frank said. "You guys'd kick the little green men's asses."
Mikey snickered, and Bob didn't think he'd ever been so relieved to hear a kid laugh.
"Hey, guys," Ray called hesitantly from the front, "Sorry to interrupt, I think we're here. Bob, you wanna come up here and tell me for sure?"
Bob extracted himself from the pile of kids and stuck his head between the front seats to look; sure enough, they'd reached Bert and Quinn's little house in the woods. "Yeah, this is it," he said. "Everybody out."
As the boys dashed for the door, not even bothering to look for the key as Mikey opened it, Ray put a hand on Bob's shoulder.
"Hey," he said in a low voice. "You doing okay?"
"As good as I'm gonna be doing," Bob said. After the initial shock had worn off, Bob found he didn't really think any differently about their situation than he had before—they were still trying to find Mikey and Gerard's family, only now they knew where that family was from, and they were still trying to avoid the people coming after them, only now they had another idea about what those people might be after. Ray, on the other hand, hadn't really said much. "Are you okay?" Bob asked, hoping Ray wasn't planning on taking off now. The guy had proved to be a real asset in a pinch, someone you could count on, and that was worth a lot in Bob's book.
"Oh, yeah," said Ray with a loud, slightly hysterical laugh. "Just another day, you know?" In a calmer voice, he said, "I really admired…I mean, you were really great with those kids. They seriously lucked out with you." He smiled, then, and Bob felt an unexpected twinge of something in his gut.
"Well, I think I pretty much lucked out with you," he said, "so it works out."
Ray's grin grew at that, and Bob felt himself suddenly extremely aware of Ray's hand on his shoulder.
"We should go in," Bob said. "The kids are probably wondering what the hell we're doing out here."
Ray nodded, but he only took his hand away when Bob turned to go inside.
As Bob walked in, he found Frank, Mikey, and Gerard clustered together on the couch, leafing through a phone book. "What are you guys up to?" Bob asked, hoping the flush he could feel in his face wasn't as visible as he thought it was.
"We gotta call them," said Mikey solemnly, "and let them know we're here."
Bob didn't even ask who 'they,' were; the excited looks on Gerard's and Frank's faces told him all he needed to know. He leaned over to peer at the open phone book on Mikey's lap. Sure enough, they'd opened it to the Cs.
"Sara Castaway," Mikey read, and then he frowned.
Gerard shrugged. "I don't know her, either, but the name's right, right?" He turned to Bob, looking at him eagerly. "Can I borrow your cell phone for a moment?"
Bob handed it over. "Sure." Ray, who'd walked in behind Bob, raised his eyebrows in interest, trying to catch Bob's eye. Bob looked away. They didn't have time for whatever the hell was going on in his head right now.
Gerard dialed so quickly he screwed up the first time. The second time, though, Bob could hear the phone ringing on the other end, and a female voice said, "Hello?"
"Hi," Gerard said. "I'm Gerard Minn—Castaway, I mean. I'm calling to talk to Sara Castaway?"
"Oh, holy shit," Bob could hear on the other end. "Sara, Sara, get your ass in here, we got a live one!"
Another woman's voice, which sounded remarkably similar to the first one, said, "Gerard, hi. Oh, man, we've been looking for you and Mikey for years. Lemme just…" There was a pause on the other end, and then the voice said, "'Kay, you're in the cabin, right? Well, go outside and get back in Mr. Toro's RV."
Ray's eyes grew huge at that. "Holy shit. How's this woman know my name?" Before Bob could even begin to formulate a response, Ray smacked himself in the forehead. "Psychic aliens, duh."
"We kind of gotta hurry," said the first woman's voice. "Agent Palmer and Agent Viglione, those guys that were after you? Well, they're like five minutes away, and believe me, their car's way faster than an RV."
"Shit, Tegan," said the second woman's voice, "don't scare them. They're probably freaked enough as it is. Go on, though, we're sending someone to meet you." There was a click and a dial tone, and Gerard handed the phone back to Bob.
"You heard the lady," Frank said, jumping up off the couch.
They hurried back out to the camper. "Your friends' cabin seemed real nice," Ray offered as he hopped back into the driver's seat.
"Yeah," Bob said wryly, imagining what Bert and Quinn would think if he told them about this little adventure. "Too bad we only got to see the phone book."
Ray laughed. From the back seat, Mikey said, "Hey, the women on the phone are talking to us again."
Somehow, Bob wasn't too surprised. "Yeah?" he said. "They have instructions for us?"
Mikey nodded. "Yeah, they say to turn south and start driving up the mountain."
"Well, whatever they say," Ray said, and turned.
A few minutes into their drive, Frank turned to look behind them. "Oh, shit," he said. "Are those those guys that were following us? The FBI guys?"
Bob jerked his head around so fast something popped in his neck. He didn't recognize the van behind them, though—-it didn't look anything like the convertible the gunmen had been driving at the rest stop. It was definitely following Ray's camper, though.
"It's Pete and Patrick," said Mikey. His mouth drew into a worried little knot. "And some other people. Man, I hope the FBI guys don't catch up with us."
"No kidding," said Gerard. "That's why we ran away in the first place, to keep them safe, and then they just follow us!"
Bob couldn't really blame them—at this point, any doubts he had about Pete Wentz's ability to parent Mikey and Gerard had been thrown on the backburner, what with everything that had happened. After all, in the end, Wentz and his gang were probably just trying to do what Bob and Ray were trying to do: protect their kids. Which was about to get harder, Bob thought with a sinking heart as he watched a convertible start following the van at the bottom of the mountain.
After about twenty minutes of hard, bumpy road, made even harder by the fact that it was long past sunset, and that the headlights on Ray's RV were kind of lost in the boundless darkness beyond the edge of the narrow roads, the way started to level off until they reached a flat, grassy plain about midway up the mountain.
"The lady says to stop here," said Gerard.
Ray and Bob looked behind them. Both the van and the convertible were visible in the distance. "Are you sure?" Ray asked.
"That's what she says," Gerard said. "We can't drive all the way up. We're supposed to get out of the camper and stand in the middle of the field."
"With no cover?" Frank wrinkled his nose. "And we don't even have a gun or anything. Man."
Mikey shuddered, which Bob was starting to think was never a good sign, and said, "I've had dreams about this place before." Bob didn't even have to ask whether they were good ones or not.
"Guys, this doesn't strike me as a real good idea," said Ray. "Maybe we should just…stay in the van. I mean, are these women gonna send some help, or something?"
Gerard bit his lip and shrugged with one shoulder. "I don't know. I mean…." He tilted his head as if he were listening to something. "She says someone's gonna meet us, and we'd have to get out of the van sooner or later, anyway." He looked at Bob with big eyes, not really imploring, but just looking to him for a decision.
The whole thing seemed like a kind of shitty idea to Bob, too, but it wasn't like he had any other, better plans up his sleeve. "Let's do it," he said.
Ray gave him a long, hard look, but finally he nodded and shut off the engine. The dark seemed almost absolute, with the moon hidden behind a cloud, and it took a few moments for Bob's eyes to adjust. The kids hopped out, carrying all of their stuff and Bunny to boot. Ray and Bob followed.
"I sure hope this works," Ray muttered out of the corner of his mouth to Bob. "We're all way too young and pretty to die, you know?"
"It's gonna work," said Bob, trying to believe it. They were dealing with aliens powerful enough to be transmitting information from the top of a fucking mountain with nothing but their brains. Surely these aliens weren't stupid enough to have dragged them to the top of the mountain without a plan they were really damn sure of. Right?
"Yeah," Ray said, nodding like he was trying to convince himself. "Sure." He reached out and grabbed Bob's hand, squeezing it once before he let go. There was a smile on his lips, small but real and hopeful. Bob had that weird feeling in his stomach again. Great fucking time for a fucking sexual identity crisis, Bob, he chided himself.
"We're not gonna die," Mikey yelled from the middle of the field. "But we gotta pay attention. Think about kissing Ray later, okay?"
Fucking psychic kids, Christ. Ray gripped Bob's shoulder, businesslike this time, and said, "We'll worry about it later, okay?"
It wasn't like they had any other options, but Bob nodded. They walked out to where the kids were standing, and Bob manfully restrained himself from giving Mikey a noogie. They waited as the van pulled up.
A shitload of people poured out-—a couple of little guys with dark hair, a couple of tall, stringy guys, a short guy with glasses and a hat, a pretty woman with long legs and cool boots. The short guy with glasses and one of the little dark-haired guys ran up, pushing Ray and Bob aside as if they didn't even see them, and hugged Gerard and Mikey so hard that Mikey made a little squeaking sound like a rubber toy being squeezed.
"Oh, my God," said the little dark-haired guy. "You guys are so grounded, you don't even know."
"We've been so goddamned worried." The guy with glasses seemed to be having a hard time keeping his voice steady. "We were so afraid something bad was gonna happen to you, I can't even tell you."
"Dude," said one of the tall guys, "so these are those kids you were talking about? Weren't there only two of them?"
"I'm Frank," said Frank, as if they'd met at the movie theater instead of on a mountain waiting for aliens or FBI hitmen to come, whichever was first.
"Um." Another little guy jerked his thumb at Bob and Ray. "So, like, kidnappers or something?"
Christ. Bob's record was never going to recover from this little escapade. Bob was about to explain for what felt like the millionth time that despite what it looked like, no, they hadn't kidnapped Mikey and Gerard, yes, they were trying to act in the kids' best interests here. But Ray stiffened next to him, and Mikey and Gerard pulled away from the guys that had been hugging them.
"Um," Ray said. "I think the Men in Black are here."
Bob didn't know how he'd missed the convertible pulling up--maybe he'd been too distracted by the sudden influx of people—-but there they were, the short-haired woman, the man with the old-fashioned hat, complete with guns and scary-looking smiles of triumph.
Whatever those aliens had planned, they sure as shit needed to do it soon.
"Jesus fuck, you don't make it easy, do you?" said the woman, who had her gun pointed right at Bob. Gerard felt a wave of anger so fierce it made his hands shake, and he yanked at the gun with his mind.
There was a deafening bang as the man shot into the dirt at their feet, and everyone except the FBI agents jumped. "Yeah," the man said, "I wouldn't fuck with us too much, ET. Believe it or not, we've caught aliens before. We have to keep you alive, but these fucks--" He pointed at Ray and Bob with the barrel of his gun. "They're expendable. Another trick like that, and we'll see if you can stop bullets with your mind, huh?"
"Well, fuck me," said one of the tall men who had come with Pete and Patrick. (Gabe, Mikey said. He's a bounty hunter.) "Don't we have guns?"
"In the car," one of the other bounty hunters, Alex, said glumly, and Patrick hit him in the shoulder.
"We're not getting into a fucking gun battle with the kids right here, asshole," he said. "We'll just give them what they want, and…."
The woman laughed. "We're not highway robbers, dumbass," she said. "We're with the FBI. What we want are the two extraterrestrials you've been harboring."
Bob reached out and grabbed Mikey and Gerard by the shoulders and pulled them close to him. He couldn't really protect them, Gerard knew, but it was kind of comforting anyway.
Pete frowned. "Extraterrestrials? The hell, are you Scully and Mulder or something?"
"Palmer and Viglione," said the woman. "FBI, Division for Paranormal and Extraterrestrial Phenomena. We're here to confiscate the two extraterrestrials known as Gerard and Michael Minnelli on behalf of the United States Government. It's really in everyone's best interests if you cooperate."
"What the fuck? You can't confiscate them," Patrick said, his face growing red as a tomato. His anger was burning so hot that even Gerard, who wasn't so good with the feelings, could feel it on the edges of his mind. "They're kids, and I have legal custody."
The man raised an eyebrow sardonically. "You can't have custody of aliens, Mr. Stump. Any and all extraterrestrial beings found on American soil are property of the United States government." Gerard shuddered at his cold tone, and the total lack of real emotion he felt coming from the man. As far as this guy was concerned, he and Mikey weren't people at all. He stepped in closer to Bob, trying to stop the chill running through his body.
"Jesus," said Gabe. "You never told me the kids we were after were aliens. Fuck you, Wentz, that's a hell of a thing to keep secret!"
"Well, honestly, I didn't know either," said Pete, and he gave Mikey and Gerard a small, disbelieving smile. "Guess that explains a lot, huh?"
The bounty hunters looked at them curiously, but Gerard struggled to block them out and think. They clearly knew about his telekinesis, but did that mean he and Mikey couldn't use it? Then he thought of the man's threat, and he winced. Too risky; he wasn't, like, a science whiz or anything, but he knew that bullets coming out of a gun went crazy fast. Maybe Bunny….
No, Gerard, Mikey said firmly, and he held Bunny tighter against his body. Bunny hissed in anger, though, and Gerard got the distinct impression that she wouldn't mind taking a whack at these FBI guys.
"So," said the man from the FBI, "are you gonna cooperate?"
"Fuck you, asshole," Patrick said. "If you think we're gonna let you take these kids off to God knows where because of where they're from, you've got another think coming." Ray turned his head to look at Patrick, and Gerard looked up to see Bob nod firmly, a tense but almost approving expression on his face.
"Yeah, see, that's the thing," the woman said. "We are actually authorized to use force. Lethal, if necessary." She smiled, her teeth bright against her lipstick, and tapped her chin with one finger. "Maybe even if not necessary, just for shits and giggles."
"Um, right," said one of the other bounty hunters, a tall guy named Ryland. "You think maybe we could just sit down and talk about this? Maybe come to some kind of joint custody arrangement? What?" he said in answer to fierce glares from Bob and Ray and Patrick and Pete. "I think the thing is to get the guns out of the picture first, details later. Don't you?"
"Jesus Christ," said the man, rolling his eyes, and in a movement so fast Gerard could scarcely follow it with his eyes, he stepped forward, grabbed Frank, and pulled him out, holding the gun to his head.
Oh, fuck, fuckfuckfuck, Mikey said, and every part of Gerard was in complete agreement. What do we do, Gee?
Gerard didn't know—if he tried to take the gun away from the man, maybe he'd shoot again, and as close as the gun was to Frank's head, it would kill him. Gerard didn't even dare reach for his harmonica. Frank's face was frozen, his eyes huge with fear and anger, and he was biting down on his lip hard enough to draw blood.
"Here's your negotiations," the man said. "Mikey, Gerard, you're gonna come with us. And if you don't, you get to live with the knowledge that your little friend here died because you didn't cooperate. What do you say?"
Gerard wanted to hit back with a snappy comeback, but his mouth had gone totally dry, and his brain was working overtime trying to think of a way to save Frank. Could he make the woman's gun shoot the man fast enough so that the man didn't shoot first? Could he maybe just pull Frank out with his mind? Or maybe if he jumped on the man, it'd be enough to distract him so Frank could get away. Oh, God, Frank was gonna die if they fucked this up, Gerard thought. Mikey's panic had mingled with his, and his throat was tight as his mind raced through the options.
"Well, fuck this noise," said a voice. It didn't belong to any of the people there, but Gerard recognized it, though he didn't know where from. All of a sudden, so quickly it made Gerard's heart stop in his chest, Agents Palmer and Viglione flopped to the ground, unconscious, and behind them was a man.
Gerard studied the man, his déjà vu almost overwhelming. The stranger was short, with spiky hair and tattoos on his arms, and he opened his mouth to say something in a language that Gerard hadn't spoken in a long, long time.
Uncle Brian, Mikey said, his mental voice filled with wonder.
They pulled themselves from the knot of adults to run to him, and he laughed and gathered them both into a tight hug. He said something that Gerard didn't understand, in their home language, and then: Shit, sorry, I forgot. "God, it's been such a long time," he said aloud, almost laughing. "I thought…I thought I wasn't ever gonna see you guys again."
We thought you were dead, Mikey said.
Uncle Brian shook his head. "Not me," he said. "I'm not a champion swimmer or anything, but once I saw you guys were safe, I hung out on the driftwood until I got to the shore, which, let me tell you, took a while. Then I hitchhiked until I made it out here." He looked over their heads, and Gerard turned to see Frank, still standing as still as a statue by the secret agent, and Bob and Ray and Pete and Patrick and all the bounty hunters. "You gonna introduce me to your friends?"
It was like time, which had seemed to slow down, sped back up to a normal pace. Gerard ran to Frank, Mikey on his heels. "Frank! Frank, you okay?" he asked.
"Yeah," said Frank in a slightly quavery voice. He wrapped his arms around Gerard's neck and buried his face in his shoulder. "I thought being a superhero was gonna be awesome," he muttered, "but that kind of sucked. I didn't even fight the guy, how lame am I?"
Not as lame as me, thought Gerard guiltily, and Mikey rolled his eyes at him.
"You're not lame," Mikey said firmly to Frank. "You're the coolest kid ever. I would have wet my pants if it was me." He tugged at Frank's hand until he detached from Gerard. "Come on, we want you to meet Uncle Brian."
"This is Frank," Gerard said as they drew close to Uncle Brian again. "Frank, this is Uncle Brian. He's from our planet." It was funny, he thought, how easily he could say that, now that he knew he had a family, or something like it, who were from the same place he was.
"Pleased to meet you," Frank said politely, and Uncle Brian grinned.
"Pleased to meet you, too, Frank," he said. Then, with a softer smile, he added, "I'm sorry I didn't get here sooner, and keep that asshole from grabbing you in the first place." Kid's gotta have balls of solid steel, he said to Gerard and Mikey.
Yeah, Mikey said proudly.
Bob and Ray and the rest of the adults had started wandering over at this point, and Gerard felt awful for having ignored them. "Uncle Brian," he said, "this is Bob, and Ray, and Patrick, and Pete, and…Pete's friends the bounty hunters."
"The Cobras," Mikey added, which made Ray laugh.
"Are those guys dead?" Bob asked seriously, gesturing towards Agents Palmer and Viglione.
Uncle Brian shook his head. "And give those fucks at the FBI more reason to go after us? Hell, no. They'll wake up in a couple of hours. Conveniently enough for all of us, they won't remember anything that happened in the last day or so. It won't be enough to totally keep the feds off your backs, but if you all say you don't remember anything either, I think you'll be okay."
"Jesus," said Gabe. "I gotta learn that trick."
"So, wait," Ray said. "You guys seriously have, like, an compound of people from outer space living in the mountains up here?"
Uncle Brian laughed. "Um. Yeah, kind of. It's a town, really—we call it a "compound" because people are more likely to leave us alone if they think we're a cult or something."
"Why here?" Ray asked, his voice still full of awe.
"We sent a couple of scouts out when it looked like we were gonna get wiped out back home, and this was by far the best place we found. Beautiful planet, plenty of natural resources, and enough people so that we could get lost in the crowd. I mean, you've got the Federal Bureau of Investigations here, but frankly, we don't worry too much about those guys. They've got the numbers, but we've got some skills you guys here apparently don't." He shrugged. "Go figure."
"Wow," Pete said. "This shit is nuts."
"From your perspective, maybe," said Uncle Brian. "Honestly, we're just trying to live our lives without totally freaking your planet out. Hence the town up in the mountains. Speaking of which…." He grinned at Mikey and Gerard. "These guys have a grandmother who's spent the last nine years waiting for them to turn up and come live with her."
"We have a grandma?" Gerard said. This was insane—just this morning he'd been a weirdo orphan runaway, and now he was a kid from another planet, with a grandma and an honorary uncle and a place where he and Mikey would fit in.
"You have a grandma," Uncle Brian confirmed, "and she's a pretty kick-ass lady."
Mikey blinked. "Wow."
Uncle Brian turned again to the adults. "Thanks for getting them here. God, I don't even know what kind of shit you had to go through—well, I kind of do, the psychic thing, but living through it's a whole different matter. But seriously, we've been waiting around for years, looking for survivors from that crash, and Gerard and Mikey are the first two we've found. I can't even tell you how happy people are gonna be. No joke, if you're ever in trouble, call up the Castaways. We're always glad to find Earth people who don't suck."
Bob nodded slowly. "Not a problem," he said. "They're great kids."
"Yeah," said Pete, nodding firmly. "Holy shit, though, aliens! God, if I'd have known there were a whole bunch of you guys out here…."
"You'd have given us a call to set up a reality TV contract?" Uncle Brian said, raising an eyebrow. He didn't seem angry, but there was a certain sternness in his face, and Pete winced.
"You're probably right," he said, and then he turned his head to look at Gerard and Mikey with a dejected expression. "Sorry, guys. All this shit was my fault," he said, not meeting their eyes. "If I hadn't made you help me out…."
"Don't feel bad, Pete," said Gerard, hating to see anyone unhappy now, when his own happiness was so huge and all-encompassing he felt like he was gonna burst into tears. They had a family. People had been looking for them. "Everything happened like it was supposed to—if you hadn't asked us to help you, then we wouldn't have found out where we were supposed to be."
"Well, I still feel like a dick," said Pete. He looked at them apologetically, and then at Patrick, just as apologetically.
"I," Patrick began, and then his voice broke and he stopped. "You guys…" he started again, and Gerard felt a rush of conflicting feelings coming from him—-guilt, because he hadn't wanted them to begin with, he'd only taken them in because Pete wanted him to; amazement, at the fact that they were actually going away to live with their alien family; regret, that he hadn't been able to be the kind of father figure he'd gradually discovered he wanted to be; and a deep, warm, affection that made Gerard flush with pleasure.
"You rock, Patrick," he said, hugging him.
Mikey nodded earnestly. "Yeah. Good thing we were around to save you that one time, because this all would have sucked a whole lot more if you weren't here."
"Thanks again for that," Patrick said, his voice thick with unshed tears. "I hope you guys have a great time with your grandma, and if you ever need anything…I'm around, and I'd really, really like to hear how you're doing."
"Totally," said Gerard. Surely after all the fuss had died down about them, they'd be able to come back, right? They had to, so they and Frank could….
Oh. Frank. Gerard drew slowly back from Patrick and looked over to where Frank stood, looking small and very alone.
"This is awesome, you guys," Frank said with an overly bright smile. "You have a grandma, and an uncle, and the FBI's never ever gonna be able to find you. You could rule the world from up there, seriously."
"But we're still gonna be in a band together, right?" said Mikey hopefully. Who's gonna teach me to play the guitar if Frank's not around? he said to Gerard, a mournful note in his mental voice.
Frank shrugged. "I guess we could, but why would you want to? I bet there are plenty of kids up there who can make shit move with their drums and guitars and stuff. You could have a whole band made up of super heroes."
"Hey, Batman didn't have any super powers, and he was an awesome hero," Gerard said with a frown. "And anyway, we don't want to have a whole band made up of superheroes. We wanna be in a band with you." It was true, and it suddenly hit Gerard that going with Uncle Brian meant they'd be leaving the best friend they'd ever had, maybe forever. In the split second it took for that to sink in, he came to a conclusion. Mikey's glee at his decision was so intense it couldn't be verbalized, so Gerard figured that meant it was a good idea. He reached out and grabbed Frank by the wrist. "Uncle Brian?" he said. "Can Frank come with us?"
"Wait, seriously?" Frank said. "You don't have to…."
Mikey frowned at him and said, "Shut up. We want to. Can he, Uncle Brian?"
Uncle Brian didn't ask anything stupid about Frank's parents—of course he didn't, Gerard, thought, he was psychic. Instead, he looked at Frank seriously. "I don't mind," he said. "We've got more than enough to go around up there, but are you gonna be comfortable with that, Frank? Except for Gerard and Mikey here, we all speak another language most of the time, and you're not psychic, so you might not always be able to understand what we mean. And it's cool having a couple of friends with super powers, I know, but can you handle everyone having super powers if you don't?"
Frank blinked and mouthed the words "super powers" silently to himself. Gerard looked anxiously at him. He didn't want Frank to feel like a freak the way he and Mikey had for so long, but at the same time, he really, really wanted him to come with them.
"Would I get to stay with Mikey and Gerard?" asked Frank, looking like he was seriously thinking it over. Uncle Brian nodded, and Frank said, "Then yeah. I mean, if it isn't too much trouble for you."
"No trouble at all," said Uncle Brian. "The more the merrier. So is this everything? Are you guys ready to go?"
"Well, hold up," said Frank, and he strode over to Patrick and Pete. "Hey," he said, "You're the one who gave a shitload of money to the Home, right?"
Pete had been standing with his head on Patrick's shoulder, hugging him with one arm, but he pulled away to give Frank a confused look. "Um, yeah," he said.
Frank nodded. "Okay, can you tell Spencer and Brendon and everyone what happened, so they don't worry and stuff?"
Pete made a rude noise in the back of his throat. "Tell them you went off to live in a town full of aliens? Sure, I could do that."
Patrick elbowed Pete in the side. "Don't be an ass," he said. To Frank, he added, "We'll come up with something to tell them. Don't worry."
"Cool, thanks." Frank gave them a bright grin and said to Uncle Brian, "Just one more minute—gotta say goodbye to Bob and Ray."
Oh. Yeah. Gerard had forgotten that Bob and Ray weren't coming, too—-they had jobs and lives and stuff that didn't have anything to do with Gerard and Mikey and Frank. Some of his excitement was fading into a heavy feeling of lonely sadness deep in his chest, and he took a slow, hesitant step towards Bob. "I-—Bob…." he began, and then he shut his mouth. Maybe everyone would understand, but breaking down crying was just not that cool.
"Gerard," said Bob, gruffly, and then suddenly they were hugging, and Gerard was clinging to Bob's solid form like it was the only thing keeping him on the planet. Mikey and Frank stepped closer and were absorbed into the hug as well. Bob patted Mikey on the back and said, "You kids better be good—if your grandma comes down from that mountain telling me you've given her more grey hairs or whatever, I'm gonna kick your asses."
Gerard wasn't fooled at all by Bob's attempt to sound badass. "We're really gonna miss you," he said, pulling his face away from Bob's chest to look him in the eye. "Thank you so much for everything."
"Don't worry about it," said Bob, shaking his head as he drew them even closer. And then, like he was telling a secret, he mumbled, "I'm gonna miss you, too," into Gerard's hair.
When Bob let them go, Ray stepped up to shake each of their hands. "Wow," he said. "Believe me when I say it's been a pleasure knowing you guys. I'm so glad I got to help you with this, it's just crazy."
Not only did he get to rescue kids, he got to meet aliens. It's like his superhero dream and his alien dream come true at once, Mikey said with a grin. And I'm pretty sure he and Bob are in love, too. Best day ever, totally.
Gerard wanted to ask what the hell Mikey was talking about, but saying goodbye to Ray was really more important, he thought, so he said, "Thanks for letting us ride in your camper and saving us from the cops and stuff."
"Yeah, Ray," said Frank. "You're the man!"
Ray grinned hugely and said, "Hey, if you guys ever come back for a visit, you gonna tell me all about the town and your home planet and stuff?"
Mikey nodded. "Definitely."
There was a rustling noise from the ground, and they all looked down to see Bunny staring at Mikey with a serious expression on her pointy, furry face. Mikey reached down to pick her up with a smile of greeting. After a moment, though, he frowned, and the two of them had an intense, silent discussion. Finally, Mikey turned back to Bob and held out Bunny to him. "Bunny wants to stay with you," he said in a low voice. Gerard could tell that he was maybe trying not to cry.
"Oh, shit, Mikey," Bob said, looking like he was feeling a little choked-up, too. "Bunny's your cat, I can't take her."
"Please? She won't be any trouble." He sighed. "She says she's kind of gotten to like riding around in cars and vans all the time, and now she wants to see the band you work for." Plus, he said to Gerard, she's pretty sure there aren't any other cats on Wolf Mountain, and she doesn't want to get cut off from her people like that. Frankly, Gerard thought he could understand where Bunny was coming from.
"Your cat wants to go on tour with the Used with me," Bob said incredulously. "Well, hell, why not?" He reached out to take Bunny gently from Mikey's arms, and he scratched between her ears until she started purring so loudly Gerard could hear her from twenty feet away.
"Take good care of her," Mikey said.
Bob nodded solemnly. "Always."
Mikey sighed and waved to Bunny before turning to walk back over towards Uncle Brian. Gerard paused for a minute, feeling as if someone was tugging at his mind. It wasn't words, not really, but the idea, Take care of him, too, hovered in Gerard's head with the gravity of an order. He looked tentatively at Bunny. She was staring back at him with big, intensely-focused eyes, and Gerard gulped.
I will, he thought. He had never been good at projecting his thoughts like Mikey was, but he thought Bunny looked vaguely satisfied with him.
"Gerard?" Bob asked softly.
Gerard smiled at him as best he could. "Had to settle things with Bunny," he said.
He turned around to run after Frank and Mikey. When he caught up to them, he instinctively reached out to take his brother's hand-—Mikey might be willing to let Bunny go, but he sure as hell wasn't gonna be happy about it. He loved that cat, and the feeling was clearly mutual. Frank grabbed at Mikey's hand from the other side, and Mikey looked up to give them both a watery smile.
"You okay?" Uncle Brian said softly. Mikey nodded, and Uncle Brian smiled. "Okay, then, let's get this show on the road. Everybody close their eyes."
Gerard obeyed, feeling a sense of wild excitement fill his chest. This was like…this was like when Clark Kent found the Fortress of Solitude, finding out who he was. This was like figuring out their own origin story.
"Now, hold on tight," said Uncle Brian. "We're about to go a long way really fast."
Gerard gripped Mikey's hand tighter. He was ready.
After the kids left, vanishing in a flash of brilliant white light, the adults hung around, dumbstruck, for a while. Ray, at least, couldn't even muster the thought necessary to move. His brain just kept circling around and around, aliens and I wonder how far they can travel that way and there's a whole town full of them up there and a whole planet full of them somewhere else and, again, aliens!
After a while, the Cobras took off, giving Pete Wentz and his assistant a ride and leaving Bob and Ray alone in the cold, dark field.
"Wow," said Ray once he'd mustered the presence of mind to speak. "James is never gonna believe this when I go back to work tomorrow. Seriously, best day ever."
"Yeah," said Bob, but he didn't sound too happy about it. "I can't…I can't believe they're gone, though."
And there was the kicker. Ray had known after a couple of hours that he would do anything it took to keep those kids safe, but Bob and them had seriously bonded. It had been adorable to watch, the gruff man and the geeky kids, but now it was just sad. "I'm sure they're gonna be okay," Ray said, wondering whether if he hugged Bob now, just to comfort him, Bob would take it the wrong way or not. Ray had no intentions whatsoever of reminding Bob what Mikey had said about Bob wanting to kiss him—he wasn't about to remind Bob of anything about those kids until he thought it wouldn't just upset him.
"Yeah. They'll be fine. They've got their family." Bob swallowed loudly and sighed. "No point in hanging around now. Let's go. I've gotta get my van back from your rest stop." He turned to walk back to the camper, clutching Bunny to his chest.
Without even really thinking about it, Ray reached out to grab his shoulder. "Bob," he said. "Those kids are gonna miss you. Seriously. They're gonna be happy with Mikey and Gerard's grandma, but I promise, they're not gonna forget you, either, any more than they're gonna forget Bunny or their mom, or Frank's grandpa."
"Yeah?" Bob said, meeting Ray's eyes for the first time since the kids had left, and Ray had to gulp. Seriously, the guy had some intensely blue eyes, Ray couldn't be blamed if they made him melt a little inside.
"Yeah," he said. And suddenly, Bob was setting Bunny on the ground, straightening up, and with a firm, decisive movement, pulling Ray by his shirt closer and kissing him.
Whoa, Ray thought dizzily. Beard. He had to step forward a little to regain his balance, which only made his face move closer to Bob's, made the kiss deeper. When Ray's breath started to run out—-he seemed to have forgotten how to breathe through his nose—-he pulled back. "Not so straight after all, then?" he said.
Bob shrugged. "Guess not." He didn't look too freaked about it, either, and his matter-of-fact tone made Ray laugh.
"Why don't we get in the camper and…discuss this further?" he said, waggling his eyebrows at Bob and grinning when Bob smiled. "Maybe this isn't the best place to, you know, get to third base or whatever."
Bob was quiet long enough that Ray started to feel really awkward. This is why you don't crush on straight guys, he said to himself. Super Ray-—causing sexual identity crises right and left! Able to create a bottomless pit of awkward in the space of ten seconds!
And then Bob laughed. "You're pretty confident, aren't you?" His smile softened, and he said, "Maybe…you wanna maybe get to know each other a little, first? This is a little weird for me."
This whole day had been a little weird for Ray. For the first time since a blond guy and three kids had stumbled into the women's restroom that afternoon, though, he felt on solid ground. "Come on," he said to Bob. "Let's talk."
It had been a pretty hard fucking autumn, Spencer thought, and it wasn't even the end of September yet.
No matter what Brendon or Jon or Ryan said, he blamed himself. Frank had been an obnoxious, troublemaking little kid, but he had a good heart, and Spencer had never for a moment wanted him to just disappear. He should have been clearer about that, he should have sent Frank to talk to Brendon more, he should have found something to entertain Frank when he started getting bored after Jamia and Gerard and Mikey left, he should have….
Well, there wasn't much use thinking about it too much, now. He sighed as he sifted through the mail and pulled out another check from Pete Wentz. God, that fucker had become the unofficial sponsor of the Smith Home. Spencer really wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth, and he appreciated the way Wentz had smoothed over the situation with the state, but did the man really expect them to believe that Frank had been abducted by aliens? Patrick Stump had explained that, after nine years, Mikey and Gerard Minnelli's grandmother had turned up and adopted Frank as well, and while this explanation seemed a tad more plausible, Stump didn't have any more proof of it than Wentz did for his alien abduction theory.
Of course, Wentz had countered by claiming that Mikey and Gerard and their grandmother were aliens. Jesus Christ, the man was a lunatic. If his money weren't keeping the kids at the Home in new shoes and nutritionally-balanced meals, Spencer would have totally looked into his background and tried to find out just why Mikey and Gerard had run away in the first place. Maybe it made him a terrible person that he hadn't tried anyway—-God knew Ryan had never trusted Wentz. He'd do a background check in a heartbeat.
The mail was pretty boring-—bills, bills, the National Geographic that Spencer subscribed to for the library, more bills. A slippery pile of catalogs advertising back-to-school kids' clothes fell to the floor, and Spencer picked it up. A postcard fell out from between the pages of a Land's End catalog, and Spencer bent over to pick that up, too.
The front of it showed a totem pole with a wolf's head carved on the top and read Wolf Mountain in a bright red, blocky type. Spencer flipped it over to see who it was from.
His heart stopped in his chest before he'd managed to read a word. He knew that handwriting. "Brendon!" he yelled. "Jon! Get your asses in here!" He wasn't even worried about cussing in front of the kids. God knew they'd heard worse.
He didn't listen to them come, or bother to yell again. Instead, he read the postcard.
Dear Spencer, it said in Frank's handwriting, I am OK, and I hope you are too. I am living with Mikey and Gerard's grandma, Elena, and she is super nice. Its weird because everybody here speaks another language, and the food is funny, but it is worth it because Elena's house is cool and I get to hang out with Mikey and Gerard all the time. I hope you were'nt too worried. Here the handwriting changed, to a scrawly script Spencer vaguely remembered from the paperwork Gerard had filled out at the beginning of the summer. Hi, Spencer, it said. I thought you would like to know that we found our real family and where we come from and stuff. I don't know what Pete and Patrick told you, but we're really happy here. Sorry for all the trouble. The card was signed "Frank, Gerard, and Mikey," and in tiny, tiny script along the bottom, Frank had written I am living with aliens! How cool is that!
"Yo," said Jon, popping up behind Spencer. "What's up?"
"Where's the fire?" asked Brendon. He sounded out of breath.
Spencer wordlessly held up the card, and Brendon took it with a confused frown, Jon peering over his shoulder. It was easy to tell when the import of it hit—-Jon's jaw dropped, and Brendon brought up a hand to cover his mouth.
"Jesus," Jon said in a hoarse voice. "Aliens? Seriously?"
Brendon shook his head. "I can't…I mean, Gerard and Mikey were a little odd, but this…." He looked up at Spencer. "Pretty unbelievable, huh?"
Totally unbelievable. Spencer still wasn't sure if he thought Frank was telling the truth. Maybe it was a joke, or Wentz had put him up to it. But hell, at this point, he didn't think he even cared. The kids were alive, and apparently happy, and for the first time in what felt like ages Spencer could take a breath without guilt totally overwhelming him.
"So," he said, "what'll we tell the kids?"
Brendon shrugged, the beginnings of a grin playing at the corners of his mouth. "We could always tell them the truth," he said. "Just for kicks. We could see if anyone believes it."
"Hell, I don't believe it," said Jon.
Though neither Spencer nor Jon nor Brendon knew it, a couple of hundred of miles away, a drum tech on a leave of absence and a retired rest stop custodian were reading a similar postcard addressed to "Bob Bryar (and he should show it to Ray Toro, too)."
"Wow," said Ray, leaning back against the back seat of Bob's van. "Think of it, man—-a whole town up there. And it's like, foods and languages and cultural shit that nobody on Earth's ever seen. I'd kill to be one of those kids right now, seriously."
"They sound happy," said Bob, slowly, thoughtfully.
Ray, to his credit, didn't say, "No shit, they're living in a town full of aliens." Instead, he leaned over to wrap an arm around Bob, and they sat there for a long time in the stuffy van, thinking about the cold vastness of space, and how miraculous it was that among all the stars and planets and people, you could still find a space of warmth and love for yourself, if you were willing to look.