Andrew had trouble with focusing. It was a thing. Like in class, when the teacher was talking about adjectives and adverbs, his attention just slid away like a slimy bug on a windshield. Who really cared about adverbial clauses anyway, when you had proton particle accelerators capable of shifting the very fabric of reality precisely .004 nanometers to the left (or right, depending on your perspective)? And then there were the practical applications to consider. Like, for instance, using your proton accelerator to shift the buttons of Rebecca Kinsey's blouse .004 nanometers to the left (or right) so that one could finally answer that burning question…
"Would you, Mr. Wells?"
It was Ms. Bartlett – a startling awakening to the best day dream Andrew had all morning. The guys around him snickered, and Andrew had to wonder if he had been drooling. Again.
Mr. Bartlett, a. k. a. Cruella de Bitch, tapped her overhead. "Would you care to answer the question, Mr. Wells? The class awaits your reply."
Andrew swallowed hard. The students of Room 304 were so quiet, you could hear a pen drop, and they did – Andrew's – as it rolled with a clatter off his desk.
He stooped to collect it. Ms. Bartlett rapped the overhead hard enough to make the projection on the screen jiggle.
"Not now, Mr. Wells! The question!"
Gah. She could be such a comma queen. He smirked at his own pun, but only on the inside.
"Uh," he managed, his mouth sticky like fly tape. "Is it, um, impoverished?"
Ms. Bartlett's bloated face creased in a grim line. "Impoverished is your mental capacity, Mr. Wells," she announced. "You are failing this class in every possible way. No reading logs. No homework. Your tests and class work: abysmal. You are so unlike your brother…"
Andrew groaned. And here we go, he thought. He could practically hear the angels chorusing as she spoke.
"Now there was a true scholar. A grammarian above his peers. How that young man could craft a sentence. If you aimed to be half as great as he, Mr. Wells, you might be something more than…" she returned her scathing glare to Andrew, eyeing him now as if he were a flea on the rear end of her toy poodle… "Mediocre," she finished. Her lips peeled back from her teeth like strips of raw liver.
Andrew's intestines melted into squishy sludge. Every day! Did it have to be every day? If not Ms. Bartlett, it was Ms. Kurgan, the typing instructor. If not them, then it was Mr. Rolf, the gym coach assistant.
Why can't you be more like your brother? they would say. Why aren't you tall like him, smart like him, an expert typist, able to climb a ship rope without puking? Why can't you recite the periodic table or write sonnets in iambic pentameter? Why aren't you tough-minded and determined to succeed like your Brad Pitt-ian older brother Tucker Wells?
"Good heavens," Ms. Bartlett said, an unkind sneer tucked into the corner of her mouth. "You have zoned out completely, haven't you?"
Andrew stammered. He had, of course. It was his thing –
"The bell rang a full minute ago," she said. And as he hastily and clumsily gathered his papers and books, he heard her mutter, "Hopeless. Absolutely hopeless."
Later, in the Quad, which was more like an ellipse with a flat side resembling a blob of silly putty on a warm grill, Andrew sat alone with his PB & J on white, no crusts (Boba Fett wouldn't eat crusts!). He had a spot picked out for himself behind a screen of oleander hedge, where he could be all Spy Vs. Spy on the Sunnydale High elite, and they would not see him to bother him.
Today's feature: Robo-jocks Doug, Kyle and Les throwing lazy tosses with the game-winning ball while a gaggle of cheerleaders flocked around them like so many brightly-colored birds, with about as much brains in their perfectly-coifed heads. Andrew chewed his sandwich thoughtfully, contemplating the origins of the word coifed, when Xander Harris entered the scene and called out, "Hey, Doug, toss me one!"
The robo-jocks stared blankly (even more so than was customary) at Xander.
"Les-man, I'm open," Xander called energetically. "Les, buddy!"
Les ignored Harris, pitching the ball to Doug.
Desperate now, Xander cried out, "Doug, right here, man. Right here. Doug, please!"
Finally, Doug hurled the football hard at Harris, who hurried to intercept, yelling, "All right. It's all me!"
But instead of catching the ball, Harris wound up colliding with Senior Troglodyte Jack O'Toole. What. An. Idiot.
Finally, Andrew thought with a smirk, a bigger loser than me.
Alas, Andrew's attention, fickle as was its nature, was redirected by the appearance of that rare and brilliant flower, Rebecca Kinsey, who today wore a pale coral cashmere sweater with buttons of pearl and a khaki skirt so short there was no way it was regulation, not that he was complaining.
Rebecca cut across the Quad in bound for a pre-lunch face embrace with Kyle when Cordelia Chase intercepted her.
"Just where do you get off, Kinsey?" Cordelia belted out dramatically in her Queen Be-otch way that always assured her center stage.
Rebecca froze mid-graceful-step. Cordelia, dressed in black and red, her hair upswept, closed the distance between them. Everyone in the Quad turned to watch the showdown between the new girl and the reigning queen: Kinsey vs. Chase. Andrew felt more than a little aroused.
"I-I don't know what you mean," Rebecca said innocently.
"Oh, don't play Sweet Little Newbie with me. It never works. You auditioned for the role of Juliet," Cordelia said.
Cordelia tossed her head back and cackled. Actually cackled.
"Whoever heard of a Juliet with knock knees, red curls, and freckles?"
Rebecca stammered. Cordelia plowed on.
"No one, that's who. The setting is Verona, not Scotland, and we're fresh out of productions of Brigadoon. Juliet was Italian and I've got the proper shoes. What do you have? Nothing –"
Cordelia had a way of asking questions and then answering them for you. Andrew found it quite off-putting.
Cordelia leaned in close to Rebecca, but Andrew on his hidden bench could hear every word.
"You're new here, so you're forgiven this one slight," she said. "Around here, it's me and me alone and if you get in my way…" Cordelia stepped forward, pressing the toe of her Ferragamo pump on an acorn. With a small application of pressure, the acorn popped, then crunched as Cordelia ground it into the cement.
"Capiche?" Cordelia finished.
Rebecca turned and fled like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, leaving Cordelia to simper with a look of smug satisfaction on her cruelly perfect face.
"Rebecca," Andrew squeaked wistfully, not realizing until a moment too late that he had spoken, drawing Cordelia's gaze upon him.
"What are you?" she snapped, putting the emphasis on the word "are" to imply that he was a 'what', not a 'who'. He was so stunned that she had spoken to him that he gaped at her. Cordelia looked as though she was deciding whether to make a social snack of him or dismiss him as something unworthy of her attention when Harmony Kendall trotted up beside her.
"OMG!" Harmony gushed. "Rebecca Kinsey totally auditioned for the role of Juliet."
Cordelia hissed in her agitation.
"Dinosaurs find this news prehistoric," Cordelia snapped. "I have my audition after pre-cal, so New Girl doesn't stand a chance. Ooh. Xander's about to get creamed by Jack O'Toole. This day's not a total loss. Not by far," Cordelia's eyes roamed to Andrew and fixed on him again.
"Don't you have a Trekkie convention to get to?" she barked.
Andrew collected his sandwich and scampered away, but not before he heard Harmony say:
"What breed of dork was that loser?"
To which Cordelia responded:
"I think he's Tucker Well's brother."
Late, late that night, when his mom finally passed out in front of the TV after four hours of binge drinking, Cheetos and Roseanne on Nick at Nite, Andrew lay awake in his bed, listening with growing unease to the unsettling sounds that came from his brother's makeshift lab in the basement. Four years running, Tucker garnered trophies at the local and regional science fair competitions. The aforementioned proton particle accelerator was one of his trickier inventions, but which brought Tucker and his best friends Warren Mears and David Metz endless hours of entertainment shifting tiny objects such as peas and pencil erasers .004 nanometers across the space-time continuum.
Now, though, Tucker was working on something else, something kind of sweaty and growly and smelly, like rotten-eggs-meets-week-old-gym-socks.
Worse than that: all of it was verboten to little brother. Life was so unfair.
And speaking of things opposite of fair, Andrew lost beaucoup sleep knowing that Rebecca Kinsey occupied a room in the next house over. If he leaned out of his window and craned his neck as far left as it could go without tendon damage, he could see the golden glimmer from her bedroom reading lamp. And he would wonder impossible things - whether she wore PJs or a gownie-thing, or if she read Nancy Drew mysteries or Anne Rice or maybe even sci-fi fanfic. Sometimes he heard the Kinsey family fighting, like really going at it with the screaming and the very much breaking of things, and he worried about her in the tenderest places of his heart. If she ever got hurt, that knowledge would crush him like subatomic particles in a supercollider.
No wonder he zoned in Language Arts. That's what was so unfair. How long could he exist, cooped up between Tucker Wells, Teacher's Pet-slash-Super Genius, and the Goddess of All That Was Good And Fair, as he came to regard her?
Just then, Andrew beheld a powerful flash, followed by a splintering grumble of alarming force which seemed to emanate from directly beneath his bed. Andrew scrambled to the doorway, thinking earthquake, but after a moment realized that the sound had come from his brother's lab.
No way could that be good, Andrew thought. He pulled on his scruffy bathrobe and headed to the back door. The only access to the lab was through a cellar door outside, which, usually, was locked with a honking big padlock and grimy chains, but tonight, all of these were shredded like so much steel wool. Normally, Andrew would have a step-back at seeing something like that, and who wouldn't? But the knowledge that his brother was down there, possibly in danger…
Across the yard seemed safe enough a distance. Andrew crouched in the bushes behind the dusty excuse for a back yard, watching as greasy black smoke belched from the open cellar door, followed abruptly by Tucker and Warren, both clad in scrubs and goggles, and slapping at their smoldering bodies with smudged rubber gloves.
"Dude," Warren choked after several minutes of gagging. "That blew large chunks. What did you do wrong?"
Tucker turned to him, his eyes bulging. "All of it," he said hoarsely. "All wrong."
"So you gotta get with the fixin', amigo. Prom's only three weeks away," Warren said.
Tucker peeled his gloves off and threw them down. "Prom's only the beginning, my man. You know that."
Andrew leaned in. Only the beginning? Beginning of what?
"And the accelerator?" Warren asked.
"Outmoded. We have to move to Phase Two of the plan, even though our most recent endeavor," his head nodded in the direction of the lab, "lacked."
"As in major," Warren concurred.
They stood, watching the sooty smoke furl out of the basement, their hands on their hips. They were still talking, but quietly now and Andrew couldn't make out what they were saying, when all of the sudden, Rebecca Kinsey appeared at the window. She drew up the sash and leaned out, her crimson curls glowing like embers in the back-lighted halo of her desk lamp. What light at yonder window…
"Hey," she called in a harsh whisper to Andrew. "What's up?"
He blinked. She… was talking… to him.
And she expected a response. Unfortunately, all he could hear in his ears was the sound of waves crashing and he had no clue what it was that she asked.
"I thought I heard something," she said. "Explosion-like?"
"My brother," Andrew blurted. Rebecca followed his line of sight to the two young men who stood bickering outside of the splintered cellar door. "He didn't explode," Andrew went on, rushing needlessly to explain. "Though he probably is the cause of said explosion."
"Does he do this often?"
"Well, yeah. He's like Mr. Wizard without the gray power and the condescending venerability. But, you know, give him a few decades," Andrew said. He gave her a feeble smile.
Rebecca leaned out of her window, and Andrew had the answer to one of his impossible questions: Gownie-thing. She wore a baby blue gownie-thing with yellow cartoon stars and a crescent moon on it, with the words "Sleepy Time" scrawled across the front. She said, "Can't we work out a way to let him know that it's a school night?"
"Been down that byway," Andrew said with a derisive snort. "My nipples are still p'nurped."
Rebecca giggled. It sounded like raindrops on a hundred silver tinkling bells.
"Maybe if I talked to them. I have a call-back tomorrow, and I'm going to need all the beauty rest I can muster if I'm going to take on the over-esteemed Cordelia Chase."
"Or maybe if you talked to them?" she asked sweetly. "After all, he is your brother."
"I am on that," he said with a nod. Rebecca grinned as she pulled her window closed and disappeared inside. Once she was gone, Andrew collapsed onto the curb, feeling alternate currents of hot and cold course through his veins.
"He is your brother," she had said. No one had ever done that. Up till now it had always been the other way around.
That night, Andrew went to sleep thinking about the sound of her words: Oh, that kid – yeah. He's Andrew's brother. And deep under that, stewing in his subconscious mind Andrew began to scheme.
Next day did not go well. In his lack of sleep from the night before, Andrew dozed in Algebra, earned a day's after-school detention, and then endured more embarrassment at the hands of Ms. Bartlett when he could not identify an example of irony in the fourth chapter of Watership Down.
Worst part: Rebecca Kinsey lost the role of Juliet to fashionista Cordelia Chase.
Life was just so unfair.
That evening, when Tucker came in to scrounge up a dinner of microwaved tater tots and turkey pot pie, Andrew was waiting for him. This was not something Andrew did, as a rule. As a rule, he avoided his brother because close contact usually resulted in a scalding verbal redress or a wedgie, often both. Also as a rule, if their Mom discovered them in close proximity, she used the occasion as a springboard into a slurred diatribe about how big her boys were getting and how miserable her rotten excuse of a life had turned out to be.
This time, though, Andrew had a grievance. Rebecca Kinsey unjustly lost her chance to play Juliet. The blame lay on Tucker, because his questionable lab practices led to an explosion that robbed fair Juli… ahem, Rebecca, from her much needed slumber.
"Hey, Anus," Tucker said without actually looking at Andrew.
"Hey, Tuck's pad," Andrew fired back.
Tucker rounded the chipped Formica table and opened the ice box. The kitchen smelled of boiled weenies, stale beer and corn chips. Neither Tucker nor Andrew liked it much. Tucker pulled a frozen pot pie from the iced-over pile of cryogenically preserved chicken parts, then turned to the oven.
"You and your boy made a lot of noise last night," Andrew said. Even to his own ears his voice sounded unusually forceful.
Tucker cast a glance over his shoulder. "Are you talking to me?"
"I don't... see anyone else." Andrew folded his arms across his chest.
"It doesn't concern you, Hand Job. Go put your nose up your Babylon Five books," Tucker said. He opened the fridge and dragged out the warped plastic container of tots.
"It does so concern me," Andrew went on. "And you leave John Sheridan out of this!"
Tucker laughed it off. He scraped the burned bits of potato onto a blackened baking pan and put them and the pot pie into the oven. He was about to leave the kitchen, so Andrew had to act fast and do something heavily unprecedented. He leapt from his chair and got between his brother and the door.
Tucker smirked. "Am-scray," he said.
"Ake-me may… My. Mo," Andrew fumbled. He was never adept at Pig Latin.
Tucker shoved him, medium-light, to the shoulder. Andrew held his ground. "Your little pyrotechnics display woke the neighbors," Andrew said.
Tucker shrugged. "So?"
Andrew had to admit to himself that in his practice run he had not thought past this part in the conversation. He imagined his brother would logically deduce that rousing neighbors would thereby rouse suspicion. He had not expected Tucker's apathy. What to do, what to do?
"Hey, Red Shirt, you've zoned out again," Tucker said. He attempted to weave around Andrew, and seemed surprised that Andrew continued to block him.
"Ergo, the neighbors might alert the 5-0, and you and your plans end up doing a nickel in the clink…"
"Your concern is touching," Tucker said, his tone as sincere as fruitcake at Christmas. "And noted. I'll try to keep it down."
It worked! Andrew felt a balloon of elation in his chest. He appealed to his brother's logical sensibilities in the name of Rebecca (nay, the entire neighborhood) and it worked!
Andrew sidestepped to let Tucker slip by, and while he continued to marvel over the success of his boldness, his brother murmured, "Not that it'll matter if the police turn up. My babies will make ham salad of them at tax payer's expense."
But Andrew barely heard it. He went to the refrigerator to get a celebratory bottle of Ne-Hi Grape. He tugged open the door and noticed a heavy metal tub covered with aluminum foil between him and his beloved bubbly beverage. Curiosity being one of the things that frequently got the better of him, Andrew peeled up one corner of the foil, saw brains and fainted.
An untold time later, Andrew awoke on the floor in front of the fridge, with a note written in Tucker's deliberately masculine print, duct taped to his sleeve which said, "Keep your mitts off my brains, gutless."
That would not be a problem…
No explosions rocked Andrew's bedroom that night, but a stream of continuous growls and muffled curses floated up like foul little bubbles, and Andrew found, yet again, that he could not sleep.
Andrew donned his robe and headed for the backyard. Outside, the night felt nippy, the promise the rain hanging in the air. The cellar door boasted brand-new chains and padlock. Andrew resisted the urge to rattle them, when he heard a movement in the bushes.
Now, Andrew had grown up in Sunnydale. He knew that it was not like other towns, and that, unlike what characters in horror movies might do, you never went to inspect rustling sounds of any kind in Sunnydale. Doing so meant risk to life and limb, and he was not so fool-hardy. He turned to scurry, but then Rebecca Kinsey parted the shrubbery like a ray of amber sunlight piercing a thundercloud, and he found himself rooted to the spot. He couldn't run if the tried. Which he wouldn't do. He was far from insane.
"W-what are you…?"
"Doing here?" she finished.
"Crazy, is what I was gonna say," Andrew said. "It's not good to be out. This neighborhood isn't safe by a way lot."
Rebecca lowered her eyes, then looked up at him through her lashes. "But I have you to protect me," she said.
Andrew blushed furiously. He felt it between his shoulder blades, and in… other places.
Then he returned to his senses. "You're new, so you don't know. Sunnydale: not Mayberry. Things happen here."
"Exciting things?" she asked hopefully.
"Dark things," he countered. "Things you cannot possibly begin to imagine."
She shrugged. "Gimme a for instance," she said, conversationally.
"All right. Our former principal, Mr. Flutie: Eaten by wild dogs," he said.
Rebecca shuddered. "Get out," she said.
"No really. And, like, three weeks ago these two kids were found dead in the park, and this group of parents formed a kind of cult to raise awareness, and they almost had a witch burning in City Hall," Andrew said.
Rebecca eyed him as if he was having her on. "How very Salem of them," she said.
"And then my cousin Cyrus, he disappeared after marching band last year, but people say they see him around. They say he's a vampyre," he told her.
Rebecca laughed. "Oh-kay," she said.
"No, it's true," Andrew said, knowing full well how R. L. Stine it sounded.
Rebecca spared him by changing the subject "So, no explosions tonight," Rebecca said. "That's a plus."
Andrew cut his eyes to her. "Yeah, I had a word with my brother. He promised to be more careful."
"Aw, thank you," she said. "You're sweet."
"Heh," he managed. He realized with some discomfort that she was mighty close to him, and he was wearing his geekiest Justice League PJs. He took a measured step back. "Sorry about the whole Juliet fiasco."
"Yeah. Well. I get to be understudy. There's that."
"You should never be under…" Andrew began, but then realized the inadvertent innuendo he was about to imply, and actually felt his throat close up as if Lord Vader suspected his lack of faith, and found it disturbing.
Rebecca cinched up the distance between them. Andrew could smell the coconutty scent of her shampoo. He felt the warmth of her peachy skin on his, and an odd stirring sensation in his nether regions, which hitherto had only happened whilst watching The Smurfs (damn that blue nymphette!) or re-runs of Three's Company.
"Who knows," Rebecca said. "Maybe something will happen to her between now and then."
And then she kissed him. Lips and all.
Andrew forgot all about sinister Sunnydale, his brother's extraneous brains, school plays, The Prom, everything.
Of course, the next morning, Andrew stood in front of the refrigerator door, wondering if brain matter might have invaded the milk by process of reverse-osmosis in an attempt to assimilate the family into some kind of brain-worshipping cult.
Unlikely, but there he stood, and no amount of clandestine kissage could counteract the truth: that his brother was keeping brains in their mother's Dutch oven. Lady Wells was crashed out on the couch, and the morning news reported no leads in the disappearance of Deputy Mayor Allan Finch before breaking to a feature story about the unexpected migration of sleeper sharks into the waters off the coast of Sunnydale when that short, sweaty, kinda anxious kid from school appeared at the screen door with a brown paper bag held in front of him like an offering.
"Hey, Anthony," he said. "Tucker in?"
"It's Andrew," he answered, "and my brother's keeper I am not."
"Save the Yoda-speak," the kid snapped. "I have his thing."
"That bag's too big for his thing," Andrew quipped. He snickered at his own cleverness.
"Shut up. Don't have time. Just…" He set the bag inside the screen door and fled down the front steps before the wood frame smacked shut. A skip and beat later, the Hobbit sped away on his moped - a Deneva class dork.
Andrew glanced from the bag to the fridge. Once again, curiosity being his Kryptonite, Andrew left the brains for what was behind Bag Number One.
It was a book. A book? What could Tucker the Wonder Boy want with…?
Andrew pulled the worn volume from the bag. A shop receipt fluttered to the ground. Andrew caught it and read it aloud.
"Uncle Bob's Magic Cabinet," he said. Hmmm. Maybe Tucker was in to novelties and gag gifts. Maybe it was a book of pranks. Andrew turned the book over in his left hand to read the cover. "Lemegeton – The Complete Lesser Key of Solomon."
Or not so much gags as conjuration.
Andrew heard an outburst of snarls, followed by the sound of the cellar door banging closed, followed then by a series of swears that would make a Corellian smuggler blush. Andrew stuffed the book back into the bag, but then on a whim, shoved both bag and book into the broom pantry.
Tucker appeared on the porch, smeared with mud and flecks of what looked like spittle. Eww.
"I heard a moped," Tucker said. "Jonathan came by."
"Jonathan," Andrew said with a nod. That was his name! But he came swiftly to his senses. "Nope," he replied. "No one came by."
Tucker's squinted and Andrew saw for the first time how truly harried and tired his brother looked. "I heard what I heard," Tucker bit out.
"Maybe you heard the TV," Andrew said, jerking a nod toward the living room. Mother Wells uttered a long, resonant snore, and both boys wished simultaneously that their mother did not so much resemble Jabba the Hut.
"Fine," Tucker said, dipping out of the room. "I'll catch him at school."
Once Tucker was gone, Andrew sneaked the book into his bedroom and began to read. Before he knew it, 10 a.m. had come and gone, and Andrew had missed his first day of school since his bout with impetigo in fourth grade. None of that mattered, however. His life had opened up to new possibilities, and all with the pages of this careworn book. He felt that he had spent his whole fifteen years waiting for this book to fall into his hands, and now that it had, things would change for him. He would soon have legions of demons at his command. No more would he be the amazingly invisible Andrew Wells. No more would he creep around in his brother's shadow. No more would he live in a world in which Cordelia Chase would steal away Rebecca's role as Juliet. And Ms. Bartlett!
Andrew grinned at the irony that in all of this Ms. Bartlett had been correct; books could change a person's life.
Andrew would be dashing. He would be rich beyond imagine, which was a lot because he had a vivid imagination. He would be like James Bond and Indiana Jones, with just a twist of Austin Powers. In short, he would be perfect.
By the time Andrew had reached the second part of the book, the Theurgia Goetia, he knew that he would soon try his hand at conjuration. He just needed supplies, and he already knew where to get them.
Uncle Bob's Magic Cabinet wore a layer of dust so thick you would have thought it settled during the Gold Rush. Additionally, talk about bleak. The Grim Reaper himself would have the place declared a no-fun zone. The old guy behind the counter, Mr. Fogarty, tipped a begrudging nod to Andrew, then flipped to the next page of the book he had propped on the counter. Andrew tried to get a look at the title of the book, but the shopkeeper glared at him with such acerbity, Andrew scattered into the cloisters.
He had made a list. Apparently, to conjure a demon, all one needed was to inscribe a circle in blood, gather up the proper magical items, and voila: demons.
He needed each of the following: a sprig of rosemary, newt's eye, an amethyst crystal for focusing, four yellow candles, a silver ring, a cat's whisker, three feathers from a mockingbird, and the tail of a rat that had not been killed by means of poisoning. Easy, he thought. Except, that the newt's eyes came in bulk quantities, the shop had feathers of ravens, canaries, and cardinals, but zilch in the way of mockingbird, and no whiskers of any kind.
Andrew would have to trouble the cranky old shopkeep.
"Excuse me," Andrew said, passing his scrap of note paper to the gruff old guy. "I have this list…"
Mr. Fogarty shut his book with a thud and took the list in both hands. He read it, mouthing the words, and when he reached the end, he pursed his wrinkly lips.
"Conjuring Malphas, eh?" he said.
"Wow, yeah… how'd you guess?" Andrew asked.
"Don't," Mr. Fogarty said. "He's a trickster. A prank. He accepts offerings quickly, but then will deceive you."
"But the book says the circle containeth he that is conjured…eth."
Mr. Fogarty frowned. "And what is it you'll have him do for you? Hmmm?"
"Well, according to this book that I have and did not steal in any way, Malphas will strike down the strongholds of mine enemies and command a legion of winged demons that will do the conjurer's bidding," Andrew said.
"I suggest you start with something smaller," Mr. Fogarty said. "Perhaps a bog imp or a changeling. Leave demon conjuration to the pros." The shopkeep parted his book to the page he'd been reading, thereby dismissing Andrew entirely.
"No, dang it!" Andrew said, pounding his fist on the counter, then shaking it because it hurt to pound so hard. "It has to be Malphas because the moon will be in its proper phase for the conjuration and timed perfectly to coincide with the opening night of the school play."
Fogarty raised his eyes to look at Andrew over the rims of his glasses. "And your enemy's stronghold?"
"My brother's got something going on in his lab in our basement," Andrew explained.
"And you want to destroy it."
Andrew shrugged. "I wanna see what it is," he said. "I want inside."
Mr. Fogarty fixed Andrew with an appraising eye. "School play, eh?"
Andrew nodded once.
Mr. Fogarty stroked the gray stubble on his chin. "That's something I'd like to see," he said, and the laughter that rolled out of his chest started as a low rumble like thunder and ended with a phlegmy kind of cough that wracked the old man's ribs. "Here," he said, once he'd hacked out half a lung, "Lemme just get those feathers for you. Have you ever inscribed a Circle before?"
Andrew shook his head, "No. Never."
"Well, then. I'll settle you in with a crash course. That ought to put you on the path, so to speak…"
And anyway, who needed a proton particle accelerator when you could conjure tcheveky spirit beetles out of Gehenna?
As it turned out, Andrew did start small. Mr. Fogarty persuaded him to lead off with lesser creatures as practice, given that he had nearly three weeks until the school play. It also turned out that Mr. Fogarty had a gripe with the Chases. Once, Cordelia's father, Reginald Chase, refused him a line of credit based on the fact that his tenure in the magic shop had been so brief, and his previous employment as night manager at the Double Meat Palace had not yielded major spoils of material wealth.
Andrew practiced daily. Every evening after school, he inscribed a Circle and practiced spirit incantation. Every night before turning in, he slid his cot against the wall and tried out a new conjuration. He brought forth be-alzebugs, a Welsh pixie (which bit him on the nose before escaping into the night through an open window), four Madrogordian imps, and one rather unpleasant creature called a Gratske.
The Gratske taught Andrew a lesson in caution. Before managing the rites of vanquish, the Gratske moved throughout the house like an uncontainable vapor that wept and moaned, then oozed on the furniture. For the next few days, Andrew awoke in a cold sweat, recalling how it lunged for him, its baleful white eyes glowing like distant, sorrowful stars.
Nightmarish apparitions aside, Andrew felt it was worth it. He had it all planned out. Finally, a way to get everyone's attention, with the added bonus of rescuing fair Rebecca from the shackles of her own mediocrity. It was bold. It was daring. It was ironic.
It consumed all of his spare time.
Messages from his Dungeons & Dragons PBeM clogged his inbox. He had a term paper comparing Watership Down to A Wrinkle In Time due before the end of May, and he had yet to finish reading either book. He had upcoming finals in Algebra and if he didn't pass, he'd be repeating the class his Junior year, which… snore. Not to mention, he had not spoken to Rebecca since sharing that sparkling moment of lip-lock. He was beginning to believe he had dreamed the whole encounter.
However, even that seemed to pale in comparison to the stir of raw power he felt with conjuration. It occurred to him that he might have lost his sense of perspective.
Posters proclaiming Sunnydale High's Triumph of the Stage, Romeo and Juliet (starring Cordelia Chase as Juliet) began to pop up in the halls, along with posters announcing the Class of 1999 Junior/Senior Prom, scheduled on Friday night of the same week. Andrew hunkered under the weight of his backpack and tried to ignore the brightly-colored banners that festooned the halls.
It was shaping up to be a busy week for the Wells boys.
Andrew swung by his locker on Monday afternoon, reasoning that after a month of scholastic slacking, it would behoove him to start the cram-fest ASAP. Andrew twisted in the combination, chuckling inwardly at how well the word "behoove" applied to his current situation, re: the Dark Arts, when an enormous fist smashed into the locker right behind his ear.
Andrew turned directly into it – the fist and its partner, the other fist, snatched Andrew up by the collar and shook him. Andrew flailed, helplessly, but kept his head down, as years of practice at cowardice taught him to do.
Didn't matter anyway, for he soon learned who was behind the Man-handler.
"Where'd you put the book, you mangy freak?"
Andrew played dumb. He had a lot of practice at that, too.
"What up, homey? Why you gotta front?"
A third hand gripped Andrew's chin, pulling it to Tucker's eye level, and Andrew got the full picture of his captors: Warren Mears played the heavy, naturally. Tucker was the Brainiac who never got his mitts dirty.
"Jonathan says he dropped the book off at the house," Tucker snarled. "Now he was instructed to hand-deliver it to me. Now his punishment's been administered for not completing this task, but you…"
Andrew tried to shrug free, but Warren held fast. And he was, like, two fists of burly, covered all over with an undue amount of hair.
"Are you sure you're supposed to be a senior?" Andrew asked. Warren responded by slamming Andrew painfully into the locker so hard that sparks showered behind his eyes and his legs went watery.
Tucker grinned, his eyes sparkling with malice. "The book, Andy. Where'd you put it?"
"Up your boyfriend's ass, Vegeta," Andrew said, thinking perhaps Warren had whacked him a little too hard.
"I think you whacked him a little too hard," Tucker said. He leaned against the locker, his face inches from his brother's. "We need that book, Andrew. We need it, and we'll do what it takes to get it."
The strap of Andrew's backpack bit into his shoulder. He shifted his weight, but Warren, with his extra-manly biceps, kept him pinned. And then, unfortunately, Meathead the Barbarian had a thought.
"Tuck, the backpack," Warren said.
Tucker's fiendish grin returned. He said, "You wouldn't have it right here, wouldja?"
Andrew's lips twisted in a pained little smile. Down the hall, that crazy Buffy girl stopped at the water fountain. Andrew tried to scuffle enough to get her attention since she was the intervening type, but apparently today she was in the zip code of Elsewhere because she clamped her hands over her ears and ducked into the library.
Meanwhile, Warren peeled Andrew's pack from his shoulder the way a gorilla peels a firm banana, and then dumped Andrew unceremoniously to the floor. They didn't bother to leave Andrew's school books or papers behind. Nope, they absconded with the whole pack.
Andrew glowered. He checked his ribs to find several tender to the touch. He bruised like a ripe pear, and knew that in a day his neck and back would be purple as a California sunset.
"You may have defeated me this time, Goku," he muttered. "But next time…" he sighed. "You will not."
Actually, he felt relieved. He had endured far worse at the hands of Warren and Tucker in the past, and at least this last display, while humiliating in its public-ness, left his genitals and underwear intact.
As Andrew clambered to his feet, he came face to face to another confrontation. This time, one most unexpected.
"You. I thought you were different."
Rebecca. She looked radiant in a red A-line sundress with embroidered daisies, honeybees and bee hives along the hem, her red curls pinned back in a tousled-looking topknot, exposing the smooth expanse of her pearly neck. She smelled of fabric softener and White Rain hairspray.
"More than you know?" he wagered.
"You seem so sweet, and maybe a little effeminate, so I thought you'd be safe, and I kissed you. Then you spend all of your time avoiding me?"
"But the – I'm not – It's not," Andrew stammered.
"Maybe you are different," Rebecca said. "In that way."
She turned on the heel of her red canvas lace-up espadrille and marched away to join a group of junior girls from the Sunnydale High Glee Club. He heard one of them honk with laughter and shout, "Gay!" before they all disappeared into the choir room. Glee club, indeed.
Andrew's knees gave out once more and he pooled into a puddle on the floor beneath his locker.
How doth my life suck? Andrew thought. Let me count the ways. One, Tucker and his Husky Henchman stole his book. Granted he stole it first, but it was Dark Arts, so some general larceny was to be expected. Two, in his quest to avenge the beautiful Rebecca, he inadvertently led her to believe that he was a) avoiding her and b) gay. And way down on the list, but still relevant, Tucker and Warren made off with his mundane books, too, so he would surely fail, much to the delight of Ms. Bartlett.
What to do, what to do?
Andrew burst in Uncle Bob's Magic Cabinet two minutes before closing, having run fast as the Flash, to find Mr. Fogarty already in his Columbo-esque hat and coat.
"The Lesser Key of Solomon!" Andrew shouted.
Fogarty paused, one brow arched. "And?"
"My brother found out I had it, and he took it, and I need it, on count of the play is two days away and the Prom is on Friday, and I really want to know what Tucker's up to, and I already inscribed the Circle to conjure Malphas, and…"
"Hold it, Run-On Boy," Mr. Fogarty said. "You want another copy of the book?"
Andrew nodded, struggling to catch his breath.
Fogarty went to the shelf, touched the spines of several books, before drawing forth a paperback volume.
"Dunno why you and your brother think this is the only book in the world for conjuration," Fogarty muttered. He went to the cash register to ring it up, when Andrew realized that all of his money went the way of the Dodo right along with the rest of his books in his backpack.
Andrew put his forehead flat on the counter. "Mr. Fogarty," he whined.
"I didn't think this plan all the way through…" Andrew admitted.
Fogarty rapped his hoary knuckles on the counter. Andrew raised his plaintive eyes to meet the old man's.
Fogarty slid the book across the glass case to Andrew, who took it in both of his trembling hands. "This one's a beginner's book, boy," Fogarty said. "Now, you've shown real promise with dispelling that Gratske, so I'd expect something more out of you. And soon." He winked at Andrew and went on. "You'll be back. You can pay me then."
Andrew bowed. "I shall not disappoint you, Master," he said.
And then he turned to bolt outside, because it was getting dark and it was still a long way from his house on the other side of the tracks. But before he got out of the door, Mr. Fogarty said, "Oh, Andrew… one further thing."
Andrew waited, his hand on the doorknob. "Yeah?"
"Malphas will expect a sacrifice."
Andrew blinked. He blinked again. "Like, blood of virgins or baby goats? 'Cause I'm not down with mutilation."
Mr. Fogarty chuckled. Somehow it didn't seem like bowl-full-o-jelly laughter. "Not blood, necessarily, but something personal, and dear to you."
Andrew considered for a moment. "Like an action figure?" he asked.
"You'll figure it out," Mr. Fogarty said, and then he switched off the light behind the counter.
Andrew had a 1979 Chewbacca in near mint condition, and a Han Solo with a blaster pistol, minus one arm below the elbow (Han met a disagreeable fate with a homemade version of the Pit of Sarlaac, a. k. a., Scott Hope's garbage disposal). He also had in his possession issues 48 through 52 of The Fantastic Four, in which the Silver Surfer and Black Panther made their first appearances. These were Andrew's most treasured possessions, with which he could scarcely bear to part. He gathered them together on his nubbly blanket, and lovingly caressed each one.
He knew. Deep down, Andrew knew, that this was the decision he had to make. Was it time now to set aside his toys and take on the mantle of manhood? Would he seize the power presented to him, would he steal the fire as Prometheus had, and use it to woo the fair maiden?
Even though said maiden did think he was gay.
But such bold strides would surely turn her head and her thinking around. He had to focus; he was just so damned bad at it. Fame, fortune, glory, and the girl lay ahead, not to mention revenge for a lifetime of fraternal one-upping. All for the price of a few comics and vintage collectibles.
No, it was an easy choice. Andrew collected the offering into a shoe box and stored it alongside the Circle under his bed. He had two more days to practice, and with the obstacle of schoolwork effectively removed, Andrew had even more time to spend honing his Dark Work.
How about that for bright-siding? Andrew thought as he lay down for the night, and he felt better.
On Wednesday, Andrew cut class after lunch. He had to scope out the auditorium, because if he was going to command an army of flying Malphas minions, he needed to know the general layout. He was T-minus six hours from curtain call, and he had everything in order.
The doors to the auditorium were locked, naturally, so Andrew had to sketch by peeking through the smallish rectangular windows.
The stage pieces were set for the first act, and looked really nice. The Thespian Club had outdone themselves in gold paint and matte backdrops, whereas the wood shop built up colonnades and arches and a right proper balcony, on which the Caustic Queen Cordelia would offer up her sickly rendition of Juliet.
And speaking of Cordelia, she stood in front of the stage, talking in earnest with Mrs. Caldwell, the theater teacher. He couldn't hear them, being as there was a giant door between him and them, and his attempt at reading lips led him to believe that Cordelia was leaving for Bolivia to play Scrabble with llamas professionally. One could only hope. And besides, he had no time to waste. He sketched the stage area and the seating as best he could from his vantage point, then turned his attention to the spotlight and control booth on the opposite side of the auditorium. His efforts were incomplete, however, because Mr. Beach swung by and ordered Andrew to, "Get his rear in class this instant."
Back at home, Andrew read down the list, marking each item with a check as he went:
"Circle inscribed in fresh blood (cow's, from the butcher, and not virgin's or mutilated baby goat.) Check. Leaves of rosemary, stripped from its branch. Crystal and candles arranged, ready for the focusing, and the lighting. Check. Cat's whiskers, tails, and all other snips mixed and set. Check, check."
He heard a muffled howl downstairs and froze.
A howl? he thought. They hadn't had a dog since their Dad split in '89 and took old Billy with him. Of course, Tucker had always said that his Dad was a different Dad than Andrew's Dad, but had not one shred of proof.
Andrew left it. He had other things, ones of great importance, to attend to and could not be bothered with yapping mutts or issues of paternity.
For instance, he removed his clothes and dressed in a plain white T-shirt and white sweat pants, with a draw-string waistband (for comfort). He knelt on the floor at the foot of the circle and, with the Lesser Key of Solomon open on his lap, began to recite the first rite of incantation.
Now, a lot of people don't realize it, but conjuration is difficult business, and Andrew was no exception. He had to crawl around on the floor, arranging the crystal according to the stage of the rite, lighting the candles, anointing his brow with the melted wax, which irritated his skin, and then finally, placing his offering into the Circle.
At first, nothing happened. Andrew knelt at the head of the Circle, having read the final invocation, and he waited. And waited. And then his toes started to ache and his stomach growled, and with the heave of a disappointed sigh, Andrew stood, only to be knocked flat.
A bright green-gold filled his bedroom, followed by a rumbling burst of sound that shook the peeling boards of the entire house. Andrew scrambled to his knees to find himself gazing into the beady yellow eyes of an enormous raven with feathers black as Cleopatra's wig.
"Bird!" he shouted. The raven took noticed of him and pecked with its skewer-like beak in Andrew's direction, but just as the book promised, the Circle contained the demon, sleek black feathers and all.
Andrew collected the book. He flipped back to the page with the ritual, breathless and quivering with excitement over his success. He read, "Malphas will appear as a crow, but will alter to human form if requested by the conjurer.
"Very well," Andrew said. "I hereby request that you… do my bidding. Take thy human form!"
Another burst rocked the house on its foundation, and Andrew was glad that his Mom was pulling double shift at the shipyard tonight. The disembodied head of Malphas appeared, he who greatly resembled the goat-heady dude from Gwar, only with gnarly horns on top of his floor-to-ceiling-sized head.
"Holy Dark Avenger," Andrew marveled. Then amended, "Unholy, I mean. Your unholiness. Your imminence. Wow, your head is big…"
Malphas's eyes opened like slits into ultimate blackness, and Andrew's spine felt like a rose dipped in liquid nitrogen. When the demon opened its mouth to speak, its teeth glowed with an eerie phosphorescent whiteness.
"Why hast thou summoned me?" Malphas asked, his voice throaty and hoarse.
"I did it," Andrew gushed. "I summoned you."
Malphas narrowed his eyes. "Yes, you did it. Go, you. Why hast thou done this thing? I was in the middle of a game of canasta with Baron Samenga…"
Andrew wiped his palms on his sweats. "Right. So, um, I request that you take my offering and give to me a legion of demons to command," Andrew said. "Oh, and, break down mine enemy's stronghold, meaning, I want inside my brother's secret lab."
Malphas pursed his lips thoughtfully. He cast a brief glance at the shoe box in the center of the Circle. "This is thine offering?"
"Yes, your Lordship, sir," Andrew said.
"Consider it a down payment," Malphas said. "As for your first request, I grant you this…"
An iron cylinder roughly the size of a Quaker Oats box appeared at Andrew's feet. Several lengths of chain ran around the circumference of the cask, which were bound up by a heavy pentagonal lock. It sort of smoked and smelled of brimstone, like Malphas had plucked it from a brazier of Hell itself.
"What's this?" Andrew asked, nudging the cask with his toe. The container sizzled with the contact, and Andrew edged nervously away.
"Your legion. Forty of those under my command, passed now to you, for the duration of this moon phase," Malphas said.
"Not to point out the obvious, or to doubt your eminence in any way," Andrew said haltingly, "But that is small in the way of, like, leprechaun small, and also, regrettably, locked."
Malphas laughed. Fingernails and chalkboards came to mind. "The key is around thy neck," Malphas said.
Andrew reached for his throat and found, to his great surprise, that a key did indeed hang on a chain around his neck. And the chain, like the cask, smelled of sulfur and kinda stung his skin.
"With boldness thou hast summoned me, and so have been granted thy request…" Malphas said.
"Half my request," Andrew put in.
Malphas cut his eyes to Andrew, chilling him all the way to his rabbity little heart.
"Indeed," Malphas agreed, after a moment. "Once you have finished your first task, your brother's plans shall be lain before you."
Andrew grinned. "Swell!" he exclaimed. He picked up the cask, found it entirely too hot to the touch, and then dropped it, much to the amusement of Malphas, who had not seen a show like this since a botched conjuration in 1716… but that was an entirely different tale.
So Andrew disappeared momentarily into the kitchen, where he found his new best friends, the oven mitts, and those he used to cart his cask of demons back to the auditorium of Sunnydale High School.
Andrew arrived at the auditorium an hour before curtain call to find a half dozen people milling about in front of the stage. What kind of early bird stragglers turned up to the high school play one hour before curtain, unless they have some sinister plotting to do? He skirted them, grateful that his status as Invisible Boy was still in tact, because he managed to get backstage and into the rigging (was it called rigging on a stage?) with, like, forty-seven minutes to spare.
And then, it was really warm up there, and he had been lacking on sleepage for so many days that even with the anticipation of sweet Shakespearean revenge, yeah…
Andrew woke up somewhere in the middle of Act Two. He could hear Hogan Lowell and Devon MacLeish below, sparring as Mercutio and Tybalt.
This was his moment. The one he waited for. His fingers quaked as he pulled the tiny key from the chain around his neck and inserted it into the pentagonal lock. A beat later, Jonathan appeared on the skid of the catwalk.
He said, "Hey, you can't be up here!"
Andrew twisted the key in the lock, and the chains snicked away into a pile at the barrel's base. "Yeah?" Andrew asked, "What're you gonna do about it, Nick Nack?"
Jonathan started to crawl up the skid, but then paused, an expression of confusion on his face. "Did you just insult me with a James Bond reference?"
"What of it?" Andrew snarked. His eyes locked on Jonathan's in a moment of shared delight.
"Cool," Jonathan said with a grin. He climbed up on the catwalk and sat cross-legged opposite Andrew. "So, whatcha doin'?"
By means of an answer, Andrew lifted the lid off of the cask to reveal swirling blue-green gunk that smoked and smelled of licorice. He peered inside, then returned his gaze to Jonathan.
Andrew asked, "Didn't you just get expelled for packing heat at school?"
Jonathan shrugged uncomfortably. "Yeah… sorta."
"That is wicked cool," Andrew said. And he turned the iron cask over, releasing the swarm of flying monkeys onto the cast, the audience, the stagehands… everyone.
The word pandemonium, used properly in a sentence, means having your toupee ripped off by winged demon monkeys while the entire cast of Romeo and Juliet run around the stage fending them off with plastic shields and swords and a director's megaphone.
It was all fun and games, too, with the tearing of the Capulet's doublets and Montague's feathered poofy hats. The monkeys seemed to really enjoy it when the people ran and screamed with their arms flailing about. Andrew and Jonathan, perched on the catwalk, watched and ran commentary over the whole event.
"So, what'd you do all this for?" Jonathan asked, gesturing over the definitory pandemonium.
"Because Cordelia Chase beat Rebecca Kinsey for the role of Juliet…" Andrew began.
"What? No she didn't," Jonathan said.
"She did so, I saw the posters," Andrew countered.
"Dude, look," Jonathan said, pointing.
And he was right. There was Juliet, in a dress of gold brocade with fluted sleeves and an empire waist, and a cascade of red-gold curls.
"Rebecca!" Andrew shouted.
She spun around and locked eyes with him. She seemed surprised, even relieved, to see him there in the catwalk. Then the demon monkeys spotted her. They dived in, going for the gold, and she fled, which was the wrong thing to do since they were drawn to motion. Andrew heard Jonathan yell, "Run, Juliet!" but all distant-like, because he suddenly had tunnel-vision, and a Faustian sort of recollection about deals with devils, but all of it was too late.
Andrew recalled that people in movies sometimes rode ballasts backstage, or used them, like in Back To The Future, to crush people, so he leapt without thinking from catwalk to sandbags. The ropes slid a few feet, hung up in the pulley system, and then jerked to a stop while he kept falling. He smacked flat onto the wooden stage, his breath exploding from his lungs. Black spots whirled and danced – or, maybe that was the monkeys – anyway, he blacked out for a while and when he came to, the flying monkey demons had shredded the backdrop of Verona to tatters and proceeded to mummify Romeo to the fallen balcony set piece. Rebecca, the Nurse, and the Apothecary crouched beneath the funeral bier while a bevy of monkeys dive-bombed them from the catwalk, upon which Jonathan now battled with a pair of the demons who were bent on tearing the shirt from his compact little body.
A demon monkey streaked by, giggling maniacally, a woman's lace-up girdle stretched accordion-like between its grubby paws. Three others scampered by on foot across the stage wearing bloomers and feathered boas on their heads. Most of the audience had evacuated to the parking lot, and clearly most of the monkeys were having their fun in wardrobe backstage, but Andrew was fairly certain that some people had actually been carried off by them…
Andrew rolled to his side, and there in the pit, only a dozen feet away, stood Mr. Fogarty and the demonly embodied form of none other than Arch-Duke Malphas.
"Well," Malphas said, a smug smile on his demony lips. "What art thou waiting for?"
"You…" Andrew whined. "And, you?"
Mr. Fogarty flashed a toothy salesman grin. "I wouldn't miss it," he said.
"Why dost he not command them? Why dost he let them continue to run amok?" Malphas asked. "I find this tedious, Forgrim. Let us return to canasta. Samedi's bringing artichoke dip…"
"Wait, Lord Malphas," Fogarty said. "He knows not what he has to do. He's… a little slow."
Andrew was crying now. He got to his knees. "This is not how it was supposed to go down. She's not the right Juliet. And this isn't a legion of demons. They're rejects from the Wizard of Oz. You tricked me!"
"Well…" Fogarty said.
"Yes," Malphas finished blandly. "Why does he not command them?"
"I command them?" Andrew said. He dried his eyes, remembering. "Yeah, I command them!"
He leapt to his feet and cried out, "Listen here, all you monkeys of Malphas. I'm your master, and you will do as I command."
All around the auditorium, the screeches and howls of the monkeys ground to a halt. One by one, they lit on perches in the seats, in the control room, and backstage. They bickered with each other in their monkey talk, but Andrew could tell they were waiting for him to tell them what to do next. And really, everything else aside, having all those cheeky monkeys staring at him, awaiting orders, that was pretty awesome.
"Okay, right," Andrew said, reigning in his blind panic. "You monkeys best... get back in your barrel and leave everyone alone. Now."
Slowly, the monkeys began to hop, skip and caterwaul across the wrecked auditorium, until, one by one, they disappeared into the iron cask, which had dropped onto the stage and rolled to its side below the place where Jonathan clung for dear life.
"Well done everyone, on the havoc wrought," Andrew told them as they hobbled by. "Nice work. Really. You've outdone yourselves in general mass destruction…"
It was important to be supportive of your minions.
As the last of the monkeys cleared off, Andrew wound the chains back around the barrel and replaced the lock with a solid click. He looked up into the rigging to see that Jonathan had fought for purchase and won. Seemed the little scamp had the skills of an acrobat, which was very useful to know…
Andrew felt a gentle tap on his shoulder and turned to see Rebecca standing there – a little frayed, a little frazzled, but one-hundred-and-seventeen-percent stunning.
She stood there, breathless, her full, pouty lips working as if she could not settle on what she needed to say. Finally, she said, "You…"
Andrew blushed. "Me," he said.
"You did all this. For me?" she asked.
Andrew rolled his eyes bashfully. "Yeah, sorta."
Rebecca's brow clouded. "Do me a favor. Don't. Ever. Do it. Again." And she pivoted on her broken gold pump and left him, forever.
"Rebecca…" Andrew squeaked ineffectually to her retreating form.
Malphas appeared at his side. Andrew seethed and clenched his fists and knew that next to the demon, he could do nothing.
"All's well," Malphas said. "I accept this as the final installment of your offering. Thy enemy's strongholds shall crumble like ash beneath your touch."
Andrew sighed. "That's all right," he said, super-dejected. "I don't even really care."
Mr. Fogarty patted Andrew on the back. "There, there, kiddo. As conjurations go, this one went off really well."
"Really?" Andrew asked, but more out of politeness than genuine enthusiasm.
"Oh yes," Malphas intoned. "Well above average for a premier run at the Dark Craft. We may have a place for you one day, if thou hast interest." Malphas then snapped his fingers. "Forgrim, art thou in or out? We still hast need of chips."
"In, Milord," Fogarty said, but hung behind as Malphas collected his barrel of monkeys and strode from the auditorium. Fogarty said, "There are other books and other conjurations, Andrew Wells. I sense that you are at the beginning of an illustrious career and would be pleased to continue your tutelage. Please remember the Uncle Bob for all of your mystical needs."
Once Malphas and Mr. Fogarty had gone, Andrew stood alone at center stage. Sure, the Nurse and the Apothecary had witnessed everything, but they were bit players who didn't count for anything. Even worse, if Andrew didn't clear out soon, Principal Snyder would turn up and peg the whole ordeal on him, which, now that it was all over, seemed more like Freddie Muniz fame, and who needed that kind of press?
Jonathan joined Andrew on stage. He said, "Best laid plans, huh?"
"You said it."
They stood, crest-fallen, down-hearted, a couple of All-American rejects, surveying the vast (and largely) victimless destruction with a mixture of relief and nausea.
"I need to find a place to lay low for a while," Andrew said. Hey, it felt edgy to say it.
"You can stay at my house," Jonathan said.
"Yeah, my Mom won't mind," he said. "And, hey... We can play some AD&D. I've been working on my own module."
Andrew turned to him. "I am so glad we met."
To which Jonathan replied, "Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague! See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, That heav'n finds means to kill your joys with love! And I for winking at your discords too have lost a brace of kinsmen! All are punished!"
Andrew gasped. "That was kinda beautiful," Andrew said. "Was that…?"
Jonathan's brow furrowed in what Andrew would come to know as the Jonathan Levinson patented look of bemused disappointment. "Yeah," he said. "I was Hogan's understudy for Romeo, before I got expelled. I memorized the whole thing."
"Even more impressive," Jonathan went on. "I know it in its native Klingon."
Andrew's jaw sprung open, and he yelled, "Me too!"
Jonathan stuck out an arm. Andrew took it, and both boys left the stage.
"And so I told Mrs. Caldwell that I had to spend an extra night getting ready for the Prom, because that level of glamour just can't be achieved in a 48-hour period," Cordelia gushed to her flock on Monday morning where they gathered to gossip and swan before the start of school. "So on Wednesday I got an avocado peel, and a mani-pedi, which left only Thursday for hair and make-up."
The cheerleaders formed a circle around Cordelia, and all of them listened while Cordelia and Harmony held their vacuous little court.
"Well," Harmony said. "You looked the part. Nice recovery, by the way. That dress was tres glam, and we all saw you dancing with that fab older guy. Is he French?"
"Wes is dreamy. And British. Did you see his tux? Custom-tailored Armani," Cordelia said, her eyes agog. "Impossible to resist."
"Like sneezing with your eyes open," Harmony interjected.
Cordelia sneered. "Yeah, whatever," she said, shortly. "Oh look," she said, changing the subject. "There's Ms. Bartlett. Did anyone see the fashion atrocity she wore to Prom? Two-piece lavender chenile is so Cold War era. Someone needs a subscription to Cosmo, post-haste."
"Speaking of," Harmony said. "Did you hear about Tucker Wells?"
Cordelia's face clouded briefly, then recovered with such skill one would surely doubt her momentary lapse. "No," she answered tightly.
"Gonzo," Harmony oozed excitedly. "As in all his toys packed off to Sunnybrook. They said when the police busted into his basement, they found all these cages where he kept and tortured dogs. They said he had all these weird videos, and, like, lab equipment where he did experiments and stuff."
"What a freak," Nancy the cheerleader said.
"What'd they do to him?" Katrina the cheerlead chimed in.
"Psych ward, duh," Harmony said. "Guy was good at everything. Figures he'd be good at going loco. And there's Buffy, since we're on the subject of loco. I heard she hit a guy in the face right outside the doors on Prom night. How she deserves an award, I'll…"
"You know what," Cordelia interupted, checking her watch. "I need a Tab, pronto. History final. Ten minutes. Let's go."
Cordelia left the circle, and they all followed her across the courtyard in a flash of glitzy empty-headedness.
"Lemmings," Jonathan said.
"Hot lemmings," Andrew amended.
Jonathan lowered binoculars and shrugged. "True," He agreed. "I can't believe they didn't mention the play."
They crouched together behind the oleander hedge, Jonthan wearing camo on count of his triple suspension for carrying a weapon to school. Yet Jonathan had managed to attend the Prom and present an award, which had to be some kind of ninja level stealth mojo. Andrew thought Jonathan was just the coolest.
Andrew sighed. "I'm okay with it," he said. "They jabbed on Ms. Bartlett, so there's a brightside."
They watched as Warren jogged across the Quad to catch Katrina and Nancy outside the doors to the Student Lounge. He seemed to shine like a bronze god in the dappled morning sunlight.
Jonathan frowned, then frumped. "Warren is so cool. Your brother gets locked up, while he pulls a total OJ. How'd he do it?"
"Well," Andrew said, putting his chin in his hand. "My brother's a genius. Warren must be like a super-genius. It's like, Tucker is Wesley Crusher but Warren is…"
"Que!" they finished in unison.
But their smiles faded as they basked in the distant awesomeness that was Warren Mears.
"Do you think we'll ever…?" Jonathan wondered aloud.
Andrew turned to him. "If there's a bright place in the galaxy, we're on the planet it's furthest from."
Jonathan nodded his concurrence. Life was just so unfair.