Action Figures – Issue Four: Cruel Summer – Rough Cut Preview

I don’t know about you, but where I am, in eastern Massachusetts, it’s pretty nasty out. So if you, like me, are trapped in the house, here’s something to keep you occupied for a little while: a rough cut preview of the next book in the Action Figures series, Cruel Summer!

The full manuscript is almost ready to go out to my new editor, Julie Tremblay. She’s been one of my test-readers since book one and has always provided some great perspective on the characters, and a sharp, critical eye when it comes to tightening and smoothing the text. When I went on the hunt for a new editor, she threw her name into the ring. I had a lot of solid prospects, but her track record, skill, and familiarity with the series made her the winning choice.

I say that because what follows is the first two chapters, pre-Julie scrutiny, so there may yet be a lingering typo here and there, and it’s of course not fully formatted, but it’s otherwise what you’ll see in the final product, which is on-track for a late March release!


“What does not kill me makes me stronger.”

That’s Nietzsche’s actual quote. Most people get it slightly wrong and say, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger,” but the point remains the same: it’s a catchy way of saying that life is full of personal trials, and by enduring them and learning from them, we become better people.

What Nietzsche failed to mention was the price you might have to pay for that personal growth, what you might lose along the way. He never spoke about how your strength can fail so completely that you’re left wondering how you can possibly survive whatever is beating you down — or if you even want to.

What does not kill me makes me stronger.

Nietzsche also said, “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”

My life is now much more meaningful.




There are some things in life you never see coming.

Concorde is not one of those things. Him I see coming a mile away, and I mean that literally: the head’s-up display on the headset I wear as Lightstorm gives me a detailed picture of everything around me. At 25,000 feet above sea level there’s no detail to speak of, so the little dot coming at me at a brisk mach one gets all my attention.

At first glance it appears he’s coming straight at my four o’clock, but we’re fighting in three dimensions (one of the first hard lessons of aerial combat I learned). According to my HUD he’s coming up from beneath me at a thirty-degree angle — an intercept course.

Funny thing is, Concorde can go a lot faster than mach one. I’ve matched him at mach three on more than one occasion, so his leisurely approach has me wondering — as does the fact that, based on our current respective altitudes, we’ll cross paths with a good half-mile between us. His main offensive weapons, his concussion blasts, have an effective range of one-quarter that distance.

Concorde suddenly hikes his angle to eighty degrees and floors it, putting him on an attack vector (that’s fancy dogfight lingo for He’s coming to get me). He’ll be on me within seconds.

Concorde has a lot of experience in aerial combat, but he also has a lot of limits. Mach three is his top speed, while I once nailed mach five without any strain (for the record, the SR-71 Blackbird has a peak speed of M3.3, and the fastest speed ever recorded for a manned aircraft, the X-15, was M6.72 — 4,520 miles per hour). I’m way more maneuverable than he is. He has his close-range concussion blasts, I can shoot high-intensity beams of force and/or heat, and so far I’ve been able to tag targets from a half-mile away without any loss of power (though, to be fair, while my aim has improved greatly over the past month, I’m hardly a crack shot. My hit/miss ratio is fifty-fifty).

As Concorde comes within firing range, I corkscrew to my right, rolling and dropping as he climbs. We pass each other. I fire, hoping to catch him on the way by, but I miss. He doesn’t; as my blast passes within inches of his face, Concorde lets off a concussion blast that catches me right in the midsection.

Did I mention he has way more experience at this sort of thing that I do?

While the impact doesn’t knock the breath out of me (since, as I learned a few months ago, I don’t breathe when I’m powered up), it does knock me off-course. As I spin out of control I power off and go limp, letting myself go into freefall. The altimeter in the corner of my HUD flickers like a strobe light as I plummet.

Don’t worry, I do this all the time. It’s relaxing, really. Better than a hot bath and a hot cup of tea.

Hey, you relax your way, I’ll relax mine.

It’s a possum play, and an obvious one. I don’t expect Concorde to fall for it (ha, see what I did there?), but he might follow anyway. If not, then I get a little time to regroup.

Concorde comes after me. He catches up and matches my speed, but he follows a spiraling course, orbiting around me. He stays at the edge of his range, which is well within mine, but he’s the movingest of moving targets. He knows my aim is one of my weaknesses.

So why bother aiming?

I spin rapidly and spray energy blindly, chancing that something will hit Concorde. It’s crude but effective; Concorde’s grunt of pain carries over the comm system, playing in my ears in crystal-clear stereo.

Concorde accelerates to mach two and zips away. I follow, creeping up on him while jigging about, randomly bobbing up and down and left and right. It makes me tougher to hit, but it also all but guarantees I’m not going to hit him.

Concorde cranks it up to M2.5. I match him. He goes to M2.7. I inch it up to M2.8.

He then does the last thing I expect: he stops dead.

Okay, he probably did not in fact drop from almost mach three to zero miles per hour in the space of a second, because physics, but relative to me it looks like that’s exactly what happened. I realize too late what he actually did: he abruptly hooked up and back, allowing me to pass underneath him.

It happens too quickly for me to respond. Concorde nails me right between the shoulder blades.

That’s it. It’s over.

“And that makes ten points,” Concorde says. “I win. Again.”

“As graceful in victory as you are in defeat,” I grump.

“How would you know? You haven’t beaten me yet.”


Once, such an exchange would have been positively dripping with venom, on both sides, but my, how times have changed. Our relationship has improved radically, personally and professionally. While my win-loss record for these little airborne sparring matches is pitiful (please refer to Concorde’s recent taunt), I enjoy them and look forward to them. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say Concorde and I are friends, but we get along. I’m learning from him, and he seems happy to teach me everything he knows about the super-hero game.

And all because Concorde had me wrongfully arrested and thrown into a supermax penitentiary. We should have done it sooner.

“I’m hungry,” Concorde says. “Are you hungry?”

“I could eat. What are you in the mood for?”

“I’d say let’s hit the Cape for some seafood, but all the spots I know are closed for the winter. None of the great places open until Memorial Day.”

“Ha! Spoken like a true mainlander,” I say, and I lay a course into my headset. “Follow me.”


We’re in Barnstable within minutes. We touch down in the parking lot of Leo’s Clam Shanty, one of those little hidden treasures that all the locals know about but never tell the summer vacation crowd about, in a vain effort to bogart the place for themselves.

The girl working the take-out counter, a girl about my age, gawks in total awe as Concorde and I stroll up to place our order. She shouts to someone in the back of the restaurant, then turns back to us with a huge grin.

“Oh my God!” she squeals. “You’re Concorde!”

“Afternoon, miss,” Concorde says, coaxing another squeal.

“Mick! Mick, come on, you have to see this!” the girl shouts.

A man in a grease-stained apron emerges from somewhere in the back. “What are they supposed to be? Are they whatchacallits? Cosplayers?” Mick says, squinting at us.

“No, that’s really Concorde! I know you too,” the girl says, finally acknowledging my presence. “You’re, uh, Light-something…”

“Lightstorm,” I say.

“Yeah, right, from the, uh, Action Squad?”

“Hero Squad,” I correct.

“Hero Squad, right,” she says, and that signals the end of my very brief moment in the spotlight. “Can I get a picture with you?” she says to Concorde, who agrees, and guess who she hands her phone to?

The irony is cruel indeed. I ate at this place hundreds of times when I lived here, and now here I am, in my ostensibly semi-famous public persona, and I barely warrant a second glance. Whatever. I’m not bitter.

I’m not.

Concorde salves my bruised ego by covering lunch. We carry our seafood platters over to a picnic bench at the edge of the property, which affords us a fantastic view of the harbor and of the Atlantic beyond. It’s April, which means most of the boats normally moored here are still in storage, but the view is beautiful nonetheless. Kingsport is a seaside community too, but it’s got nothing on the Cape.

Concorde pops his helmet just enough to get the food to his mouth. A fried clam disappears into the helmet. A happy noise follows.

“Ohh, that’s good,” he says.

“Wait until you try the scallops,” I say. “Bite-sized pieces of heaven.”

He grunts. “All right, tell me: what did you do wrong?”

We’re not even waiting until after lunch for the training session postmortem? All right, whatever. I can eat and analyze simultaneously.

Although, honestly, “I don’t know. Final score was ten to eight so I obviously did well…”

“You did. You’ve improved considerably, but there are still some bad habits you have to work on,” Concorde says, moving on to the scallops. More happy noises. “First of all, you’re too predictable. You have a bad tendency to evade to the right. You need to mix it up more. I tagged you five times because I predicted you’d go right.”


“That one time you got me good? Hit me right in the, uh…”

“Genitals?” I suggest.

Concorde clears his throat. “I was going to say bathing suit area.”

“Genitals,” I repeat, because I enjoy making Concorde squirm. Fun is where you find it.

“You got me because you dodged down and to the left when I expected you to go right, and used your superior speed to hook around to my underside before I could adjust. That’s your strong suit, you know, your short game. Using those quick bursts of hyper-speed to reverse a fight’s momentum, jump from defense to offense like that?” he says, snapping his fingers. “When you do that, you’re untouchable.”

“Thank you.”

“Unfortunately, your long game needs a lot of work. You should be able to do some serious damage long-range —”

“But I need to work on my aim,” I say.

“Yes you do. That’s going to make a world of difference in your offensive game. I can design for you a training regimen to help you work on that, set up the target range at HQ, start you off on stationary targets, move you up to moving targets once you get comfortable…you’ll let me know if this gets overwhelming, right?”

“Oh, I’m overwhelmed, all right,” I mutter, thinking aloud. Concorde gives me a look. “It’s not the training in and of itself,” I clarify, “it’s just…well, everything. I have a lot on my plate lately between school, my new after-school job at Mr. Crenshaw’s office, training with you, spending time with my boyfriend, with the Squad, with my family…”

That last one hurts. I mean, I see Mom and Granddad all the time, have dinner with them practically every night, but I haven’t seen Dad since last month, when we went out for my belated sixteenth birthday celebration (dinner and a Boston Bruins game). You know what really sucks? I could walk to his house, my old home, from here. He’s all of fifteen minutes down the road and I can’t see him — not without crafting a Homerian epic of a lie to explain why his daughter decided to pay a surprise visit, and how she got down here when she has nothing more than a learner’s permit.

“Anyway, I’m juggling a lot,” I say, “and it feels like it’s starting to become too much.”

“Your family should always come first. Your mother, your father, your grandfather, they’re all good people who love you, and you should always put them before everything else — school, work, this job, your friends, everything,” Concorde says in that arrogant, I-know-better-than-you tone I came to know and loathe during the first several months of our acquaintance.

Time was when he spoke to me like that, I’d mouth off at him without a second thought, throw his attitude right back in his face. That was before I knew Concorde was really uber-rich super-genius Edison Bose, who lost his parents at a young age thanks to a botched burglary, and then the man who became a surrogate father in a stupid drunk driving accident, and then his son to the mercenary known as Manticore. You can’t blame the guy for having strong feelings about the value of family.

Concorde sighs, looks at his plate of clams and scallops and fried fish, then lays it on the table as though he’s lost interest in eating.

“One day your parents will be gone, and you’re going to think about all the times you could have been with them but did something else instead, something you were convinced at the time was more important,” he says. “You’re going to realize it wasn’t important at all, and that realization is going to eat you up inside. Don’t make that mistake.”

I almost take his hand on impulse. If Sara or Matt or Stuart or Missy were sitting next to me now, I’d do it without hesitation, but with Concorde it seems somehow inappropriate — which sucks, because I think he could use it.

“Sorry to be such a downer,” he says.

“No worries, boss. Kind of your job.”

“Yeah,” he says, picking his plate back up. “Guess it is.”



Concorde offers to schedule another sparring match for tomorrow, but I decline on the grounds that I have a Missy to welcome home.

As part of his ongoing campaign to strengthen what has historically been a mostly symbolic father-daughter relationship, Dr. Hamill offered to take Missy to Japan for April vacation week. I’m pretty sure every dog in town heard her delighted shriek. They’re due back tonight. Our plan is to give Missy until tomorrow to recover from the long flight, then invade Casa de Hamill so she can regale us with stories and pictures aplenty.

We won’t have many stories to share back; Missy hasn’t missed a heck of a lot. April vacation was blissfully uneventful for us, outside of our ongoing training. While I’ve been working with Concorde, Sara’s been training with Mindforce, and Natalie has been showing Matt all she knows about fighting (and she knows a lot. Matt now counts Tylenol as a food group). Stuart has passed on offers of training because he is, quote, the strong guy that punches stuff, unquote, and apparently once you’ve mastered the basic aspects of throwing a punch (hit target with fist, repeat as necessary), what more do you need to know?

Missy has likewise turned down offers to train with Natalie, but for very different reasons. After the Buzzkill Joy case, Missy decided she needed to take some time off from super-heroing to work on her relationship with her father, and none of us can hold that against her.

She promised us she wasn’t off the team for good, but I wonder if she’s ever thought about making her temporary retirement permanent. I know it’s crossed my mind on occasion — stepping down as Lightstorm, that is. Like I told Concorde, lately I’ve felt like I’m being pulled in too many different directions. Something has to give before I’m torn apart, and the super-hero job has a tendency to float to the top of the list. What would I give up instead? My family? My friends? Malcolm? A real job that could lead to a real career and give me a real future?

Then I think about all the people I’ve helped, all the bad guys I’ve stopped, and I realize quitting would be the most selfish decision I could possibly make.

“Maybe you should ask Natalie how she manages to balance everything,” Matt says. “She’s in college, she has a boyfriend, she has a social life, she’s an active super-hero, and she never seems stressed out.”

“She also seems a little nuts,” Sara says, “which I say with sincere affection, but still…”

“Low-grade insanity as the key to staying sane?” I say doubtfully.

“I’ve heard of fighting fire with fire,” Stuart says, “but yeah.”

“I don’t know. Natalie told me super-heroes are kind of crazy to begin with,” Matt says. “Maybe all you have to do is embrace the madness and things will level out.”

I’m about to respond when Sara conspicuously clears her throat, a warning that a parent is about to enter the living room. In unison, we hunch over the coffee table and pretend we’re deeply engrossed in our game of Settlers of Catan. None of us acknowledge Mr. Danvers as he makes a slow pass through the living room in a transparent effort to eavesdrop on us. For reasons unknown, he has over the past several weeks become increasingly intolerant of our presence in his house. We rarely hold our nightly homework jams here anymore. I can’t remember the last time we gamed here.

“I’m looking for some wood and I got plenty of sheep I’m willing to trade,” Stuart says, sliding right back into the groove of our game. “Matt, do you have wood for sheep?”

“I have so much wood for sheep,” Matt says.

“Excuse me,” Mr. Danvers interjects. We all twist in our seats to look at him. “I do not care for that kind of talk in this house.”

“It’s part of the game, Mr. Danvers,” Matt says innocently. He holds up two cards, one featuring a pyramid of logs, the other a fluffy ram with curling horns. “See? Wood and sheep. They’re resources you can trade so you can build roads and towns. See? Part of the game.”

Mr. Danvers’ disapproving frown deepens. He shakes his head at us, then heads into the kitchen to complete the illusion he has business in there.

“You two are jerks,” Sara hisses.

“What?” Matt says.

“Don’t give me that. You deliberately provoked him.”

“It was a joke.”

“Dude has to lighten up,” Stuart says.

“It may be funny to you two, but after we’re done gaming we all get to go home to parents who aren’t making our lives miserable,” I say. “Sara’s stuck here with him.”

“Correction: some of us get to go home to parents who aren’t making their lives miserable,” Matt says.

My first impulse is to chide Matt for acting like his daddy issues are in the same ballpark as Sara’s. Mr. Steiger cheated on his wife and nearly destroyed his family, so I can’t say Matt has no right to be angry at the man, but from what I’ve seen Mr. Steiger has been doing his best to make amends — yet Matt has stubbornly refused to accept the olive branch. The boy can hold a grudge like no one I’ve ever met.

Mr. Danvers, in contrast, has been actively harassing Sara over every facet of her life. It’s been going on for weeks now. I’ve overheard Mr. Danvers criticizing her friendships, particularly with Matt and Stuart; berating her for not going to church with him; shaming her for less-than-perfect grades; and he once laid an epic guilt trip on her for preferring the company of her friends over her family (while never once showing the slightest hint of personal culpability for that last alleged offense).

However, there is a proper time to call Matt out on his self-centered whining and a time to appeal to his sensibilities. When it comes to Sara, for whom he continues to hold a torch large enough to signal Rohan for aid in defending Minas Tirith, playing on his feelings is the way to go. It’s a little underhanded, I admit, but it’s effective.

“Then you should be more sympathetic to her problem, shouldn’t you?” I say.

Matt slumps in his chair, eyes dropping to the floor sheepishly. “Sorry,” he says.

“It’s okay,” Sara says. “Just watch what you say, huh? Last thing I need is for Dad to ground me so I can’t go to Missy’s tomorrow.”


Unfortunately, I’m not so sure Sara’s going to dodge that bullet.

Despite remaining on his very best behavior for the rest of the day, Stuart unwittingly sparks a major father-daughter blowout. Mr. Danvers wanders through the living room several more times over the course of the day, and on his last pass, as Stuart is plowing through a bag of Doritos, he pauses behind Stuart’s seat, leans over, and sniffs the air before continuing on into the kitchen.

“Sara? Did your dad just, um…smell me?” Stuart says.

“Dad, what the hell was that?” Sara shouts.

Mr. Danvers appears in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen, arms folded judgmentally. “Young lady, do not talk to me like that.”

“Then don’t smell my friends like some kind of weirdo freak!”

“Kids, you need to leave, right now,” Mr. Danvers declares, and a powerful sense of déjà vu washes over me. Several weeks ago, Mr. Danvers unceremoniously gave us the boot after we pushed our nightly homework jam past the oh-so-late hour of eight o’clock, leaving us with two crappy choices: stay there to support Sara and makes things worse, or obey Mr. Danvers, abandon Sara, and makes things worse in a totally different way. We chose, with deep reservations, the latter option.

This time, Sara makes the decision for us. It’s okay, she says telepathically.

It doesn’t make us feel any better about leaving.

I spend the evening at home, reading in my room, waiting for Sara to give me a shout on the brainphone to let me know what happened. I fall asleep sometime around ten without ever hearing from her.

The radio silence continues for a solid twelve hours. It breaks when Sara knocks on my front door while I’m enjoying a late breakfast of strawberry Pop-Tarts and coffee.

“Hey,” she says, darting past me like she’s trying to ditch a stalker.

“Hey. I didn’t hear from you last night.”

“I was too wound up. I didn’t want you feeling what was going on in my head,” Sara says to the floor.

“You know, we have these amazing devices called phones,” I say.

Sara shrugs. “Where’re your mom and granddad?”

She’s deflecting; she wants to delay the inevitable conversation about whatever happened after we left. I let her, for now.

“Granddad is at church, mom and Ben are at brunch with some co-workers,” I say. “Just us girls here.”

Sara nods. “It’ll be nice to have Missy back.”

“Yeah. It’s been too quiet without her. Everyone speaking in short, coherent sentences?” I make a sour face. “Don’t care for it.”

“Me either,” Sara says with a small laugh.

I jump on the brief silence that follows. “What happened with your dad?”

Sara sighs. “He grounded me,” she says.


“I’m forbidden from leaving the house for the next two weeks except to go to school, and after school I’m to come right home.” She snorts. “Technically I’m not supposed to be here, but he’s off at church, and it’s not like Mom was going to try to stop me.”

“Sara,” I say, preparing to deliver a gentle, friendly lecture about the hazards of defying a parental grounding.

“Stuart’s been banned from my house.”

What the huh? “Stuart’s been banned from your house?

“Banned from the house,” Sara repeats, “and I’m not allowed to go over to his house, or be anywhere near Stuart because — and this is a direct quote — he obviously has some serious substance abuse issues.”

“Are you serious? Your dad thinks Stuart’s a stoner?”

“Oh, the way Dad tells it, the proof is all right there: the long hair, the hey, dude attitude, the constant eating…I told Dad he was frickin’ nuts.”

“And that’s when he grounded you.”

“No.” Sara pauses, her lips pressing into a thin, bloodless line. “I asked Dad how he could think Stuart of all people could ever become a pot-head. I mean, Dad’s known Stuart since we were in first grade together. Dad said he must have turned to drugs out of guilt over what happened to his little brother.”

I stammer unintelligibly, unable to express my outrage in actual human words.

A couple years before I moved to Kingsport, Stuart’s little brother Jeffrey was killed by a school bully named Ronny Vick. It was a complete accident. Ronny shoved Jeff, who pitched down the front steps of his elementary school and landed badly. He suffered a serious head injury and died almost instantly. Stuart was supposed to meet Jeff at school and escort him home, but Stuart forgot and arrived late. It was a simple, stupid mistake, but it was his mistake. He carries the guilt to this day.

Still, for Mr. Danvers to accuse him of smothering his pain in a fog of pot smoke is outright idiotic. I’d have had a few choice words for Mr. Danvers if he’d said that to my face, so I can’t criticize Sara for responding similarly — which she tells me she did, at length.

“And that’s why he grounded me,” Sara says.

“So your decision to ignore the punishment is less insubordination and more a protest,” I say, and who am I to judge? God knows I’ve staged more than a few “protests” in my time.

“Whatever. I have no respect for the man anymore. Dumping on me constantly is bad enough, but making up ridiculous crap about you guys then punishing when I call BS on him? Screw that.”

“You do know he’s going to come down on you harder when you get back home?”

“Let him try,” Sara says with calm defiance.


After Matt and Stuart arrive, we head out as a group to Missy’s place. I can’t wait to see our Muppet again, and I’m not alone in that; we make the hike at a pace just shy of a jog.

Stuart has the honor of ringing the doorbell. Footsteps thunder toward the door, a one-girl stampede, and Missy greets us with a bright cry of “Konnichiwa!” before leaping up and wrapping her arms around Stuart’s neck. She hugs the rest of us in turn as we file into the house.

“All right, Muppet, tell us,” Matt says, “how was it?”

As inquiries go, Matt’s is a mere formality. I can tell by looking at Missy that her trip did her a world of good. Our last case may have ended on the positive note of Missy reconciling with her father, but it took a lot out of her along the way. Now she looks rejuvenated in body, mind, and spirit, as evidenced by the fact she’s bouncing on the balls of her feet like a hyper-caffeinated Tigger.

“OHMYGOD it was the most awesome time I’ve ever had in my ENTIRE LIFE! We got to stay right in Tokyo with my Uncle Seiji because he has a place there even though he works mostly in California but they send him to Japan all the time and he has this wicked cool apartment right near Shibuya Crossing which is like Times Square in New York except like ten times cooler because it’s Japanese but I’m kind of guessing because I’ve never been to New York and we went to Ikebukuro and Akihabara and Harajuku which are all these wicked cool neighborhoods that are like nothing but big hangouts for all the subcultures over there and we spent a couple of days in Kyoto which is where all the history is and it was soooooooooo beautiful and I could have stayed there all week but we had to come home because of stupid school and I want to go back like a million times because SO FREAKING INCREDIBLE!”

Wow. I think she did that in one breath.

“You know what’s scary?” Matt says. “I understood that completely.”

“Me too,” I say. “Good to know we haven’t lost our knack for Missy-to-English translation.”

Missy puts a kettle on so she can make us some authentic straight-from-Japan tea. While the water heats up, she sets up her laptop so we can look through the one thousand-plus (no kidding, a thousand-plus) photos she took during her vacation. I’d cringe at the prospect if it weren’t for the fact that every single picture is absolutely arresting. Even the obligatory touristy photos of Shibuya Crossing, a cacophony of screaming neon and gigantic TV screens, are somehow beautiful. They’re vibrant urban landscapes, crazy and colorful.

Every so often a photo scrolls by featuring Missy, sometimes alone, sometimes with Dr. Hamill or her uncle Seiji (who looks a lot like his brother), but always smiling, always bright-eyed and excited and alive. God, seeing her so happy makes me want to cry. A good kind of crying, I mean: in relief, in gratitude. A bad stretch or two can crush the strongest soul, and after everything the girl went through between the Black Betty and Buzzkill Joy cases, I was terrified Missy’s sweet innocence and joy for life would be extinguished. I’m grateful she’s proven me wrong.

“Looks like you had a blast in the homeland,” Stuart says.

“I had the best time ever. Me and Dad have actually been talking about going again sometime over the summer,” Missy says, and an odd looks crosses her face. “We talked a lot during the trip. It’s like we had all the conversations we never had while I was growing up.” She smiles. “It was nice. Dad and Uncle Seiji talked a lot, too. They never talked much before, just on holidays and birthdays and stuff.”

“Sounds like your vacation was good stuff for the whole family,” Sara says, a little enviously.

“OOH! I almost forgot! I got stuff!” Missy says, jumping to her feet and racing upstairs. She returns a minute later carrying a couple of canvas shopping bags (one featuring Totoro, the other Domo) full of gifts for us. I get a cool reprint of the 1965 Japanese edition of The Hobbit, complete with illustrations (Japan’s version of Gollum looks like an anthropomorphic frog).

“Sara, you have something else, but I’m not giving it to you until your birthday,” Missy says.

Oh, right, it’s almost time for the birthday double-header. Sara’s sixteenth birthday is next weekend — Saturday, May 1, to be precise, with Missy’s following on the fifth. Because they’re practically on top of one another, they celebrate their birthdays simultaneously rather than go through the hassle of organizing two separate outings.

If asked for suggestions, I plan to strongly advise against spending the night in prison. Been there, done that, got the bright orange jumpsuit.

“I think it’s your turn to host,” Missy says to Sara, who winces. “Ohhh, is your dad still acting weird?”

Sara shoots me a quick look. I give her a small shake of the head. We’ve had in place since the Black Betty incident a vow to always be completely honest with each other, but there’s a time and a place for everything, and this is neither the time nor the place to tell Stuart he’s been declared persona non grata under suspicion of being a druggie.

“Yeah, Dad’s still weird,” Sara says.

“That’s okay. We can do it here. Dad won’t mind. He’s cool now.”

“There’s a sentence I never thought I’d hear,” Stuart says.

“What’s in the other bag?” Matt says, peeking into the Totoro bag. “Who’s that for?”

“Oh yeah! Check this out!” Missy says, presenting to us something Missy calls an “Oni mask. Oni are Japanese demons and they sell these masks and this one is so totally me I had to have it.”

Missy passes the mask to me. It’s made of a heavy-duty plastic or resin, a sturdy material, and it’s painted a blue so deep that it appears black depending on how the light hits it. It has short, pointed ears at the sides and a pair of stumpy horns high on the forehead. The mouth strikes me as distinctly catlike, if the cat in question had a mean streak a mile wide.

“I thought it looked like a cat demon,” Missy says, echoing my impressions of the mask, “and since I’m kinda-sorta like a cat demon I thought this would look way better as part of my costume than that hood I always wear.”

Matt perks up at this. “Does that mean you’re coming back to the team?” he says.

Missy’s enthusiasm falters. “Well, yeah. I guess? Dad says he actually wants me to be on the team because he’s proud of all the good stuff we’ve done and he’s being real supportive, and I will come back eventually, I swear, but I feel like me and Dad have been getting along better than we ever have and I don’t want to mess that up, so I need a little more time and I hope that’s okay.”

As she speaks, Missy brushes back her hair, unconsciously exposing a row of four narrow scars running across her forehead, up into the hairline. The wounds inflicted by Buzzkill Joy are mostly healed now, and the hair the doctor shaved away to put in the stitches has grown out, but they remain a lingering reminder of what Missy endured and what she almost lost.

“Of course it’s okay,” I say.

“Yeah, sure. What do you need? Like, another week?” Matt says.

“She needs however long she needs,” I say. “Don’t push her. She’ll be there if we need her.”

“Duh,” Missy says.

It takes less than twenty-four hours to make liars out of us both.


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