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Chapter 9

This is a horrible night. The painkillers have worn off and I hurt everywhere. Everywhere and everywhen. I mean, sure, I still have had worse nights than this, but I liked it more when I had the painkillers, or even the adrenalin. It was kind of nice not wanting to grunt, groan, or hiss with every step I take. But such is the life of a hero.

I'm glad I stopped and changed into my stoner disguise before the pain hit me, because I don't think I'd have managed it otherwise. Particularly not the shoes. Apparently my feet took a lot more abuse than I realized during that fight, and they're also swollen. Walking is... well, it's bad. And it would be even worse if I was forced to not wear my shoes. Forget the skates; whoever's blackjack I was blocking with them did a number on the hard plastic bits, which is now a jagged mess of foot eating death. Judging by the bandages on my feet, they must have picked several shards out of my flesh while I was out. I'll have to replace the things. The skates, I mean, not my feet. The feet will recover after-

I bounce off a wall and blink at the hallway in confusion. Oh yeah, concussion. I get my balance back while Uncle Jeff keeps me upright, then I continue on my way, this time trying to pay more attention instead of just assuming I can walk in a straight line automatically. It would be easier if the floor and walls would stay still. "You sure this is the right place, Fairy Man?"

"Tooth Fairy, Wheels. Get it right. And it's right around the corner."

"You could be the Ferryman. Get a fire boat and load it with pepper spray."

"You're slipping again. Focus."

"I would, but I'm scared I might realize those fairy wings you were wearing weren't just a hallucination." Not even kidding here. I'd staggered up to Uncle Jeff's Jeep to find him wearing steampunk goggles, a bandana, poofy pink antennae, and sparkling fairy wings. I desperately want to believe this was a hallucination, but I made that comment about the Tooth Fairy last Sunday, and this is Uncle Jeff we're talking about. He probably went and put this costume together that very night and spent all of Monday and today itching for a chance to use it. At least he took it off once he realized I wasn't in my own costume and he was making us stand out instead of helping conceal our identities.

I just hope it was a one-time joke.

We continue down the hall and around the corner, and we finally enter an apartment. Or maybe a bad trip. I reach out and feel the ant-shaped beads hanging from a lamp, because it's better than trying to take in the rest of the rainbow soup this room is crafted from.

Did I say ant-shaped? Turns out they're fish. I don't know why I thought they were ant-shaped. They're definitely fish now. That or chickens.

"Mrs. Warrick, we're here!" calls Uncle Jeff.

I wince and turn to look at the doorway he's facing, and then between blinks an old hippie woman is standing there cradling a crystal ball and in the middle of a conversation with Uncle Jeff. I shake my head, but that sets the room rocking so I lie down on the ground and start trying to crawl under the coffee table where it seems safer.

Sometime later I wake up lying on the coffee table. Two old hippies with medical smocks are doing something to a wound on my abs, but I'm too tired to panic. Uncle Joe is handing them equipment, and whatever they're doing looks pretty legit. I smell some incense and I think they've got acid rock playing in the background, but they're using actual medical equipment as far as I can tell. I can't really parse what anybody's saying though, and soon I fall asleep again.

Sunlight hits my eyes and I bolt upright in bed and then hurl my guts into a conveniently placed bucket to the side. At least I'm too busy puking to scream at how jerking upright like that made my whole body feel like it's on fire. Convulsing isn't helping, but eventually that subsides and I gingerly lie back down in an unfamiliar bed. I've got a huge headache and more bandages wrapped around me than I know what to do with. That can't be right; I vaguely remember being injured, but it wasn't that bad. I shouldn't be a mummy. I ignore my body's protests and blink myself farther awake. Ah, those aren't all bandages. I've just gotten twisted up in the bedsheets.

There's a bedside table with a note on it that I read once I spend a few painful minutes slowly getting untangled. "The Warricks are good people. They patched me up a time or two when I was younger and dumber than you and hanging out with people I shouldn't have been; they won't tell anyone who you are. I called your mom and told her I took you to the monster truck rally last night, then you got narcoleptic and decided to crash at my place. As far as I'm concerned, you were asleep on my couch when I left for work this morning. However you want to play the rest is up to you. The Warricks will drop you off at my apartment if you ask them to. Spare key's in the same place. -T.F."

He also drew a picture of a smiling tooth with wings. No, I don't think he's going to let that one drop anytime soon.

I look around the room and notice shelves full of medical books. That's reassuring. My pack is leaning against the wall along with a plastic bag with the stuff that didn't fit, and next to them are my clothes from yesterday, folded and washed. On the wall is a clock reading seven-forty. Oh. That's a lot earlier than my gut told me based on the sun. I guess these guys don't have another building stealing their sunshine like I do back home.

Speaking of my gut, it is simultaneously nauseous and hungry. Ugh. But the more I think about food, the more the nausea fades. I pull off the sheets and look myself over. Not too bad; lots of bruises and small cuts that were glued together, and a few larger ones that were sewn, but the worst injury is probably still the gash on my leg and the soreness in my front and back from being shot. My feet aren't quite as bad as I'd thought, and most of the wounds on them are along the sides and ankle. My soles are fine. I should be able to walk without making things much worse. I give it a try. My headache doesn't like standing much and the floor is shifty, but everything seems to be working.

Speaking of which, I grab my clothes and hurry to the bathroom to take care of business. I must have woken up enough overnight to drink plenty of liquids. That's good, because blood doesn't just grow on trees. Unless you're Canadian, but I'm type A+, not Maple.

In the mirror I can see that my face is pretty bruised up, but there's not too much swelling anymore, so that's good. There were some a cuts on my cheek, jaw, and forehead, but somebody glued them back together, so they're not as visible as they could be. I can work with this. But later. Hunger has completely overpowered nausea at this point.

I get my clothes on and then venture out into the apartment's excessively colorful living room, where I stumble into Mr. and Mrs. Warrick doing yoga in the most atrocious outfits imaginable. "Good morning," Mrs. Warrick says. "I'm going to make breakfast in about ten minutes. How are you feeling?"

"Terrible, which is a big improvement compared to last night. Thanks for the help. What were you planning to cook? I can go get it started."

"Oh, you don't have to do that."

"I appreciate the sentiment, but right now there are four things that are absolutely necessary for me to do. The first is to put food in my belly so I can get started on the other three things without eating my own arm. The second is to get to my hideout so I can stash my gear. Third is to bust out the makeup and cover my bruises so I don't look like I got in a big fight the same night as hero of the same age and build as me. And the final thing I need to do is get to school. Physics class is probably a lost cause, but I should be able to make Spanish if I hurry."

Mr. Warrick frowns at me sternly. "Actually, what you need is to rest and heal. Call in sick for the week; it's not going to hurt you to miss a couple days from Uncle Sam's brainwashing program."

"Yeah, actually it would. Crime rests for no student, and I can only get away with so many absences before they start harassing my mom with legal threats. Plus, while I can and do sleep through physics, el español no es tan fácil. And that's not the only class where my grades are starting to suffer. I'd still like to get into NASA someday. Besides, I don't have to worry about the brainwashing." I pull my battered mask out of my pocket and wave it. "The pantyhose blocks their brainwaves."

"I understand, but a school is not a good place to recover from a concussion. It's full of noise, stress, and thinking, and those are the opposite of what you need right now."

"Yup. But it's what I'm going to do. So what am I cooking?"

"Waffles, dear," says Mrs. Warrick over her husband's grumbles. "You'll need the cupboard over the stove, and the one two doors to the left."

"Righteo! Thanks again for putting me back together, by the way. Find anything I should be worried about?"

"No, but get a tetanus shot. Whatever cut your abdomen was not clean."

"Shovel, probably. I don't even remember that wound."

She shakes her head. "Was it worth it?"

"Totally. Haven't you checked the news yet? Should be all over it."

"We don't have a Propaganda Box," says Mr. Warrick.

I roll my eyes as I crack an egg. "Of course it's propaganda. Everything anybody says is biased. What are you going to do, bury your head in the sand and hide from reality?"

"We have windows. We use them."

"Well, what your windows failed to show you is that yesterday the Cueballs abducted Tamara Winston and tried to use her as a bargaining chip for some conspiracy theory, and they were planning to start torturing her if that didn't work. Then I happened. Now she's safe, and the baddies are behind bars or in the morgue. Assuming none escaped after I left. I should check on that. New item number three on my todo list, right before prepping for school. That'll delay me a little, but it's more important than Spanish."

Mrs. Warrick shifts into some new pose and frowns at me. "You don't seem very bothered by the possibility that you may have killed some of them."

"Oh? You'd rather I let them torture and kill an innocent woman?"

"False dichotomy. Take a nonviolent option."

"Like what? Talk to them? Tried it, no good. Call the cops? Tried it, and the cops failed. I was about to try it again when they hit me in the back and forced me to defend myself. Run away? Nope, that fails to help Tamara, and she's easily more valuable to the world than the seven delusional and destructive thugs who abducted her. The violent option was all that was left."

"Violence never solves anything."

"Um, hello? It just did. It's not always an optimal solution, and it doesn't solve everything, but to say it never solves anything is just dishonest." I mix the batter with a bored frown. I've heard all these arguments before; they were the same ones that got trotted out last year when I got tired of playing nice with Hemopalooza and decided to start winning instead so that innocents could stop dying. It's like people don't understand basic math. So what if I killed eight racist, bloodthirsty animals? I saved something like eighty people per year in doing that. That's ten for one and counting. You can't even buy ramen for those prices.

"Hey, are you okay?"

I blink and then notice Mr. Warrick holding his hand to my forehead and staring into my eyes. "Yeah, I'm fine. Why?"

"You zoned out there for a bit. I really think you should stay here and rest. Or we could drop you off at your home, or Jeff's."

I sigh. "I wish I could, but I really am skating on thin ice right now. I skipped a lot in September, and this month I got myself suspended for a couple days, and I just skipped half of Monday. Mom has had to deal with more than her fair share of crap over the last eight years. I'm not going to pile more on her plate. So I'm going to drag myself into school today, concussion or no. Honestly, I've done it with worse. Things got pretty bad last year."

"You... you know you're just a kid, right?"

"Well, maybe this city needs more just-a-kids. You adults sure weren't there to help when Tamara got abducted, or when the Cueballs attacked Channel 8, or when Hemopalooza shot me and one of my best friends, or when I almost got shot in my own school. Sure, you'll patch me up afterwards and tell me about how I shouldn't be so violent or how I should take a rest, but where are you when the poop starts flying?! Where are you when-"

"Calm down. I'm not your enemy, and getting worked up isn't going to help your concussion any, whatever you decide to do today."

"Yeah. Yeah. Sorry about that."

"It's fine. You wanna vent at us, be our guest. Just not while you're still healing."

"Also," says Mrs. Warrick, "I finished the waffles!"

And you know what? These are the best waffles I've ever had. Not kidding.

"It's the syrup," Mrs. Warrick says. "You're probably used to maple flavored corn syrup. We only use real maple syrup in this house."

"It's more expensive," says Mr. Warrick, "but it's more than worth it."

Yeah, good luck convincing my mom of that. But I'm not going to grumble to the Warricks about our budgeting woes. We finish off breakfast and I get them to drop me off not far from Blossom Cobble. Given they already know who I am, it's not really a big deal if they know where the Wheelhouse is... but I still can't just go directly into it in case it or I am being watched by others. So I go through the regular hoops and costume changes, secret knocks, the whole painful shebang.

Inside, I see that Joe recharged the battery last night. That's good, because I'm in no shape to do it. The Warricks wouldn't even give me any painkillers. They don't believe in using them except while actually working on somebody. That's fine though; I have my own that I took off a guy who held up a pharmacy a couple months ago.

While I wait for those to kick in, I hop on a netbook- I mean, a Wheelbook. Yeah. I hop on one of those and check the news. Tamara Winston kidnapped, rescued by a dangerous vigilante, yadda yadda, six suspects in custody, one died on the scene, no details about who they are. Well. That brings my tally to nine.

I stare at the screen for a while, then I shut it down and head to the mirror to slather on some paint the way Hannah taught me. I know some guys would have trouble with the idea of using makeup, but you know what? Last night I was outnumbered seven to one, and I won. I'm not really concerned about my sense of macho these days.

Things were different back when I first started using the stuff. In fact, that sense of macho was how I ended up in the situation in the first place. Refused to back down from a fight I didn't need and took a beating for it. Only afterward did I remember how upset Mom had been getting lately about that kind of thing. I was worried she'd take away my skates. I was so worried that I let Hannah talk me into letting her subject me to makeup. And after that, well, it was harder to refuse the next time. And the next. But it was pretty embarrassing, so I got her to show me how to do it myself, and here we are!

Nowadays I try to only use it when Mom is in a touchy mood or when I'm particularly concerned about people linking George to Wheels. Partly because I'm a lot sweatier than I used to be, but also because my mask smears it up and I have to redo it when hero-time is over. Also, it's just plain annoying to deal with. So all things considered, I'm phasing out my use of makeup for purposes other than the occasional goth disguise. Fortunately, Mom's less touchy about me getting hurt nowadays. I think part of it is that she was so worried about losing me like we'd lost Dad and Sally. She went through a really overprotective phase once she got through the nightmarishly negligent alcoholic phase.

Oh, I didn't tell you about that yet, did I? Well, I don't think I will. It wasn't fun. All you need to know is that Uncle Jeff stepped in and got us straightened out, and now Mom is a good, loving, hardworking, awesome mother, and if you mess with that I will murder you.

Anyway, I get myself tidied up as best I can, toss my makeup kit into my pack, and head off to school. I have some wobbly meandering moments on my way to the bus stop, but I make it. Yep, more use of the bus; no way I'm skating in this condition, even if my skates weren't munged up. Fortunately, I've still got some cash from a crook I rolled the other night. So my transit is being funded by the hardworking drug dealers of Forchester. Yay. Off we go, so we can learn some Spanish, riding their funds into the sun. Learn some skills, so we can go get good jobs now, parodying songs is really fun. I don't know if you can hear the tune though, so you probably don't know what this is. Oh well, I don't really care now, I'm singing it all in my head. Doo di da, da di di doo di doo di, doodleiii, da di di dah...

Crap. I snap out of it to realize I've missed my stop. Not by much. I get off at the next stop and backtrack on foot. Ignore whatever I was just babbling earlier; I doubt it was coherent. I'm not even sure what I was saying. I didn't spill my guts about- no. No no no, I'm not going to fall for that trick. You'll never get that secret out of me.

"Who are you talking to?" asks some voice off to my side as I step onto campus. I turn and windmill an arm to keep my balance. Looks like it's Mr. Wells, one of the resource officers.

"Oh, you know. Just the voices." I plaster a grin over my face. "Speaking of which, they told me to tell you you're looking good today! That a new uniform?"

"What are you up to, George?"

"Just heading diligently to Spanish class in a completely non suspicious way after oversleeping, Mr. Wells. Pay no attention to the wobble in my step. I certainly haven't gotten into that booze you keep in the supply closet."

"Who told you about that?"

"About what? See you later, man. Gotta learn me some español."

Well, getting past him isn't quite that easy, but I manage it by promising to go straight to the nurse's office. I don't, of course. There's really nothing Nurse Parson is going to be able to do about my injuries, whereas there is plenty that Señora Vega can do about my Spanish.

Although, as single-minded as I have been about getting to second period on time, and despite managing to get here early enough that I could wait outside the classroom for the bell to ring, I actually walk right past it and waste time hanging around the vending machines until about a minute before the tardy bell rings. Why? Well, let's just say that I wish Señora Vega was as focused on teaching Spanish as I am on learning it. I've been tempted to try swapping out for Señor Brown's sixth period Spanish, but then I wouldn't be able to take Drama, and that would not even be close to a worthwhile trade-off.

Anyway, after learning about superlatives for a while from a creepily flirty fifty year old woman, I open my eyes to find myself somehow in my Intro to Law class listening to Mr. Nolan droning on about how sentencing works. Which reminds me, I still need to find out what actually happened with Terence. The court never contacted me to be a witness, so I'm assuming he pled guilty. My expectation was that he'd get community service, probation, and maybe an order to join a sport or something like that to keep him busy. But it's been a couple weeks and he hasn't been back to school yet. Maybe he switched schools to reduce the chance of contact with former victims, or he might have actually been confined after all.

If the latter, I can put Terence out of my mind for a year or two until he gets out and possibly seeks vengeance. Hopefully it's the former, though, because if Terence is already free and just going to another school, it means he might not actually intend retaliate. Unless he's waiting until the probation is over, but even so, that's still better than juvie. He'll have less to get even about, and more time to cool off as he gets on with his life in the meanwhile. Still, the risk of retaliation is better than him driving Marco into suicide or a school shooting or something stupid like that. We don't need another Gus Harlowe, thank you very much.

Unfortunately, the police and court are unlikely to tell me anything useful due to privacy concerns. It's not like Terence caused me any real harm. Marco, on the other hand, may know a thing or two. I think I remember which table he sits at for lunch.

Ah, lunch. That mythical moment biding its time beyond the impenetrable boredom of fourth period trig with Dr. Hanson. I like trig, actually. It's useful stuff. I don't like Dr. Hanson. She's the only teacher I have this year who I straight out dislike. Some are creepy or boring, but at least they-

"Thompson!" she snaps with that sandpaper voice she uses when annoyed. "I see that your makeup is smudged. Go wash your hands before you get it on my desks." This is followed by snickering from the half of the class that has already arrived, but if you think my reaction is embarrassment, while, you clearly haven't figured out who I am yet.

I return to class just as the bell rings with perfectly clean hands... and a graph of sin(x) painted over my face. That was kind of tricky; I actually had to start over midway through when I realized I'd forgotten to account for the mirror reversing things. I could have called it -sin(x), but the axes were labeled backwards too, and that would have just looked stupid.

Dr. Hanson and I glare at each other for a few moments before we silently agree on a truce for the period. Animosity aside, neither of us want to waste valuable class time. I do get assigned extra homework for my trouble though.

And then, finally, trig is over and lunch period arrives! The bells are particularly painful today, what with my concussion, but the smell of macaroni and cheese heals all wounds. Which is good, because the painkillers I took are starting to fade. They lasted longer than whatever the paramedics gave me last night, but they're not really full day relief type drugs. That's fine though; they got me through the worst part of my day. Lunch and my final three periods are more interesting, so they'll distract me from the pain. Mostly. Maybe.

"Mostly maybe what, George? Speak into the mic, please."

"Seriously, Paula? You just interviewed me yesterday! I was even super cooperative and barely sarcastic! Can't I just get my lunch in peace?"

"Well, somebody woke up on the wrong side of the... you do have a bed, right? Or do you just lie on a stack of textbooks? Because one seems to have left an imprint on your face." She smirks. "You know, George, I know where I can find a fireplace and some matches, so if a book is abusing you, I could take care of that. Textual abuse isn't cool, and you don't have to accept it."

"Thanks, but I'm fine, and it's obviously not an imprint because then it would be mirrored. Actually, this is my cheat sheet. I'm very proud of it. It keeps the answers close to my head where they belong."

"Mmm hmmm. Banter aside, have you heard what happened last night?"

"Yeah. Joe and his team won basically all their wrestling matches. It's too bad it was the same night as the monster truck rally. I mean, he's my best friend and all, but monster trucks."

"Um, no, George. I'm talking about your secret girlfriend Wheels. Reports are that she murdered a man last night."

"Wait, you mean Wheels is a girl? She told me she was a man! That liar! This relationship is so over."

"Feign ignorance all you want, but I'm certain you're related to this somehow, and Tamara Winston was definitely using female pronouns when she talked about Wheels rescuing her. Meanwhile, you're suspiciously uninterested in dating and overly defensive of Wheels. Doesn't take a genius to figure out what's going on."

Oh wow, Tamara didn't mention that she was going to help obfuscate my identity like that. Awesome! This probably isn't something I can perpetuate indefinitely, even if I started padding my costume to look the part, since my voice would give it away, but I may as well play it up while I can!

"So," Paula says, "whenever you want to stop your smug smiling and get on with the interview..."

"This is anonymous, right? I don't want people coming after me to get to her."

"Of course it is. I like my sources alive."

"Right. So, it turns out Wheels really loves tacos. And meatloaf, but mostly tacos. That's how I met her. I was at The Shifty Taco when I looked over and saw this chick with her mask pulled halfway up eating a taco, and I said, 'Whoa, it's Wheels!' And then she said, 'Whoa, it's that guy I've had a crush on since forever, and he's actually talking to me!' And then we bought more tacos and climbed on the roof and-"

"Yeah, I don't care. She murdered a man last night. Can you give us some insight on how she still claims to be a hero?"

"I don't know anything about that part of last night. Like I said: monster trucks. You may have seen them before; they're like normal trucks, but with-"

"Surely she would have told you about it."

"Oh, Wheels didn't have to tell me anything about monster trucks. I already-"

"No, about what she was up to last night."

"Well, we met up after the rally and she told me about how she stopped some mugger by The Shifty Taco on her way to our spot on the roof, where we-"

"Really don't want to know what you two do on the roof."

"Stargaze. I'm going to be an astronaut, you know. And if I can, I'll be the first to skate on Mars. It's only got a third our gravity, so I could catch some major air! The thing I'm worried about though is bouncing when I try to push myself forwards, but I think I should be able to manage it with practice. The Moon would be even worse. I don't think I'd even bother trying; pogo sticks on the other hand would probably-"

"George. Focus. Tell me about Wheels and what she was up to last night."

"Oh, well, she was telling me about how big Andromeda is in the sky. We can barely see it with our naked eyes because it's so faint, but it's actually bigger than the Moon. Visually, I mean, because obviously a galaxy is phyically larger than-."

"George-"

"It's like, this huge celestial wheel two and a half million light years away and over two hundred thousand light years across, and if our eyes were just a little more sensitive it would take up maybe four times as much of the sky as the Moon."

"George, I want to know about Wheels, not Andromeda."

"Well, let me tell you about Wheels then. Wheels loves the stars, almost as much as tacos. She says they're like the sprinkles on an infinite bowl of ice cream. Sometimes we-"

"Are you covering for a murderer, George?"

"You've been using my name again. I thought this was anonymous?"

"I work for the student newspaper. These recordings are only for my notes."

"Oh, duh. My bad. But... why don't we have a student news vidcast? Nobody reads newspapers, you know."

That gets Paula grinding her teeth. Maybe someday she will learn to stop getting between me and my lunch. "There is this thing, George. It is called a budget."

"So? We have an AV club, don't we? They already have the equipment if you want higher quality than a cellphone recording. And the school already has a website it could host them on. Or just use YouTube and embed them. That would be more robust."

"The pen is sharper than the lens."

"Well, you know what else is sharp? Hunger."

"You're always hungry. Doesn't your mom feed you?"

Her piercing blue eyes are starting to light up again, the way they do when she's digging into a story. My smirk fades. "Mom feeds me plenty, thank you very much. I'm 'always' hungry because you always ambush me on my way to lunch."

"...Oh. Right. Sorry. But before I let you go, could you please be serious for a minute and just answer the question? About Wheels, I mean."

"No, because it's a stupid question that doesn't respect me, or her, or even you." I shoulder past her and head for the lunch line. The now unnecessarily long lunch line. I pass the time by trying to spot Marco, but I don't see him anywhere. I grumble to myself until I reach the lunch lady, who inverts my mood by heaping magnificent mounds of macaroni onto my lunch tray.

At my table, Tiffany, Hannah, and Joe are speculating wildly about what happened last night. I sit down and start stuffing my face without joining in. Eventually Tiff turns to me though and demands my two cents.

I look deep into her friendly blue eyes before I speak. Mostly because my mouth is full of noodles that need to be dealt with first for the sake of manners. I swallow deliberately before answering. "What I think... is that the monster trucks had bigger wheels." Then I turn back to my food while Joe and Hannah burst into laughter.

"So how'd that go?" Hannah asks. "I heard it was... very exciting."

"Oh yeah. I'm sore in places I didn't know I had. That's how hard I was cheering. But I didn't get run over or anything."

Tiff rubs her neck. "Are we actually talking about monster trucks, or is this like the baseball yesterday?"

I just smile and eat more macaroni.

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