Once upon a time, Teddy accidentally broke both of Jeremiah’s wrists.
They’d been roughhousing, cooped up inside while an ice-storm wailed itself out against the windows, and Teddy (still only four at the time) protested but didn’t think to ask why his new big brother called such a sudden stop to the fun. Though Jeremiah had tried to hide it by strategically falling down the stairs later, Dad had not only figured it out but insisted on explaining to an inconsolable Teddy, who had tearfully submitted to a no-touching rule.
What Jeremiah had never admitted to his father – what Dad had never suspected, because Jeremiah was such a straight-arrow – was that he’d forced his petrified little brother to wrestle with him once a week for years, because he had to learn how to trust himself. He’d always known what Teddy needed. Since the first day Dad had brought him home.
“You’re going to think I’m crazy,” Jeremiah said.
Mrs. Grayson considered him, expression curious but not pointedly so, inviting him to go on. School had been canceled for a grand total of one day, and though the rest of the Banner High Heroes (as the papers had dubbed the kids who had stepped in to save their town – most of whom missed their fifteen minutes of fame, having slept long and hard through the moment that someone over in Megalopolis realized that Banner, NJ had actually done something interesting for once) felt more insulted than gratified by the one-day vacation, Jeremiah didn’t mind getting back to his normal routine. He’d promptly asked for another advisory meeting with the vice-principal, because he finally knew what he needed to do.
“I’m considering either a degree in bioengineering or a double-major in electrical engineering and some sort of premed program,” he went on. “I’d like to follow that up with medical school.”
“Oh?” she asked, politely, like his choice was interesting but she couldn’t quite track his thinking.
Jeremiah hesitated, uncertain how to explain. “Teddy…” he started, but that wasn’t quite right. “When he…” He trailed off, absently picking at the scabs on the inside of his arm before he noticed what he was doing and stopped.
Recently discovered fact: Teddy’s “blood” was a non-toxic coolant mixed with Red Dye #40, the reason Jeremiah couldn’t enjoy M&Ms, Twizzlers, starbursts, skittles, or pretty much any other fruit-flavored candy on the market. He was officially allergic to his brother. So that was going to be a fun conversation, once the fourteen-year-old was well enough to handle it.
“How is your brother?” she asked in the silence.
“Better,” he answered promptly. Teddy had returned home yesterday, but he was still refusing to see any visitors, his arms locked in a strong-man pose above his head. His stiff joints had finally begun to loosen (perhaps in conjunction with his body’s internal replenishment of coolant and dye; or so Dr. Murphy presumed, as his color had normalized and he was no longer overheating), but he was deeply embarrassed by the robotic nature of his remaining malady.
“The thing is,” Jeremiah added, finally recognizing a way to explain his decision, “nobody actually knows how to fix him. Fortunately, his skin healed on its own and it looks like he’s going to be fine—”
“That’s good,” she agreed.
“—but nobody knows. Not for certain.”
She continued looking at him, and he realized that the vice-principal still didn’t understand.
“That bothers me,” he explained.
Mrs. Grayson inhaled, short and sharp. “Oh,” she repeated, in an entirely different voice.
Jeremiah nodded at her. “Somebody’s got to understand how his body functions, especially since…” he trailed off, uncertain whether he ought to share. Whether he wanted to.
But he’d gone this far. May as well go whole hog. Mrs. Grayson was, at the very least, trustworthy. “Ted’s going to be a super hero someday.” He paused, but because she deserved it, he finished with honesty. “I don’t think he has a choice.”
There was a lot behind the statement; not least of which was a very long conversation with his father. When Dad had returned from KaPow, he’d stopped just long enough to pull Jeremiah – sitting outside the clinic room where Dr. Murphy was working on Teddy – into a brief hug, give him a quiet but immensely proud, “Well done,” and then disappear into the room. By the time he’d returned, the tears pricking at Jeremiah’s eyes were long dried and he was fighting sleep, but Dad hadn’t dropped – exhausted – into a chair as he so clearly wanted to. Instead, he’d told Jeremiah that he needed to make a few visits, and he’d like his eldest to go with him.
While the rest of his classmates slept and a journalist in Megalopolis started to wonder what might be going on in the towns around KaPow, Jeremiah helped his dad search out everyone he needed to talk to. Moms, nurses, pensioners, nursing home residents, the adults that had helped Teddy get out from under Sunnyside; every single person that had somehow been involved in or knew of the incident. Every time the message had been the same: don’t tell. When he’d gotten to Dan Tenhold, owner of their local family-owned-and-operated BMUTV station, Dad had actually begged. “Please not yet. Keep the interviews and the footage and everything you have. Someday you’ll be able to do a special on ‘You knew him when’ but…please, let him finish high school first.”
It was the first time Jeremiah had been invited to Dad’s secret meetings with the local muck-a-mucks. But he’d only understood after the meeting with Dan. Dad had leaned his head back against the brick right outside the station’s exit, covered his eyes for a moment like he didn’t want Jeremiah to catch him tearing up, then confessed, “Every day I pray we’ll make it another week. Every day for ten years, and we’ve still got three and a half to go.”
And then Jeremiah and his father had stood in the damp air outside BMUTV as the stars crept cold into the darkest watches of the night, and finally had their talk. He and Dr. Murphy had decided not to contact anyone from the mad science regional office, Dad had said. Despite the fact that they had no idea how to fix Teddy, he’d admitted. They couldn’t take that risk.
“I never technically adopted him,” he’d explained, voice quiet with the confession. “I got Helen to fudge some paperwork with the county—” which would explain why they’d provided her with free automotive care for as long as he could remember “—because I knew it would take years to get him any other way, and they’d likely take him away anyways. Plenty of people in government are good folk, but it only takes one opportunistic bureaucrat to decide that he thinks he can use Teddy to leverage more power for himself, and I’m not sure that they’d classify him as…that he’d have constitutional rights and protections against that sort of thing.”
Then Dad had talked about the week they’d thought Teddy’s visit was a temporary one; back when the four-year-old had still been mostly a blank page, watching everything, blinking occasionally, but otherwise saying and doing nothing. Jeremiah vaguely recalled his empty stare (definitely remembered taking him everywhere anyways, explaining how everything from the toaster to the Dewey decimal system at the library worked) but compared to the personality revealed to have been tightly packed in Teddy’s small bones, those days seemed distant, unreal.
Dad had smiled as he spoke. “Two days into his ‘visit’ he climbed up onto one of the kitchen stools – it was the first time I’d seen him do anything without being prompted by someone – and then pushed your mother’s favorite vase off the counter. He looked so absurdly thrilled when it shattered. I’ve never seen anyone that happy about cause and effect before in my life.
“Of course I wanted to kill him,” Dad had gone on. “Anything that had been your mother’s was sacred. But then you laughed,” he’d said, wonder in his voice, like it had been a lot more than a laugh, “and I realized you hadn’t so much as smiled in months. I was so…deep in my own grief that I hadn’t even noticed.” He’d looked Jeremiah in the eye then, and grinned. “So we adopted him.”
But then the smile had slid away. “Whatever Teddy is, he’s got to be worth billions. Billions to the unknown – and likely illegal – lab that created him. I don’t know why they haven’t found us yet. Your uncle and I took care of the car that dropped him off – don’t ask how, it’s better if no one knows the whole story – but…it’s never been a great failsafe.”
And so Jeremiah had finally understood.
“There’s no hiding what Teddy is,” he said to Mrs. Grayson as she watched him, visibly weighing his words. It was suddenly important to him that she understand. Not all the details – not the family secrets – but why he needed to shape the future now, when the choice was still in his hands. “He’s going to need the protection of the leagues.”
Teddy was headed towards the world of super heroes and super villains whether he wanted to be or not. It had surprised Jeremiah how much the realization had hurt him, knowing he’d have to explain to Teddy that no one was going to stay home and take over the family business. But it was the only way he could think of to get his little brother the protection he needed.
Jeremiah opened his mouth and almost explained to the vice-principal how Teddy had blinders on when it came to him. How Teddy admired him so totally and completely that he thought his big brother could do anything he wanted to. Almost admitted out loud that Teddy was wrong, that he couldn’t. But that he could use his essentially limitless options to become the support system.
Instead he said, simply, “I’m not going to make him do it alone.”
Mrs. Grayson, bless her heart, understood. “In that case, a school in Megalopolis is going to be your best bet. I’m assuming you plan to have him finish high school?”
He nodded without bothering to remind her that super-heroing under the age of eighteen was vigilantism at its most illegal. Teddy was currently in special ability no-man’s land, where he couldn’t do anything with his powers but get in trouble for using them. “College too, if at all possible. He’s interested in mechanics – automotive or diesel technology maybe, but I’m sure he’ll have his own ideas in a few years – and we’ll both need backup jobs in the city.”
“MU has premed courses,” Mrs. Grayson said in answer, “and I believe that their engineering program is well-rated nationally, though I couldn’t tell you their specializations off the top of my head. Mind you,” she added, the very hint of a warning in her tone, “I wouldn’t expect to finish in four years. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend that most people try and handle that kind of class-load simultaneously – but I suppose if anyone can do it, you can.”
“Thank you,” he said politely, and did not bother to inform her that he would finish in four years. Less, if at all possible. He had another four years after it for his medical doctorate, which would put him a year behind Teddy’s college graduation with a year of residency still to go. Maybe he’d skip that. He wasn’t actually planning on ever working as a regular doctor.
She went on. “In fact, MU has a robotics department, though I’m not sure how advanced—or whether their technology is even comparable to what Theodore—” Mrs. Grayson cut herself off, understanding his dilemma. “It’s a place to start,” she finally finished, almost apologetically.
But Jeremiah just smiled. “It is,” he agreed, and for now, for Mr. Roboto’s last few quiet years before he had to fight for the peace he’d leave back home in Small Town, Nowhere, that would have to do.