The story of how a four-year-old with legitimately powerful abilities came to be a citizen of Nowhereseville, New Jersey went like this:
One day a man in a suit, who’s only distinguishing feature was the pair of sunglasses he’d never taken off, drove into town in a black Ford Buick. The Buick had suffered a blowout (the man had essentially driven in on a rim, which hadn’t said a lot about his common sense) and Carey Dunn, Jeremiah’s dad, was the only mechanic in town. The man left, ostensibly to make a phone call, and never returned.
Five hours later, while searching the car for some sort of identification, Carey discovered a toddler wrapped in tarp on the floor of the backseat. He was room temperature, had no pulse, and Carey was on the phone with the police when he turned around and realized that Teddy was sitting up on the backseat, watching him. He had no memories, no name, and still no pulse, just a soft whirring if you put your ear up to his carotid artery. The sheriff decided he looked three, maybe four, but temporarily left him with Jeremiah’s dad because Banner’s only mechanic was the closest thing they had to an expert on androids.
Why Carey had subsequently adopted him – particularly since Mrs. Dunn had died only months before – was anyone’s guess. Including Jeremiah’s. By the time he was old enough to think to ask, it seemed like a stupid question.
“How’d your meeting with Mrs. Grayson go?” Bill asked, stabbing his straw between the ice cubes in his glass.
“You know,” Jeremiah said, not really answering. “You want something different this time?”
Banner had two bars, three churches, and one of everything else: post office, bank, high school, retirement home, combination gas station and corner mart, and one very ugly little dive. Jeremiah worked at the dive every Saturday and any days after school whenever he didn’t have some sort of sports practice. That was a rare week, but with the teachers at an in-school review for the next couple of hours, today happened to be one of them. They had a game on Friday so they’d have a late practice tonight, after dinner, but that still gave him time to put in at least a partial shift.
Bill – recognized by most people as Jeremiah’s second in command, both on and off the field, and therefore sitting nearest the bar – made an uncertain “ehhing” noise. He was frowning at the menu above the counter like it might add more options if he stared at it long enough. The diner was full for a Wednesday afternoon, packed with football players who tended to end up wherever Jeremiah did. It helped that Gary, both cook and owner of The Grub & Run, gave them free soda when he was particularly pleased with the way the season was going.
They’d won two of their three games so far, so there were already glasses of Coke scattered across the four tables they’d shoved together. Jeremiah stood over the lot with a notepad in his hand like he didn’t already know what they were going to order. The girls next to the window were too busy pretending to be annoyed by Jason, Rick, and Eli – playing tabletop football in a blatant attempt to get the girls’ attention – to finish studying the menu, and the old men at the bar had been here since lunch, so at the moment Jeremiah didn’t have a lot to do. There was a pack of Teddy’s doofusy friends sitting in the back corner, but as they were broke he’d be kicking them out as soon as they finished pooling all their coins on the table and then tried to order on credit. They still hadn’t figured out that being friends with Teddy did not mean Jeremiah would give them a tab.
Teddy himself was nowhere to be seen. He’d been pulled from school that morning for his annual checkup (Dad always scheduled his appointments on weekdays so there’d be fewer people sitting in the waiting room, gawking; Teddy’s…uniqueness may not have been a secret, but Dad’s discretion over the years had kept a lot of the details private), which meant Dr. Murphy was taking even longer than usual. Unsure what actually constituted Teddy’s “normal,” she covered her bases by running everything twice.
When Bill made no move to make any sort of food-related decision, Jeremiah figured he ought to ask him how his own college advisory meeting went. “What about you? Where’d you tell her you’re going?”
“MU,” Bill answered promptly, naming Megalopolis’s largest school. “Where else?” He suddenly stopped playing with his drink and gave Jeremiah a sharp look. “You’re not thinking of bailing on me, are you?”
Bill was unremarkable in almost every way. Hair cropped close to his head and average-looking, the most distinctive thing about him was his beak-like nose, which only Jeremiah knew he hated because Bill so rarely dropped his easy confidence. A genuinely likeable guy, he was nearly as popular as Jeremiah, but without the screaming fan club. He’d had the same girlfriend since freshman year, an attractively plump girl named Debbie, and Jeremiah suspected he’d never have another one. You could look at Bill and know exactly how his life was going to go.
Jeremiah shrugged. They’d never actually discussed it directly, but he’d known that Bill had always assumed they’d end up at MU together. Jeremiah, on the other hand, had long had other plans in the back of his mind. His only consolation was that he had never let on to anyone what those were. “Just thinking about my options.”
Bill snorted, but it was an openly amused sound. “Man, I was afraid of this. How many offers do you have already?”
“A couple possibilities,” Jeremiah said, answering the mild jibe seriously, if vaguely. The game had spread up the table and now nearly the whole team was into it, hooting and hollering at each other, so he put the notepad away. They’d be eating their combined weight in pork rolls and disco fries again. “I’m not even sure what I want to do yet.” He hesitated a moment, then added, “Do you remember when we used to play super heroes?”
Bill laughed outright. “I remember you made us include Teddy. We’d take turns being the bad guy and subduing each other – that was your word, by the way, we had to ‘subdue’ the villain instead of beat the crap out of them – but Teddy was always the sidekick. You made him pretend to have psychic powers.” He paused for a second, then considered his friend. “Which is really weird, now that I think about it.”
Not as weird as he thought. Ordering Teddy to subdue villains psychically was a great way to hide the fact that his little brother hadn’t been allowed to play rough with others. By the time he was old enough to gauge his own strength, the older boys had moved onto sports.
Jeremiah didn’t explain (he and Bill were in each other’s business like brothers, but Teddy’s secrets belonged to the Dunns alone) so Bill simply shrugged, letting it go. He caught sight of something over Jeremiah’s shoulder, and grinned. “Your fan club’s here.”
Annoyed by the term “fan club” (first at Bill, then at his own sudden realization that he was egotistically wondering which fan club his best friend was referring to) Jeremiah glanced behind him. Cynthia Reynolds and her entire coffee klatch were making their way past the large picture window. He smiled them into the diner – ignoring what he could see of Bill’s smirk out of the corner of his eye – and every single one of them beamed back.
A year or so ago he had asked Gary if he was an unnecessary expense, but the normally grim-faced cook had just grinned and told him to get back to work. While Jeremiah didn’t automatically trust every overestimation of his effect on people, even he had to admit that this particular batch of old women shuffled in regular as clockwork, fifteen minutes after he started any shift. They all lived in Sunnyside, an assisted-living facility masquerading as a single-level apartment complex, where Mrs. Grip had a street-side view of The Grub and at least two fingers on the pulse of downtown Banner.
Jeremiah spoke over the bar to Gary (“The usual,” like the cook wasn’t already nearly done pouring gravy over the cheese fries), grabbed five menus, and went to see if they’d want anything more than coffee.
“Lovely weather we’re having,” Cynthia said as he opened his mouth to tell them about today’s special (a speech he saved for older customers only), smiling expectantly up at him.
Before he could respond to this, one of the men at the bar, an old farmer who instantly recognized a subject of great interest, jumped in. “Only for now. There are squalls all over Megalopolis.”
“Unnatural,” the other pointed out to his friend, clearly rehashing old ground. “Someone’s playing with the weather again over there. No reason it’ll come this direction.”
Mrs. Grip giggled a little in the back of her throat but Cynthia (who had long ago asked Jeremiah to call her by her first name) looked annoyed, plainly uninterested despite having brought it up in the first place. Before she could redirect the conversation, one of the other women joined in, voice anxious. “You don’t think it’ll interfere with the game on Friday?”
Jeremiah worked the smile off his face as he poured coffee, recognizing the fact that she was anxious on his behalf and careful about not hurting her feelings. They all had old lady crushes on him, which meant they treated him like a beloved grandson but also frequently told him they’d marry him if they were only five or six decades younger.
The farmers, a good deal less enthralled with both Jeremiah and the game on Friday (mind you, they’d be there; mostly so they could spend the next week arguing about Coach’s style of defense), spoke over each other simultaneously. “Not a chance,” and, “You mark my words, it’ll be here by tomorrow night.”
“Never knew a weather villain that wouldn’t ruin a promising weekend,” the pessimistic farmer added, nodding at his frowning friend.
“Well never mind,” Cynthia answered briskly. “One of the associations will take care of it before then.”
“That place ought to keep its problems within its own borders,” one of the others agreed sagely, with the air of someone who didn’t understand how anyone could ever willingly live in that place.
There was a 99% chance that the megacity would. With fifty miles between here and there, Jeremiah doubted it would become an issue. Cynthia, still not interested in the topic, caught his look and interpreted it to her benefit, wresting control of the conversation back their direction. “Don’t worry, dear. How do you think you’ll do this Friday?”
“Stanton’s tough,” he said. “We’ll need to practice hard but we have a chance.”
They laughed at that, like they thought he was being modest, and Jeremiah, who was used to it, didn’t let it annoy him. Let them have their own opinions. He’d still work his guys like they needed, regardless of what they – or anyone else – thought. He smiled and didn’t elaborate.
“And how is Brittany?” she asked, as though she didn’t see Jeremiah’s girlfriend, who volunteered over at the home, at least once a week.
“Fine,” he said. That didn’t seem like enough, so he added, “She thinks she has a shot at a cheerleading scholarship.”
Jeremiah hadn’t, in fact, known there was such a thing, but he didn’t say as much as the women started cooing over how sweet she was. He regarded them calmly instead of agreeing. That was not so much an exaggeration as a part-time state of being for Brittany, who was sweet when she was in the mood and sharp-tongued when she wasn’t. They’d been on-again-off-again for three months now, and Jeremiah kept hoping his incredibly attractive girlfriend would level out one way or the other. He liked her, but she could be absolutely exhausting.
As the coffee klatch went on – they rarely needed encouragement from him, just a few nods at the right moments – Jeremiah became aware of the sound of stifled giggling. It wasn’t coming from the football team (good thing; besides the fact that he had no desire to find out what a giggling fullback sounded like, he had them under strict orders to treat Cynthia and her cohorts with respect; they were welcome to mock him about his harem of octogenarians, so long as they left the octogenarians themselves alone), nor from the girls, who had made room at their booth for four of Jeremiah’s guys.
“Yes,” he said absently, glancing into the back corner, recognizing where it was coming from. Fourteen-year-old boys were still young enough to sound like little girls when they laughed, especially when they were trying to hide it. It wasn’t a good sign, but since they hadn’t visibly broken anything, he let it go for the moment. He turned back again to Cynthia’s group. “Of course. I’d be sorry if you didn’t come.”
“Oh don’t be silly,” Mrs. Grip said – there was a sudden outburst of muffled laughter from the back corner, loud enough to get all of them to glance over, but she rallied and remembered what she was saying – and finished, “You wouldn’t even notice if we were there.”
They all smiled at Jeremiah, despite the fact that one of their number was suggesting that he might not care for them as much as they so obviously wanted him to. It was simply a part of the drill. They accused him of apathy, he assured them it wasn’t so. It would’ve been tiresome if Jeremiah hadn’t known that the one thing Cynthia’s coffee klatch had in common was that they had no family; either dead, or indifferent. Jeremiah filled a need, and since his mother had died when he was a child, they got to feel good about doing him a favor.
Jeremiah set the carafe down, folded his arms (also part of the script), and raised an eyebrow at her. “Don’t hurt my feelings,” he said. Mrs. Grip giggled rather guiltily. “I always notice if you don’t come. I—” he faltered as the laughing from the back corner started up again in earnest, glancing over again because they were clearly up to something, “—I’d be sorry—”
Abruptly, he recognized the back of Teddy’s head, despite the poor lighting above their booth. He must’ve slipped in the back – he’d done it before. Jeremiah officially knew what the giggling was about. “I’d be sorry if you didn’t come excuse me just a moment.”
He about-faced, leaving the old girls reeling, and took several floor-swallowing strides to the back corner before Teddy could catch on.
Of the many strange things that Teddy’s body let him do, eavesdrop in the most irritating manner possible was one of them. If he was within fifty feet of a person, he could zero in on their conversation and repeat it back to whoever he was with. It was one of those powers that a super hero could use to their great advantage, and that a high school freshman would abuse to his.
Unfortunately for him, Jeremiah knew better than anyone not only the range of this particular skill, but the fact that there was a corresponding delay between the speaker’s words and Teddy’s relay.
“—if you didn’t come excuse—” Teddy was saying, all three of his ginning friends leaning into him (completely unaware of their surroundings because they were idiots), and right about then Jeremiah brought his fist down and biffed Teddy as hard as he could on the top of his head.
The entire booth shook as Teddy was forced down into the old cushions, teeth clacking hard together before he bounced back up again. Apparently the cracked plastic had more spring left in it than Jeremiah had thought. The friends, on the other hand, all drew back like we weren’t doing anything, it was all his idea, we’d never do something like that, as though they could fake Jeremiah out that way. He folded his arms, eyebrow raised at the dismally small pile of coins in the middle of the table, and noticed that they were now the object of the entire diner’s interest. Great.
“Ow,” Teddy protested.
“Don’t ‘ow’ me,” he said. Teddy’s skin had the capacity to feel touch, but he had no real pain receptors. “I’m not going to ask what you were doing because I know you wouldn’t purposefully spy on me or any of the patrons here—” Teddy hung his head a little (good, he knew better than to show-off using his powers) and Jeremiah turned his carefully neutral I-know-it-was-your-idea expression on Rowdy, the leader of the pack “—and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t look like enough money to buy so much as a glass of water.”
“Water’s free,” Rowdy said, in that absurdly self-aggrandizing way he had. Kevin and Ozzie immediately adopted his air, as though Jeremiah would quail under the pressure. Right.
“Money first,” Jeremiah said, feeling Gary’s approval from over at the bar. “Water’s free for paying customers.”
Rowdy started up a protest but, frankly, Jeremiah wasn’t interested. He didn’t particularly like Teddy’s friends. His little brother was a bit of a dork – well, truthfully, they all were (they were into Japanimation and, like most nerds, had no sense of anyone else’s disinterest in a subject, which wouldn’t stop them from talking endlessly about it). But Teddy had that need to be liked that kids were really good at picking up on and taking advantage of. Rowdy could goad Teddy into just about anything.
Still, you live you learn. Let Teddy make his own mistakes. “Out,” he cut off the arrogant little twit. Conspicuously waiting to see how it would play out, The Grub’s occupants continued watching with rapt attention. Jeremiah could hear a few low-level snickers from his guys (likely because the entire football team found his mother-henning – their words, not his – hilarious), but he ignored the attention. He raised his eyebrows and included Teddy in the order, eyeing all of them to make sure they understood.
They may have been idiots, but they recognized it when he meant it. They scooted out of each end of the booth, Ozzie eyeballing the football players like they were going to jump him if he didn’t, apparently unaware that they were all grinning, enjoying the spectacle. Jeremiah snorted almost silently. Like he needed a two-hundred pound guy to jump a hundred pound one.
“So…” Teddy started as the rest of them dragged their feet, duck-walking as slowly as possible towards the door. He paused, then said, “I saw Dr. Murphy today. For my annual.”
Jeremiah knew what he was asking. They had their own version of Teddy’s checkup, which they ran every year after his physical. They’d spend a couple of hours running through everything Teddy could do to see if his abilities had improved and to make sure they hadn’t deteriorated. Jeremiah had originally started it because his little brother’s powers were exciting to explore, and then he’d kept it up once he’d gathered that it also provided a decent baseline for his health. They’d have to fit it in sometime this weekend.
He opened his mouth to tell him that they’d do it either Saturday or Sunday, depending on his practice and work schedule, but what he said instead, again, was, “Out.”
The protest from Rowdy and the rest of them went up in volume (we’re going, we’re going, keep your shirt on) and Jeremiah looked away from Teddy to frown at them, ashamed of himself. He opened his mouth to try again, but he realized that today – just for today – he couldn’t bear to find out, like he had every year for a decade now, how much more amazing Teddy was than him.
He closed his mouth and frowned sternly, like it had been his intention the whole time. “I said ‘out.’ Come back once you’ve got more than two quarters to rub together.”
Jeremiah stood there until they got to the door, giving each one – including his brother – an I-am-serious-this-time look. Teddy turned, opening his mouth to say…well, something (though with him there was no telling whether it was going to be a joke or the opening line of the Gettysburg address), when one of his linemen shouted, “Better luck next time, Mr. Roboto!”
Teddy suddenly – inexplicably – winced.
Jeremiah dropped his folded arms, the fourteen-year-old looked away, but before Jer could ask what was wrong, Gary was pounding on the pick-up bell and the chance to find out was lost.
By the time he got back to his guys’ table with the first load of food, Teddy and his friends had exited, though Jeremiah could still see Rowdy making rude gestures at the picture window. The teammates that could reach their captain slapped him on the back as he came around (good job, nice job, domo arigato Mr. Roboto), but Bill was still watching the freshmen, a thoughtful look on his face.
“You know,” he said, eyes following them as they disappeared past the glass, Teddy – mid-laugh, whatever that expression had been long gone – the last to go, “we should’ve let Ted be the super hero.” He laughed and looked up at Jeremiah, grinning. “If anyone had to be the sidekick, it should’ve been us.”
Jeremiah managed a smile, unloading baskets of fries onto the table, and reminded himself that it was a relief that no one had ever known what he wanted to be when he grew up.