3. In Which a Boy Almost Has a Talk with his Dad

The pessimistic farmer got to enjoy the triumph of being more right than wrong. Though the reports out of Megalopolis were that the villain had been captured (clearly small time; the major news outlets couldn’t even agree on his name), thunderstorms had continued to spread across the region in a widening circle since Thursday. Banner had no rain yet – might not see any rain with BASH! purportedly closing in on a solution to his out-of-control weather machine – but the encroaching wall of black clouds was affecting them anyways. Stanton’s bus had made it only four miles out of town before a lightning strike out of nowhere killed their electrical system and shut down their power grid.

Unfortunately, with the phone lines down over in Stanton, no one had been able to tell Banner that they wouldn’t be coming. The football team had sat in the locker room, twiddling their thumbs while the crowd got noisier and noisier with boredom, before some enterprising soul had called an aunt who’d called a friend who lived on a farm just west of their rival. Sorry, came the answer. We’ll have to reschedule. You know how it is.

They did: weather villains. Lame and annoying.

Despite the threat of manufactured lightning, with the temperature in the warm fifties and the wind actually blowing the stink of the food processing plant away from them for a change, no one wanted to call it a night. The crowd had broken into pieces but otherwise stayed, hemorrhaging out of the stands and onto the sidelines while a mock-game collapsed into chaos. People were milling around, talking at each other and having a better time than any of them had expected just watching the Bulldogs goof-around.

Jeremiah stood with his arms folded, Brittany’s hand on the crook of his elbow while she chatted it up with the rest of her cheerleaders. Bill and a few of the others had joined the group, but Jeremiah was distracted, wondering whether he ought to reform his guys into two teams. Probably not worth it with Coach busy flirting with the English teacher and his coaching assistants MIA. Still, Jeremiah was quarterback (he actually preferred the wide receiver position, but as they had no decent backup quarterbacks, Jer, as always, filled the hole) and was thus team captain by default. Or possibly cliché. Either way, he felt responsible.

Without warning, Greg beaned Rick as hard as he could in the side of the head with the football, pigskin rebounding into a pack of linemen as Rick cursed. Before Jeremiah could put a stop to the escalating violence, Teddy popped up beside him, shouting, “QB! QB! Right here!”

Ackerly gained possession and threw it straight at Jeremiah, who automatically pulled his arms from his girlfriend’s absent grasp to put them up for the catch. Teddy, however, got into his older brother’s face first, knocking his hands out of the way. Which, yes (thanks, no thanks), hurt. Whatever his little brother was made of, it was heavy.

“Watch it,” he said tightly but carefully, just keeping the snap out of his tone. Teddy grinned, likely noticing that he now had the attention of the group around his brother, and spiraled the ball back in Ackerly’s direction with a, “Sorry, sorry,” that he didn’t mean.

Jeremiah still hadn’t been able to bring up their checkup. Teddy – who’d not only said nothing about it himself but had actually been even more irritating than usual the past couple of days, apparently going for some kind of record – was making it really, really easy not to.

Ackerly, unaware of his captain’s growing irritation, missed the football as it went wide but noticed Teddy. “Do-mo ari-GA-to, MIS-ter Ro-BOT-o!” he recited mechanically, dropping his grin with an effort.

The players around him, most of whom didn’t even look up from whatever they were doing, automatically chorused, “DO-mo! DO-mo!”

Jeremiah wasn’t sure who had originally started it (Eli maybe – he had a penchant for regurgitating classic hits), but the ridiculous greeting had been adopted wholesale by the team, who felt that Teddy was their collective little brother by association. Teddy, of course, loved it; a single “DO-mo!” was normally enough for him to start doing the robot.

Expecting that instead of his little brother’s sudden swivel-and-slap (heel-turn into an open hand smack that hit Jeremiah’s forearms hard enough to bruise bone), Jeremiah dropped the ball Crossman had just tossed back to him with a sharp – and involuntary – wince.

Either Teddy missed the flash of pain that tightened Jeremiah’s features, or he didn’t care. What he did do was show his brother every tooth he had in his head, and glance again at the group around the quarterback. “Bad hands, fumble fingers.”

He was always worse when he had an audience. Jeremiah knew better than to answer the insult, rotating his forearms as he tested his fingers, clenching his hand into a fist then releasing. “You need to be careful. You could’ve broken my wrists.”

Teddy’s face flushed, a dark color that did him no favors, but it faded almost as quickly. He looked somewhere between embarrassed and angry, glancing at Brittany’s hands as she delicately petted Jeremiah’s arms (which, Jeremiah was trying not to think about, was on the verge of embarrassing him) while another cheerleader picked up the ball that had rolled to her feet. “I know that. You think I don’t—you’re just mad I stripped the ball from you.”

“He has a point,” Bill jumped in, the grin in his voice very loud. “First time anyone’s done that all year.”

“Right,” Jeremiah said. He accepted the ball Mindy – smiling sweetly up at him – was holding out to him. He nodded at Brittany’s, “That doesn’t count,” and successfully held onto his patience with the fortitude of long practice. “Just make sure—”

Teddy tsked, not about to let him finish. “Ohhh, it’s because I made you look bad,” he said, Bill’s encouragement simultaneously emboldening him and taking the anger out of his face. Brittany took in a breath like she was about to say something – and say it loudly – but Teddy shook his head consolingly, speaking again before she could edge into the exchange. “Yes, Jer, I hate to break it to you, but even you can look bad.”

Make sure,” Jeremiah repeated (also interrupting Brittany, who was starting to look seriously annoyed), trying to recapture the theme of no-seriously-Teddy-you-need-to-be-careful-with-your-strength, because it was important, “that when you strip the ball from someone, or – whatever – that you—”

“It’s hard to tell,” Teddy cut him off again, in a conversational tone to Bill that was undoubtedly meant for the group in general, “but looks are really important to him.”

“All I’m saying—”

“You only wish—” Brittany tried.

“Did you know that he spent fifteen minutes on his hair this morning?” Teddy asked innocently.

There was a snicker at that from the guys but Brittany persisted with, “You only wish you could look as good in fifteen minutes,” which was a good demonstration of her ability to think on her feet. Though not an entirely welcome one. Jeremiah didn’t like having his good looks pointed out to him, which were a happenstance of genetics and beyond his (or anyone else’s) control.

Also, it had been five minutes, and only because he’d had to wet down a serious case of bedhead.

“That isn’t—” he started, as patiently as possible.

“You see,” Teddy continued, like neither his older brother nor “the girlfriend” (as he called Brittany) had spoken, “even when you’re really good looking, you still have to go out of your way to—”

“I don’t go out of my way to be this good looking,” Jeremiah snapped.

At once he recognized his mistake (not to mention that he hadn’t meant it like that) but it was too late to take it back; his friends howled with laughter. The cheerleaders, unaware that they were helping to humiliate him, jumped to his defense with their own hair stories. Jeremiah clenched his jaw, pressing his lips together as he took a calming breath in through his nose.

“Oh look,” Teddy said. “I made him mad.”

Teddy—

“Pick-six! Pick-six!” he shouted suddenly, with the timing of someone who only pretended not to know when he’d gone too far. He stripped the ball from Jeremiah’s loose grip and took off, football tucked into his arm. Bill – who also had younger siblings – humored him by sprinting after him, throwing an amused grin at Jeremiah over his shoulder. The rest of the guys, recognizing that the game was afoot, chased after them.

Brittany tried to engage Jeremiah in conversation, but she gave up after a few monosyllabic answers, turning back to her girlfriends. He unconsciously pulled away, crossing his arms as he watched Teddy hit a wall of players, Bill shouting out instructions as the youngest Dunn brother disappeared into the main bulk of the team. There was an immediate response to his best friend’s words; reacting quickly and in great numbers was the only way to stop Teddy. He actually made for a pretty effective team training tool.

Still, with an audience at their back, this was neither the time nor place. Always aware of his surroundings, Jeremiah could hear the interest from the crowd increase as his irritating little brother gained ground, a football player on each limb. Jeremiah dropped his own arms, starting forward to stop him.

“Let him play,” Dad said unexpectedly from behind him, breaking into his thoughts.

Jeremiah turned and saw that his dad was leaning back against the water table with his arms casually folded, a pose that could get most women within visual range to perk up and take a second look. Carey Dunn was a little broader in the face than his oldest son and just a hair shorter, but the only other real difference was age.

He was also one of a very small number of people who knew that Jeremiah actually had a temper. His eyes followed Teddy before finding Jeremiah’s, an understanding – if slightly wry – smile on his face. “You know he’s just doing it to get your attention.”

On an intellectual level Jeremiah knew that was true. But on an emotional one, he was still seriously weighing the pros and cons of punching his little brother in the throat.

Unknowingly, Teddy moved farther out of Jeremiah’s reach. Which, considering that trying to collapse his windpipe was not only immoral but also likely to do nothing worse than make him laugh, was just as well.

Jeremiah joined his father, unintentionally copying his posture as he too leaned back against the table. He wondered how long Dad had been standing there, and how much he’d heard.

He didn’t ask. Neither of them had a particular need for constant chatter, so they simply stood in amicable silence, watching Teddy rip through Jeremiah’s guys like bowling pins. For all that Jeremiah spent a lot of time making sure that Teddy followed the family guidelines built up around his abilities, Dad was the source of most of those rules. The fact that he was letting it go was enough for Jeremiah. Besides, at the moment Teddy wasn’t demonstrating anything outside of what people already knew – namely, that he was stronger than at least four members of Banner High’s football team combined.

They were alike in a lot of ways, Jeremiah thought, brows furrowing a little as he considered his father. Dad was a little smoother than himself; or perhaps more purposeful, he should say, using his good looks when he needed to. Though not ambitious in any way, Dad was talked to and trusted by just about everyone, from the old ladies who could still remember when Carey’s father ran the shop together with his great Uncle, to the mayor and about anyone who had ever run for office in town. At home Dad called them the local muck-a-mucks, but Jeremiah knew he sometimes met with them in private, talking about who knew what. Jeremiah had asked once, but Dad had only told him to treat everyone equally. That the worth of a man was in how he treated the people that could do nothing for him.

They were good words. Good words from a good man.

Jeremiah squeezed his biceps, realizing that here at last was the moment he hadn’t known he’d been waiting for. When he and Dad could talk, and he knew for certain that Teddy – being peeled up off the ground from the bottom of a dog-pile, face full of laughter – couldn’t listen in. Because for all that they didn’t talk much, they talked when it mattered. Dad’s opinion carried real weight. If he couldn’t hack it as a hero, Dad would say so. If he thought he could, then the words of a hundred Mrs. Graysons and Bills would mean nothing.

Jeremiah opened his mouth, and Dad spoke in that split-second of silent inhaling before Jeremiah could get a word out. “Has Teddy talked to you?” he asked.

Jeremiah faltered, thrown. Had he…? The eighteen-year-old pulled his focus out of his own train of thought, realizing a moment later that Dad probably didn’t mean “talk” in the general sense of I-am-an-annoying-fourteen-year-old-bent-on-embarrassing-my-older-brother-in-front-of-his-friends-and-I-won’t-leave-you-alone-ever-no-matter-how-much-you-need-a-break-neener-neener.

Jeremiah didn’t particularly want to talk about Teddy at the moment.

He answered anyways, because that’s what Jeremiah did. “About what?”

Dad pulled his gaze from his youngest to his eldest, frowning a little. “He…” he trailed off, like he was trying to figure out what he was trying to say, or maybe the best way to put it, then went with, “I guess he hasn’t.” He let out a breath, watching Teddy once more, who was standing in the middle of a pack of football players. They were doing…something. It was hard to tell what from here. “He hasn’t talked to me, but I thought—he normally—” Dad cut himself off again, stymied somehow. The expression looked foreign on him. “Have you guys had your little power run-through yet?” he finally asked.

That was one thing to call it. It had taken a lot of years for their version of Teddy’s annual checkup to grow on Dad, and only then because they’d gotten so good at hiding where and when they were holding it that even he usually didn’t know. Jeremiah looked away, that little sense of shame grabbing ahold of him again, sure that Dad was on to him. “No.”

But Dad’s face only cleared. “Ah,” he said. “That’s probably…I’ll leave it to you, then.”

Leave what to him, Jeremiah didn’t ask. Still, Dad must’ve seen it in his face because he added, “Try and be patient with him. I know he can be frustrating, but just…” His expression softened even further, and he laughed a little, a low sound in the back of his throat. “What am I saying? You know better than anyone how to deal with your brother.”

“Dad…” Jeremiah started, troubled, but for what felt like the five hundredth time in ten minutes someone cut him off.

“You might want to put a stop to that.”

They both turned their heads to the left to take in Jeff, Banner’s sheriff and Dad’s closest friend, and then simultaneously followed his gaze out to the field. Someone had found a long length of rope – pulled off the parking lot pickets, if Jeremiah had to guess – and the entire football team was lining up on one end of the line, leaving Teddy alone on the other.

Dad didn’t curse, but the sound that escaped his mouth suggested it. He took off towards the field, not running but moving much faster than his placid body language suggested. They both knew that Teddy was not only heavy enough to hold his ground given enough leverage (three-hundred and ninety pounds, which was what he had weighed when he came to Banner ten years before and what he had weighed since, regardless of either age or size), but was also more than strong enough to drag them into the end zone. It was a fact that the entire town of Banner did not need to find out for certain.

Jeff watched the oldest Dunn go with a smirk he was clearly trying to keep off his rather square face. While Jeff didn’t know exactly what Teddy was capable of, he had a much better idea than most. Divorced long before Jeremiah knew what the word meant, Banner’s sheriff came over for dinner at least twice a week, a custom started back when Mom was the one making sure they were all eating properly. He’d been privy to a lot of the private family shenanigans over the years.

Automatically, Jeremiah’s eyes sought the crowd, trying to gauge their reaction to Teddy’s opening attempts to pull the entire football team to their collective knees. Amusement, mainly, which was good. Most people didn’t care that Teddy wasn’t technically human, but the rumors were always there, right under the surface. They bubbled up every time the goober went and reminded them. Jeremiah continued to scan their faces, jumping from one familiar face to the next, and then caught sight of Hill.

Frank Hill was the closest thing Banner had to a town drunk. He wasn’t precisely that – married, same job for thirty years – but everybody still knew that when he drank he drank too much, and when he was drunk he was a mean old cuss. He was watching from the stands with what Jeremiah thought might’ve been a sneer around his bulbous nose and a beer in his hand.

Jeremiah loathed the very sight of him. He would’ve used the word “hate,” but that had been banned long ago by his mother and it was one of the few things that Jeremiah still had to remember her by. What he did do was catch Frank’s eyes and stare coolly at him until the old man dropped his own gaze, going red under his weathered tan.

I’m not going to ask again, Mr. Hill.

Jeff snorted, pulling Jeremiah’s focus back towards him. “You Dunn boys don’t do things by halves, do you?” he asked, grinning over at Jeremiah in a comradely way, jerking his head at the scene. Dad was actually dividing the players into two teams now, making it a fair match, while Teddy stood on the sidelines and watched. “Someone knew what they were doing when they abandoned that car in your dad’s shop,” he added, and Jeremiah knew by “Someone” he meant God.

Jeremiah said nothing, looking but not seeing the team fight over a piece of rope. Years ago, Jeff had told Jeremiah that Teddy had been the best thing that had happened to his father. “He needed something to focus on, after your mom died,” he’d told the eleven-year-old. “Cassandra was something special. It about ate the heart out of him, losing her like that. I could’ve called the county to come pick Teddy up while I was trying to get into contact with the mad science division people in Trenton, but I didn’t think a night or two at your dad’s would hurt. Thought it might give him something else to think about for a couple days.” He’d laughed, then admitted: “I never expected him to actually adopt the little guy.”

Jeff was right. Mom had been special. Though Jeremiah couldn’t remember exactly why now. He’d been seven when she’d died, and he’d lost more of her over the years than he’d expected to: the sound of her voice, her smell, even the memory of her face would’ve been gone if there hadn’t still been pictures of her on the walls. But he remembered the feel of her. It was taking for granted the certainty that someone would always be at home, wanting to know how his day had gone.

Jeremiah watched Dad steer Teddy back their direction, arm over his brother’s shoulder as the youngest member of the Dunn family jabbered away, pouring out every thought in his head with the abandon of someone who was afraid he’d be mute tomorrow. Jeff, stepping forward, started both lecturing and teasing him.

As long as he could remember, adults had opened up to Jeremiah. As a kid that sense of trust had made him feel important, but Jeff’s confession that Jeremiah’s dad had needed something to focus on after Mom’s death had haunted him for years. Even then he’d been mature enough to recognize that Jeff had been right, but in low moments sometimes that eleven-year-old still wondered why he hadn’t been enough.


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