Chapter 2: New Days –
Even after staring at the math test for several minutes, Casey couldn’t make heads or tails of it. “I mean sure, ” he thought aloud. “I spent hours studying this thing, I even had Travis drill me on the questions. Why can’t I remember a single problem?”
“Because of all your many and numerous talents my friend, the formulaic mechanics of the world has never really been one of them.”
Travis Stanton hopped on the bench next to his friend; languidly stretching his long-limbed frame, looking innocently reminiscent of an alley tomcat enjoying a sunny day. “Look man, the SAT test was weeks ago, if your scores were low enough to warrant you retaking it, you’d probably already know by now.”
“Ya, ya, you’re right. I still hate it though. And seriously dude, what am I gonna do when we get to college? You know I struggled with high school math; what the heck am I supposed to do when faced with something like college algebra? Or calculus?!”
Travis shrugged. “Cheat? Just kidding, just kidding… I’ll bet you twenty they have tutors or something similar there. Don’t worry man, we’ll get you squared away when the time comes. But, as for the moment, why be afraid of something that hasn’t even happened yet!? This is our last few free weeks of summer, and you’re sitting here wasting it away. After this, we get back to training… but for the moment, let’s go have some fun.”
Sighing resignedly, Casey tucked the stray papers into his shoulder-bag and stood up. “You’re right man. Sorry I’ve been such a downer lately.”
Travis just shrugged, already dismissing the apology. “No worries man, that’s why I got your back. Now,” he said while cracking his knuckles. “We going Pop-Blast or Wave-Hop?”
Casey grinned, a little of his normal vigor and energy returning now that he had set aside those pesky thoughts of the future. “Considering that we’re just heading into town, I think Wave-Hop is probably the better choice. No point in getting Sheriff Ben upset at us again.”
Travis nodded sagely. “A wise choice my friend.” He danced back a half-step and slid into a runner’s stance, waving at the bare ground in front of him. “After you.”
Lumbering to the invisible starting line, Casey gave his arms a quick stretch and threw the kinks out of his legs; then crouched down with knees bent in launch position. Focusing inward, he began to pull the power around him into a tight ball, flexing his muscles in preparation. After just a few seconds of storing the energy, he thrust down and back – leaving the ground in an appropriately sized blast-off. He immediately felt Travis pop into place, crouched low across his back in a surfing pose. Another instant and they were skipping across the horizon, the occasional blast by Casey keeping them moving along at a decent clip. This (though only one of many reasons), was why Travis and he had been dubbed the “Blast Boys” in the surrounding counties.
Separately, their powers sucked balls. Together, however, they had created an unstoppable duo; braving bullies and angry old sheriff’s alike, carrying the torch of mischief and devilry throughout the entirety of their public school lives.
The only reason they hadn’t been completely ostracized during their formative years was due in part to a large family presence in the area; that, and the fact that their creative pranks and adventures were often more flash than substance. By the time high school rolled around, their teachers had been mostly ready for them. Mostly. Those had been the good years; and they might have continued in that vein for quite some time, if not for the death of Travis’s older sister.
She had escaped the small town innocence their family was raised in – trading it in for the high-stress life of a model in the Big Apple; actually becoming quite successful in the short time she had been working there. She hadn’t forgotten her roots though, and still loved her kid brother enough to constantly try and convince him to join her in the city; even though they both knew it probably would never happen. She had died less than a year ago in a Supervillain attack that decimated New York, killing thousands of people and most of New York’s working Heroes. Since that day, the Blast Boys had changed their focus and their goals for the future.
There weren’t many Supers in this small area of the midwest, and no heroes had ever come from their laidback town. The two best friends knew this; and having researched everything they could find concerning the HCP programs around the country – it began to become increasingly obvious that their chances of becoming the first official heroes of Dubuque County, Iowa were fairly slim.
Travis had made the decision then; if they didn’t have the skills… they would just have to develop the smarts. Thus they began to dedicate their time and energy into training – adapting strengths out of weaknesses, learning every in and out of their abilities they could find, pushing themselves beyond what either friend thought physically possible. People had begun to notice, whisperings in the town mentioning how the pranks had disappeared, the monthly embarrassing accidents in the school no longer occurring.
The Blast Boys had gotten seriously intimidating by the time graduation rolled around… everyone cringing in anticipation for the other shoe to drop. It never did. While the townspeople and county looked on in shock, both boys strolled across the platform to accept their diplomas; muscles rippling, faces neutral, eyes always on the lookout for unseen threats. Nobody had been brave enough to ask where or how they had trained, and the boys certainly weren’t volunteering any information on the subject.
Before the night of graduation was over, both friends had sent their applications to all respective HCP universities, and thus the waiting game had begun… that would finally end today. A friend at the post office had already called Travis and confirmed that multiple packages were inbound to the family farm. Unfortunately, till the mail arrived there was nothing to do in the meantime (besides hijacking the mailman, which wouldn’t exactly fit the image they had been so purposely emulating).
Travis knew too much training could provide burnout; so the current deviation to the local ARC-ade was actually planned, and really served multiple purposes. On the one hand, they had accidentally foiled a robbery a couple years back, so they received unlimited tokens whenever they wanted to hang out. Free food and games? Yes, please! On the other hand, they had already begun to create a great rapport with many of the younger kids who hung out around the gaming station – and Travis knew that when they finally became heroes, every bit of support they could get was a battle already won.
Casey didn’t mind the constant planning. Travis was good at seeing ahead, figuring out what they needed to do, where they needed to be. It wasn’t that Casey was unintelligent, more so that he recognized the drive behind his best friends life; and was perfectly willing to back him up wherever needed.
Because of that reasoning, he now found himself spending a few hours racking up the best score in Contra and Double Dragon; then switching to Street Fighter to get his ass whooped by a 12-year old. He blamed the losses on being distracted; having constantly checked the clock for the last 40 minutes, just waiting for the top of the hour. The mail truck always ran like clockwork, which meant that as soon as it turned 3:00 PM; he was out the door like greased lightning. Arriving home in record time, they continued their forced patience; dismissing the last of the excited family members to give them a little-needed privacy alone in the dining room.
Slowly but surely, they withdrew the various packets and information handouts. When the simplistic but unquestionable letter finally appeared at the back of the stack, a slow grin began working its way across Casey’s face. He looked up and saw Travis’s determined smile staring back at him.
“Now…” Travis softly murmured, “the real training begins.”
Shadows began to languidly creep up the walls of the New York Public Library as the soft light of day made its gracious departure. The old Grandfather clock sitting in the east hallway began to toll the passing hour, stirring most patrons from their focused reading; a quick look at the time causing most people to begin preparing their departure for the day.
Hidden deep among the seemingly endless rows of books and reading stands, Esme lay surrounded by the piles of her research. She had created a small crevice of warmth and knowledge tucked behind an ancient cedar and oak desk; together with a smuggled-in desk lamp and a few of those fancy pillows from one of the love seats scattered throughout the library. Hidden from the world, she would only occasionally leave her spot to drift through the many aisles of bookcases; retrieving something of value or interest, then retreat hastily back to her small sanctuary.
The various librarians tasked with the safety and security of thousands of books were well aware of who the little “book minx” was; but due to her shy and gentle nature, none minded her hideaway. In fact, she was such a regular sight in the library, that rare and unlucky was the day one couldn’t find her slipping through the old tomes and dusty binders; and if her raven black hair and soft-lipped smile couldn’t be found, all were slightly uneasy until she popped back up again. Considering that her father was a well-known professor and journalist at the Columbia University, many people looked to the day she might join the ranks of students roving in and out of the library.
Esme sighed, her latest acquired manuscript laying propped open against her pale legs. Tucking her skirt underneath her legs once again, she considered the future. When originally planning her “ultimate and completely genius” path to success, she hadn’t considered her father’s reaction to it.
Four years – four years to attend, study, learn, and graduate from an HCP program; then write a detailed biography of her time inside the school (sans any restricted details and names, of course). It would be the first of its kind, an introspective recording on the life of a hero, and of the hero community in general. It would also be a chance for any and all people who wondered what truly happened in one of those schools to alleviate that desire.
Her father was a Pulitzer winning writer and scholar; the only way she could ever hope to achieve his level of success would be to provide something truly unique to the world. He had been less than happy of course and had repeatedly tried to convince her to consider otherwise. This was it though, her mind was made up, and she had already received the confirmation letter acknowledging her acceptance into several HCP programs around the country.
Now the choice remained, where to go? She could, of course, attend Korman University right here in New York City; but knowing her father, he would expect her to continue living in-house. This would, however, undoubtedly distract from the entire individual college experience, so she probably needed to attend an out-of-state program. Of the remaining schools, only Sizemore Tech was located in a similar location to her own city. She had enough self-awareness to admit that she was quite the city girl, and at the very least Chicago had its own unique flavor of interesting. She sat still while continuing to mull over it for a few more minutes, but the truth was her mind was for the most part already made up.
She sighed once more, not anticipating the conversations she would soon have with her father; then began the slow and heart-wrenching process of dismantling her home away from home. She had only just begun stacking the many books around her; when the head librarian walked quietly up to the desk.
“Hello dear. How are you today?”
Esme smiled at the older woman, a warm feeling spreading between the two avid bookworms. “I’m doing fine, thank you.”
Dr. Grace Van Brune was all too familiar with the young woman in front of her, and in many ways considered her somewhat of a daughter; as did many of the older employees of the library. She was therefore appropriately sad about the departure of the Book Minx, but the experience of life had taught her the value of striking out for oneself.
“Esme, I assume what your father mentioned in the board meeting is true? You plan on attending university in another state?”
“Yes mam, you are correct.”
“Well, if your father can’t persuade you otherwise, I don’t suppose I could either. Nonetheless, I never want you to think we would ever push you away, even if you might not wish to join our “small” crowd of intellectuals. You have a brilliant mind, truly astonishing for your age. I won’t presume to know or understand your reasonings for attending school somewhere else, but I trust you have a plan. Nonetheless, the membership board here has decided to allow our resident young researcher to continue using the library as her personal vacation home; so please, stop breaking down your area. As long as you stick with only arriving in official library hours; we would be happy to see you walking theses aisles again.”
“Oh… oh, thank you! I thought… I mean, I worried I wouldn’t be able to return, but… just thank you!”
The aging scholar smiled fondly as the small raven-haired girl flung her arms about her. After the hug was finally broken, she said softly, “We will miss you not being here at all times, but I imagine we’ll manage. Please know you’re always welcome here, understand?”
Esmeralda smiled once again and nodded happily. “I won’t forget, and I’ll be sure and visit when I have the chance.”
“Good, now run along home. I’m sure your father is expecting you.”