Mason walked up the stairs, looking through the mail. Bills, bills, junk mail, bills. He cut one brown finger on an envelope corner. Groaning, he slumped against the wall right beside his apartment door. It opened, and his Dad looked out. Judging by his hard hat and the neon orange vest, he was getting ready to go to work.
He looked the lanky, dark-skinned teenager up and down. “Still no acceptance letter?”
“Nope. What’s taking so long? I thought Atomic Five wanted recruits.”
“Most likely the background check,” his Dad replied. “Plus they’ve probably got plenty of applicants to sort through.”
“I guess. How much longer is this going to take?” Mason complained.
“Be patient. The training camp doesn’t even open until summer. Try to focus on your schoolwork; your grades are going to be important,” his Dad said.
“Right,” Mason muttered.
His Dad checked his watch. “I have to run—do me a favor and don’t pick on Layla tonight, okay?”
“Me? Pick on her?”
His Dad spoke in a warning tone. “Mason.”
“All right, all right.” Mason went inside, and his father headed down the stairs.
Crossing to his room, Mason slammed his bedroom door, dropped his backpack in the corner, and flopped on his bed. The springs groaned. Lying there, Mason looked upside-down through the outside window. In the distance, the Atomic Five skyscraper dove towards the sky. Mason’s neighbor Vivian had gone to their training camp: she’d become Atomic Blue, and now she fought monsters almost every week. Her family had moved out of the apartment complex into a real house in a neighborhood where people had probably never even seen graffiti.
Mason glanced over at some of the Atomic Force posters on his wall. Technically he’d stolen them, but there were so many scattered around the city he didn’t see the harm. A lot of them featured Vivian in Atomic Blue guise. He didn’t blame them; Vivian looked good on anything.
Well, if he got into the training camp, he’d be able to see her, maybe work up the courage to finally say something—Mason stopped himself. She might already have a boyfriend; judging by the tabloids, several. No, he was going to get into this training camp, join Atomic Five, and then see where things went. With mad scientists like Doctor Circe sending giant monsters to the city every couple of weeks, they couldn’t turn a guy like him down. He was finally old enough to apply, no criminal record—not counting some ding-dong dashes, but those had never been proven—and he knew everything about the team. He’d already passed the written tests.
At that point, he heard the outer door thump, and knew Layla was home. He figured he should probably tell her Dad was at work. Getting up, he opened the door, looked out, and froze.
Mason’s nine-year-old sister sat on the couch, cuddling a puppy-ish, green . . . thing. It was shaped like a Maltese puppy, round-faced and snub-nosed. A shock of white hair fluffed on top of its head, and a matching puff ended its whiplike tail.
“He followed me home from school.”
“That’s a monster,” Mason protested. “A scaly, green, three-eyed monster.”
“He’s a nice monster.”
“Wrong! Layla, there are no nice monsters, just big, scary ones, like that T-Rex in the docks, or the giant falcon that almost blew up Dad at work last week!”
“He’s not trying to destroy the city. He’ll be nice to us if we’re nice to him, even if he does grow giant-sized.” Layla gave Mason a pleading look. “Pleeeease, can I keep him? I’ll take care of him. Pleasepleasepleaseplease—”
Mason cut her off. “No is no!”
Layla’s face crumpled with tears. The monster whimpered. Sighing in exasperation, Mason ran a hand over his dark hair, braided tightly against his scalp. Why did she have to be such a baby? Or such a crazy animal lover—if it wasn’t the ducks in the park, it was the pigeons, if it wasn’t the pigeons it was the neighbor’s cat. Well, two could play at that game.
“It’s probably one of Doctor Circe’s monsters. If Atomic Five finds out we’ve got it, they’ll probably arrest us and dissect it. Is that what you want?”
Eyes widening, Layla hugged the monster, making it squeak. Mason glimpsed a flash of needle-like fangs. His sister ran out of the room, swinging open the rusty door to the fire escape. It slammed shut behind her as the phone rang.
Mason ran to the living room and picked up. “Hello?”
“Is this the Farida house?” It was an unfamiliar woman’s voice.
Suddenly hopeful, Mason cleared his throat. “Yeah, Mason Farida speaking.” Please be about the training camp, please be about the training camp…
“Could your family come to Batson Hospital right away? There was another monster attack in the warehouse district, and your father’s been injured.”
Mason stared at the phone as if he’d never seen it before. The woman kept babbling, but Mason couldn’t make out any of it. Hospital?
Walking into the hospital room, Layla jerked Mason to a halt. His stomach clenched. Their father was so covered in bandages he looked like a mummy—or a puppet, fastened to all those bars. His face was swollen and purple-black with bruises. Feeling queasy, Mason flashed back to Mom in the morgue years ago. No, no, he could see Dad breathing, it wasn’t that bad—yet.
“He’s not fully conscious,” a nurse put in from behind the two. She walked around the bed checked over the medical equipment. “He’s broken a lot of bones and suffered some internal trauma, but he’s stable now. With time and therapy, he should make a full recovery. Your father’s a lucky man.”
“Th-thanks.” Mason could barely get even that word out.
The nurse’s pager blipped, and she left. Dragging two chairs up to the bed, Mason sat in one and Layla took the other. Sniffling, she put both brown hands on her father’s cast. One bloodshot eye cracked open, and he made a raspy little noise.
Mason couldn’t sit still. Rising, he paced around the cramped room. Sirens wailed outside. Looking out the window, Mason could see a haze of smoke over the city.
Now what? On top of everything else, they had this hospital bill to pay, plus whatever therapy Dad needed before he could work. With a mixture of relief and disappointment, Mason realized they had money to cover the bill—what he’d been saving to pay for training camp.
Mason couldn’t see the Atomic Five skyscraper from where they sat, but he looked around for it anyway. Silently he glanced back at the hospital bed, then out towards the city. Involuntarily, he clenched his fists until his knuckles turned white. It wasn’t fair. His father let out a croak. Turning his back on the window, Mason returned to the bed.
After Layla went to school that morning, Mason left the apartment. It only took him a few minutes to find a repair crew, in the warehouse district. Right after any monster attack or superhero brawl, they scattered all over the city, picking up the leftovers. Mason guessed they were the most likely to hire him without caring about a diploma, plus they probably knew his Dad. The air still tasted of smoke and dust. Spotting a man in a hard hat and neon orange vest, Mason crossed the street to him.
“Whaddya want?” The husky man barely glanced at Mason.
“To help. I need a job,” Mason clarified, drawing himself up and trying to look older than seventeen.
The man chuckled, shaking his head. “Look, kid, you want a job, leave your resume with the office—and get some working papers from your school while you’re at it. Maybe we can get you a desk job. How old are you, anyway?”
“Nineteen. I don’t need working papers, I graduated.” The dust in the air made Mason’s eyes water and his nose itch, and he blinked rapidly.
The man eyed him. “Sure you did. Like I said, send a resume to the office.”
Nodding, Mason walked away. Why hadn’t he ever talked to Dad about how getting a job worked? Oh, yeah, it was mind-numbingly boring. Great. What could he put on a resume? How did a resume even work? Internet, don’t fail me now, he thought, turning towards the library.
Layla hopped off her bus, just as Mason reached their street, and shouted his name. Too tired to outrun her today, Mason stifled a groan. Darting over, she caught his hand and looked him up and down, frowning in confusion. Her older brother wore dress clothes and even a clumsily-knotted tie.
“Why are you dressed up?”
“Hit-and-run haberdasher.” Mason said. He’d been trying the work ads in the paper—and failing—but there was no way he was telling Layla that. She’d blab everything to Dad.
“Don’t you hate ties?”
“A mean haberdasher.”
She frowned, puzzling over the word ‘haberdasher.’ “How did you get home before me?”
“I teleported,” Mason snapped, and caught himself. He pulled off the tie, shoving it into his pocket. It crinkled against a wad of dollar bills. He’d sold his good textbooks that morning. “Go upstairs. I’m tired.”
“Oh. Do you want me to make dinner?”
“Sure.” Maybe that would use up some of her boundless energy.
Slowly, Mason followed Layla up the stairs. How could she be so bouncy and happy at a time like this? Soon she was so far ahead he could only hear her skipping, and the grunt and thump of her pushing the door open.
“Mason! There’s a letter for you!”
Curious, Mason sped up. As he walked in, Layla pointed to a fat envelope on the counter, which Mason picked up. It was from Atomic Five. His breath caught in his throat. With shaky hands, he tore it open and unfolded the letter. His mind raced; he only caught a few words like “acceptance” and “prize” and “hope to see you in the coming summer.” Finally!
His hands clenched, crinkling the paper. He couldn’t leave Layla or Dad. Not now. The camp didn’t pay for itself, and he wouldn’t start actually earning money until after he graduated—which could take months. And that was assuming he passed at all.
He had to be responsible now. Mason crumpled the letter.
“What’s wrong?” Layla asked.
“Nothing.” Mason hurled it into the trash. He managed a bitter little laugh. “Just stupid junk mail.” Noticing the two TV dinners on the counter, he added, “Don’t worry about me, I’m not hungry.”
His stomach was still empty, but he didn’t think he could eat. Pushing the fire escape door open, Mason ran down the rickety steps until he reached the alley. There, where Layla couldn’t overhear (one of Dad’s rules), he swore himself hoarse. Finding the unsellable textbooks he’d dumped earlier, he shredded them one by one. By the time he stopped, red paper cuts covered his hands, and bits of paper littered the alley like dirty snowflakes.
Hours later, Mason got the letter out of the trash, smoothed it out, and hid it in his dresser drawer. At least they’d accepted him. He was good enough even if he couldn’t go. As he went to bed, he thought he heard Layla whispering in her room, but didn’t pay any attention to her.
Mason leaned against the doorpost as he fiddled with his keys. His stomach growled: he’d forgotten to pack his lunch today. Still no luck—too many people with experience and credentials were looking for work. Adding injury to insult, he’d banged his shin, and it still throbbed.
Layla’s bus had passed him on the way home. Hopefully she wouldn’t ask questions; he didn’t think he had any more excuses. How was she so happy all the time? Even when they visited Dad, she just colored on his casts and chattered like nothing was wrong. She wasn’t nearly old or smart enough to be putting on a brave face.
Unlocking the door, Mason looked into the living room and saw Layla sitting on the floor with the puppy monster, feeding it a sandwich. It didn’t look any different from before; a little plumper, maybe. Crooning, Layla petted the tuft of white fur on its head and it wagged its tail.
Hearing the door, Layla froze mid-pet, and looked up at Mason. Springing to her feet, she blocked his view of the monster, as if that would help. Mason stared at her in disbelief. The monster stuck its head around her legs, and she nudged it back with a foot.
“…You didn’t,” Mason said at last. He walked inside, slamming the door with a boom. Layla jumped. “You didn’t!”
“H-he came back,” Layla began, “He was scratching on the window and whimpering, and I knew he was hungry—”
“. . . A week ago?” Layla shrank under his gaze.
Mason took another step, and felt something crinkle under his foot. Looking down, he saw an empty plastic bag, with his name written in black marker.
The monster had tuna on its nose.
Mason saw red.
“You little brat! I’ve given up everything to make sure we don’t starve, and you steal from us to feed this freak? What the hell is wrong with you? Are you retarded, or do you just hate me and Dad?” Sobbing, Layla covered her ears, but Mason jerked her hands away. “I’m talking to you!”
A growl rose from the floor. As Mason looked down the monster lunged, digging its fangs into his shin. With a yell he tried to shake it off, but it clung to him.
“Charlie, no!” Layla screamed, darting forward and catching the monster. It snarled at Mason as she snatched it up. A splotch of blood stained his pants. The bite stung.
Mason pointed a shaking finger at the monster. He spoke again, in an unsteady but quieter voice. “Get rid of that thing right now and go to your room. You are grounded for the rest of the week. If I ever see that thing again—”
Sobbing, Layla ran out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
Still trembling, Mason stormed into the bathroom, and stuck the largest band-aid he could find on the bite. That done he turned to the kitchen, throwing the fridge open and grabbing whatever leftovers he could find. He’d show her what being hungry was like. Mason retreated to his own room, kicking the door shut. Even through the walls, he could hear Layla crying. He pretended he couldn’t.
Mason woke up with a jolt. He lay sideways on his bed, still wearing yesterday’s clothes. Sunlight poured in the window. A few empty tupperware containers were scattered around the room. Remembering what had happened the night before, Mason buried his face in his hands and groaned. No work, no money, no chance of joining Atomic Five, and he’d taken it all out on his little sister.
Getting up, Mason gathered the plastic containers, but paused. His leg didn’t hurt anymore. He rolled up his pants leg to check the monster bite and, to his surprise, he couldn’t find so much as a mark. In fact, his whole shin looked fine; the bruise, which had been blue-black the night before, had faded completely. That couldn’t be normal.
As Mason collected the tupperware containers, planning out his apology, he happened to glance at the clock. 9:30. He almost had a heart attack.
Dropping the tupperwares, he ran to his sister’s room. Empty. Skidding to a halt, he scratched his head in confusion. Had she gotten herself ready for school? A piece of folded paper lay on the bed, with Mason’s name written in sparkly pink ink. Picking it up, he unfolded it.
I’m runing away with Charlie. Don’t look for me becus I never want to come back. Ever.
And I hate you and I’m glad Charlie bit you.
Mason stared at the paper, a sick feeling growing inside him. He threw the note back on the bed and paced, trying to think. Where would Layla go? When did she leave? She could already be in serious trouble, and it was all his fault.
Layla’s favorite place was the park a few blocks away. He could start there. He darted out the door and down the stairs. Zigzagging across the road Mason heard tires screech, but didn’t look or hesitate. Soon, he found himself pushing through a panicky crowd all going the other way. He felt grass replace concrete under his feet and a stabbing pain in his side, under his ribs. Why had he skipped gym so many times? A shrill scream rang out somewhere in front of him, and Mason forgot about how tired he felt.
At the foot of a nearby statue crouched Layla, clutching Charlie. A black monster which looked like a cross between a wolf and a unicorn loomed over her, and reared up on its hind legs. Its hooves flashed in the sunlight.
Mason skidded to a halt between Layla and the new monster. It snarled, yellow eyes narrowing, and Layla hiccuped. She’d been crying. Charlie struggled in her arms, but she had a death grip on him.
“Leave . . . alone,” Mason panted, and raised his fists. He had no idea what he was doing, but he had to do something. In the distance, he could hear sirens wailing, and guessed Atomic Five was on its way. Hopefully they’d get here soon.
The creature’s hackles rose, and it bared a mouthful of fangs. Mason ducked, but its horn stabbed into his shoulder. It happened so fast he almost didn’t feel it, but he definitely felt the monster swing him around and throw him into the grass. He screamed, hearing Layla do the same.
Sick and dizzy, lying on his side with blood soaking into his shirt, Mason watched helplessly as the monster faced Layla. She finally lost her grip on the wriggling Charlie, which sprang out of her arms. He started to change.
His features grew more feline, and his tuft of fur sprouted into a white mane. Claws slid out of his paws, and his tail lashed like a whip. Suddenly an enormous, scaly lion, Charlie slammed into the wolf-unicorn, throwing it back.
Sweat stung Mason’s eyes, but he didn’t even blink. Charlie tore at the wolf-unicorn, drawing spurts of blue-green blood with each strike. The other monster fought back, digging its teeth into Charlie’s shoulder. The two rolled, a blur of fur and scales, into the bushes. Just looking at them made Mason dizzy.
With a mechanical whoosh, a gleaming white figure swooped out of the sky, snatching Layla away from the fight. The superhero landed beside him and began trying to stop the bleeding. Mason could barely feel anything through the crushing pain in his chest which came with each breath.
Charlie had the monster by the throat, and shook it viciously. With a final crack, the wolf-unicorn went limp. Charlie dropped its body and roared, and Layla screamed. At the sound, the living monster stopped abruptly, and looked back at her. The eight-year-old quaked in terror. Charlie’s three red eyes softened, and it looked strangely puppyish again.
“ . . . Charlie?” Layla stammered.
The monster purred, and limped over to her, but she recoiled. The superhero drew a white pistol, cocking it with a click. Charlie looked confused, as if it expected praise. Backing up, it picked up the dead monster in its mouth, dragged it closer, and looked at Layla expectantly.
After a moment, the man lowered his weapon. Layla turned to Mason, and Charlie followed her gaze, nosing the superhero aside. They all looked blurry to Mason now, as he heard wailing sirens in the distance.
“Thanks,” Mason whispered, giving it as much of a smile as he could manage. He reached up to stroke its blue-stained mane with a shaky hand. The pain flared, and he shuddered.
Bending its head, Charlie started licking Mason’s shoulder. Its tongue was hot and leathery, stinging Mason at first, but he was too tired to do anything about it. However as it worked, the pain faded. When Mason looked, he saw the hole in his shoulder close. Finishing, Charlie stepped back and shrank back down to puppy size. With a hysterical little giggle Layla reached for it, and it sprang into her arms wagging its tail.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” Mason said. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that. I just . . . I got frustrated, I guess. It wasn’t just you.”
Layla hugged her knees to her chest. “I’m sorry too.”
The Farida siblings sat in a hospital room though, unlike their last visit, Mason occupied the bed, and was hooked up to an IV or two. Even though Charlie had healed the stab wound, he’d lost a lot of blood.
The door opened, and Mason looked up to see a girl in a blue-striped Atomic Five uniform enter. His jaw dropped, and he snapped it shut quickly. Oh God, it was her. She looked just like the posters.
Vivian De Silva bit her lip. “Am I interrupting you guys? I thought your Dad was in here with you.”
“No, you can come in,” Layla said, as Mason tried to remember how words worked. “Dad’s asleep, but they said they’d bring him up once Charlie was done with him.”
Smiling, Vivian glided into the room. “Okay. I was hoping I could talk to you guys anyway. Atomic Five wants to observe your family, see how you tamed Charlie so we can use him to treat the wounded.”
“We’ll have to see what Dad thinks,” Mason said.
“You aren’t going to dissect him, are you?” Layla asked anxiously.
Vivian shook her head. “No dissections, I promise.” She looked to Mason. “I’ve also come to ask if you’ve decided about coming to training camp.”
Mason glanced down, and picked at the sheets. “I was, but between Dad’s hospital bill and this one—”
“I knew I forgot something!” Vivian interrupted. “We’re going to pay for whatever help Charlie can give, and I’m pretty sure we can work in at least a discount.”
Mason could hardly believe it. He’d have pinched himself if the IV wasn’t doing that already.
“Really?” He squeaked, and cleared his throat. Layla giggled, and he shot her a glare. “In that case I’d love to go, thanks.”
“Glad to hear it. See you there,” she said, starting to get up.
“You’ve got to go?” Mason asked.
She smiled apologetically at him. “I’m needed back at base. I’ll stop by to catch up after I go off-duty—if that’s okay with you guys.”
“No problem whatsoever,” Mason said.
Vivian smiled again, waved, and left the room. No sooner did her footsteps fade down the hall than Mason let out a whoop. It came out much louder than he’d intended, and he clapped both hands over his mouth.
“You like her,” Layla teased.
“Shut up,” Mason muttered amiably, lying down. He felt ready to start jumping up and down but, at the same time, bone-tired. He guessed the doctors would prefer the second option.
Bio: Michelle Marr is a college student living in southeastern Connecticut, who spends what’s probably an unhealthy amount of time closeted away in her room, writing superhero, fantasy, sci-fi and occasionally horror stories.