The End of the Line
The End of the Line
Edited by Tilly Waterson
By Tilly Waterson
Wow. This is my last, actual case file. Keep it together. Breathe.
March 2020. After about seven months of no origami allowed at Wheeler Academy, Dane Adamson’s impassioned plea to the school board as Student Body President changed their hearts and minds. Or, more accurately, they realized that it was kind of dumb to ban finger puppets. And so, the Marvel superheroes were back at Wheeler, and better than ever!
And that means more paperwork.
“And who are you supposed to be?” I asked, as kindly as possible, stopping a big, burly guy in the hallway who was waving around a circular piece of paper.
“Big Wheel,” the guy grunted. “I like cars.”
“Aha.” I made a note on my clipboard and moved on to the next person. There were so many new characters and people that we needed a list to make sure that everyone was accounted for. Already today, we’d had to deal with three new freshmen who all chose the same Ghost Rider character and almost came to blows. We…weren’t making a strong start.
By we, I mean the people who were now assisting me with cataloging the students. I rounded the corner and bumped into Laura, who had her own clipboard, leaning on the lockers and mentally counting everyone on her list. Her backpack was on the floor next to her, school books spilling out.
“What number are you at now?” I asked, comparing notes.
Laura sighed and held out her clipboard for me to see. “We’ve easily passed a hundred new characters today. The ban was lifted yesterday. What is with these guys?”
“Fear of missing out, I guess,” I replied. “Nobody wants to be left without a puppet after it was taken away. Even the people who hated this whole thing are getting into it now!”
Laura laughed. “Andy is going to crack up when we show him this. Even after I got Captain Americut, I’ve met at least five others today.” She looked thoughtful. “Do you think they’re going to have these issues at A.U.?”
Angleberg University was the college me, Laura and Andy were all planning on attending in the Fall. It was in Virginia, which was quite a drive, but there was a great program for each of us to decide our degrees. Laura had already been accepted, but me and Andy were still waiting for our confirmation. “I really doubt it.” I turned and leaned against the locker next to her. “It’s so weird not to have Andy or Clark here, now. They would love to see all of this happening because of something they helped bring back.”
“They’re in a better place,” Laura said with a smile. “Where are the others?”
I held out my hand and counted on my fingers. “Duncan is trying to decide what to do with the origami prison in the library, Dane is talking with the Student Council, Gar is fielding applications for the OrigAvengers, and everybody else is in class.”
Laura facepalmed. “Dang it, I have to get to English.” She shoved her clipboard into her backpack. “Sorry. Later!” She slung her backpack around her shoulders and sprinted off through the hallway.
It was hectic, and it was chaotic. Wheeler Academy was never boring but now it was on a whole new level. This last semester would be the craziest ever at this school, I was sure of it.
But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
The Story So Far
I wouldn’t say that Claremont is growing on me, per say, but it’s not, not growing on me? I don’t know how to explain it.
All I know is that it’s a way better school when you have real, actual friends to enjoy it with, even if your list of real, actual enemies was piling up alongside it. For every Katie Brooks, there was a Declan Parrish. It made life interesting, to be sure.
Currently, though, we were in the ‘fight of our lives’, meaning Declan was up to no good to get attention – again. And, since we were currently on the unpopular list, well…
Clark was thrown to the cafeteria floor by a tall bruiser named Janey. Declan couldn’t touch us personally, but he had tons of people that would do anything he wanted with a mere question. Clark, for his part, refused to fight back against any of them, because he knew that me and him had the real power over Declan – a video showing Declan forcing himself onto me when no one was watching. Until then, the guy would do anything he could to make life hard for the school.
“Heck of a right hook,” Clark sputtered, picking himself up. Thankfully, the cafeteria floors were even cleaner than the trays at my old school, Kirby High. “To be clear I was standing still.”
“He was asking a question!” I stepped in as well.
Declan was behind Janey, not hiding any of his amusement. “And he can get an answer. Janey just…you know, happened to show up.”
I glowered. “The new Parrish Foundation Band Room? Parrish Foundation Theater? What’s your play?”
Declan waved his hand nonchalantly, going to sit at an empty table spot. He didn’t bother to invite us to sit down. “My dad has an interest in the education of future students, so while I’m here we’ll be helping this school out as much as possible. Isn’t that a good thing?” There was a flicker of annoyance in his face, like he couldn’t believe I didn’t see it as anything but salvation. Janey, the bruiser, smiled broadly at Declan and stood next him. A kid who was eating within earshot of our conversation scooted as far down as he could.
“Good thing with bad motives, cool,” Clark muttered. “I don’t know, maybe we’re not fans because of how much power it gives your dad over everything going on here. In turn, giving you that much more power as well.”
Declan shrugged. “A possible side-effect, sure. Now, do you guys want to go eat, or-”
“You still sicced her on Clark for speaking up,” I pointed out.
“You can’t prove that. We’re not contracted. I didn’t tell her to do a single thing.” I looked at Clark. Our hands were tied.
That didn’t mean the Origami X-Men couldn’t do something about it.
“Janey Jackson!” the small, yet powerful, voice of Katie Brooks called from across the cafeteria aisle. The kid who was eating just picked up his tray and left. Soon, Katie with X-23, Daniel with Cyclops, Sofia with Mystique and new member Quincy with Origami Banshee had surrounded the four of us. “You are under arrest for unlawful assault.”
“You’ve gotta stop saying that, Katie,” Sofia groaned, her head in her hands.
Declan shot daggers at the new arrivals. “Hey, guys. Great to see you all. Do Clark and Emily have you on a leash, or…?”
“It’s just that wherever there’s trouble, it’s usually you three,” Daniel commented. He looked towards Clark. “No offense.”
“I have none for you to take,” Clark replied.
Katie went back to business mode. “Janey, there have been reports of you beating up people for awhile, but nobody has been able to catch you. Why is that?”
The stress was too much for Janey. “Declan has been protecting me as long as I fight whoever he wants me to fight,” she blubbered. “I just wanted to go out with him and this is the closest I could get.”
Declan fumed. “How dare-”
Katie smiled back at us. “That’s a pretty clear confession, wouldn’t you say?”
I gave her a thumbs up. “Definitely incriminating.” I stared at Declan. “Not the exact charges I’d like brought up, but they’ll do.”
Clark high-fived the X-Men. I really liked how much Clark had become a big brother to the group, Katie especially. He had shown them what it meant to be a hero, and they loved him for it. I loved him for it. We may not have had the most friends at this school, but those we did have were solid.
My stomach growled. I realized I probably should get some lunch while I was there. “Clark, come on!”
Name: Shawn Allen
“I’d really like to be a part! I think it would be very fun to join.”
Name: Angelo Viss
Puppet: Brother Voodoodle
“I think I would provide a unique perspective on what goes on at this school, thanks to my history.”
Name: James McLongway
Puppet: Spider-Fold (But don’t worry, it’s the Andrew Garfield one)
“It would be awesome! Please please please!”
“So, this is what we’re dealing with?” I asked, smiling. The newsroom was as busy as ever as I thumbed through a full three sheets of applications. Dove and Gar were next to me, flipping through their own sheets as well.
Desiree, sitting at her desk (she was no longer the editor at Wheeler, but she was able to stay on a paper) nodded, as professionally as possible. “I made sure to field all of your applications as well as possible. Some of these were…more difficult to edit than others, but this is the gist of it.”
“Well,” Gar began, setting his paper down at the desk. He looked at the two of us. “It’s your call as senior members. But I’m all for it.”
This would be a big move that would change the OrigAvengers forever, but it was the right one, I think. I looked at Dove, considering. Dove, of course, seemed happy for the change. After a moment, we nodded.
“You have all of their contact information?” Dove asked.
“They sent it in with their applications,” Desiree nodded.
Me and Dove smiled simultaneously and Gar got the message. “Send them all a congratulations,” Gar said, authoritatively. “Tell them, ‘Welcome to the OrigAvengers’.”
Desiree seemed skeptical, but that was usual for her. She turned to her computer, pulling up Gmail. “Alright, then. You realize this is going to be incredibly difficult, you’ll need to be on the top of your game at all times, and that some people are going to be really frustrated on top of it?”
“I do,” Gar replied. “But this feels like the right move. Everybody should get the chance to be an OrigAvenger, not just the cream of the crop. I’ll do my best to lay down ground rules and all of that. But with all of the fun that I’ve had since I was inducted, I think it’s fair to share that with others. Don’t you?”
“I think it’s an awesome idea,” I confirmed. Even as reserved as he was, I could tell the comment meant a lot to Gar after our history. I felt myself blush slightly.
Dove took the more professional route. “It has made my time here just as amazing. If you are able to show them the best example, I think it will go very well.”
Desiree click-clacked on her keyboard, sending a bulk email to forward to everyone who had sent in an application. “Okay, and…sent. I hope you all know what you’re getting into.”
After the meeting, Gar left to deal with the inevitable aftermath of such a huge decision. Already, people were swarming him in the hall, asking if they were really new OrigAvengers. He took it all in stride, answering every question with grace and civility. He was the model leader.
Me and Dove, however, had to get to class.
“So, how are the songs coming along?” I asked, nonchalantly.
Dove looked sheepish. “I’ve tried to practice, but…I might be tone deaf.”
“Nah, you have a great voice. They wouldn’t have let you into the choir if you were.”
He wasn’t convinced. “But there is just something…I can’t put my finger on it. The songs just feel so low. I feel like I am burping out the notes.”
I stopped. “Dove, have you ever sung in a choir before?”
“No. This is my first time.”
“Do you know any of the sections?”
He thought for a moment. “I know the bass section because that is what I am.”
“Have you tried singing higher?”
Once more, he put his finger to his chin, thinking. “Hmm…” He picked out the chorus from Toto’s Africa, which was one of the a capella songs. Raising his voice to match the melody, he tried singing, quietly, “Gonna take a lot to drag me away from you…”
When he realized he wasn’t burping the notes out, and how comfortable it felt, he looked genuinely excited. “There’s nothing a hundred men or more could ever do!”
I joined him with the alto melody. “I bless the rains down in Africa! Gonna take some time to do the things we never had!” I gave him a huge hug as Dove practically looked like he could leap all the way over the moon. “Dove! You’re a tenor! That’s why it felt so unnatural.”
“That was great!” Dove said. “That felt so good!”
“Come on, we’ve gotta get you into the new section. The teacher is going to be so happy. You sound amazing!”
“You do as well!”
I grabbed Dove’s hand and led him down to the choir room. Along the way, several people clapped and hollered. Everyone told us what I already knew; that we made an amazing duo.
By Katie Brooks
I was having a good day! Really, I was. The team had dealt another blow to the evil Declan Parrish, I aced a Math quiz, and me and Sofia were planning a trip to the mall after school. She wanted to ‘fix my style’. I needed new clothes. It was a win-win!
The last thing on my list was to visit my dad after classes. Nathan tagged along. He and my dad had become weirdly good friends.
When we got to my dad’s office, though, there were boxes all over the floor. I frowned. I knew what this meant and I wasn’t happy.
My dad was behind his desk, sweeping the floor. He looked up when me and Nathan walked in and waved. “Afternoon. If you wanna help pack some stuff up, you’re more than welcome to.” He gestured to a bookshelf at the far end of the office and some knickknacks still on his desk.
“We walk in the door and the first thing you do is put us to work?” Nathan asked, incredulous. “We just got out of school!”
“Welcome to my world,” I smirked. “Every single day.”
“The horror,” Nathan commented. Regardless of his disbelief, he immediately grabbed an empty box and headed to the bookshelf. “So, the rumors are true, then?”
“How did you-” my dad started, then he rolled his eyes. “Just because you’re a reporter doesn’t mean you have to stick your nose into everything, Torres.”
“Force of habit!” he replied.
I picked up one of the little trinkets on the desk. It was one of those birds that dipped into the water over and over. I liked watching it move. “Is it really that big of a deal?” I asked. “Big enough to stop school?”
“Looks like it,” Dad replied. “Barney told every member of the faculty to have our spaces cleaned out by the weekend. And then…who knows.”
The door opened again and a taller guy with black hair I hadn’t seen before stepped in, carrying another box. He reminded me of my friend Clark, but more expressive, and obviously not Hispanic. “Where do you want this one, Kenny?” he asked. “There’s no room next to the other files.”
Dad bent down with the dustpan to sweep up the debris. “Just set it on my desk, for now. I’ll find room in my car.” He stopped sweeping and stood up. “Oh, Katie, Nathan. This is Noah. He’s been shadowing me for the past week. Noah, this is Katie and Nathan.”
“He’s my dad,” I explained. My dad gave me a significant look, but I smiled anyway. The information wasn’t totally public yet, but I wasn’t worried about hiding it any more.
“You look just like him,” Noah said, setting the box down. “It’s very nice to meet you. Are you two siblings?”
From across the room, me and Nathan made instant eye contact before turning away immediately. I blushed, accidentally. “No, we are not.”
“Thank God,” Nathan replied, a little too loudly.
Noah grinned. “You could be twins.”
“Eeeeeew.” I shivered. “Dad, this guy is mean.”
“I’ll fire him immediately,” Dad said. “Actually, Nathan, would you mind taking those books out to my car? Noah will show you where it is.”
Nathan, who’s box was now filled to the brim with heavy, hardcover psychology books, grimaced. “Yes, sir.” He bent down and lifted the box with all his strength, shaking under the weight. He slowly waddled to the door.
“Do you need help with that?” Noah asked, leading him out.
“N-No, no, I’m…fine, I’m fine,” Nathan stuttered.
As soon as the two left, Dad looked at me seriously. “This is going to be a huge change. Are you sure you’re doing alright?”
“No, please don’t go therapist mode on me,” I groaned. “It’s gross.”
Dad threw up his hands, defensively. “What? Is there a better way to check on my daughter?”
“I dunno,” I said, sitting down on one of the bigger boxes. “I’m a little scared. If this virus does end up being a big deal, are we going to be able to deal with it?”
Dad smiled. He walked over to sit next to me. “Honestly, I don’t know. But we’re going to be fine.”
“None of the other kids are taking it seriously,” I confessed.
“They don’t know what it could mean.” Dad sighed. “I don’t think anybody does. But look on the bright side. It’ll be like an extended spring break!”
I nodded. “I guess that’s true.” I suddenly got an idea. “Do you want to break out the old Wii when we get home?”
“Old is relative, sweetie,” he laughed. “But definitely.”
An Official Statement
It is with heavy hearts we inform you that Wheeler Academy will be moving away from on-campus activity until further notice. Per state guidelines due to the concerns over the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic, the school board has ruled this a necessary action.
Due to state-wide legislature and fears surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, Claremont Academy will not be meeting on campus until further notice. Any students boarding on campus must be safely headed home in three days time. Our students’ education is the most important thing here at Claremont, so we will be making the transition to online schooling as quick and seamless as possible.
Wheeler will be utilizing the Edu-Fun Zip™ video conferencing software to continue any interrupted classes. Please download this application at the earliest convenience. Sports and other electives have unfortunately been cancelled for the time being.
This is a difficult decision to make for teachers and faculty, but we trust it is the right one to ensure safety for all parties involved.
If all goes well, we should be back to normal in two-weeks time. You won’t even notice the break! In the meantime, be sure to observe the health regulations to the best of you and your family’s abilities, and most importantly, stay safe.
Wishing you all the best,
Principal Julia Villanueva
This is an expected two-week closure as the pandemic is dealt with in a timely manner.
Hope to see you soon,
Principal Barney Sampson
Two Months Later
I opened the door and stepped back inside the house with a bag of groceries hanging on one arm. Being shuffled through aisles and forced around corners when all I needed was a bag of apples and a gallon of milk really took it out of you.
With my free hand I shut the door and not-so-gingerly removed my mask. Like all of the masks we had, a bored Cal had decorated them the way he thought best fit the person – mine was gold and red with an arc reactor in the middle. The arc reactor looked like a big blue pacifier. I turned into the kitchen, threw my mask in the pile, tossed the apples on the counter and the milk in the fridge.
“Hey, Clark,” Cal shouted from the living room. “How was the grocery store?”
“Exhilarating,” I shouted back. “Most fun I’ve had in weeks.”
I walked into the living room and saw Cal on the couch with Lacey, watching some movie. I don’t really care what it was. They were munching on popcorn and seemed perfectly content.
“Hi, Clark!” Lacey greeted. “You wanna watch with us?”
I shook my head. “Nah, I’ll just ruin your guys’ fun. I’ll be upstairs.”
“Okay,” Cal said. “If you get bored, we’ll probably pop another movie in after this one ends!”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
Once again, I rounded the corner, having walked a full aimless circle around the staircase. This time, though, I slowly marched up to the second level. Per usual, I opened the door to my room, didn’t bother closing it, and threw myself onto my bed. Just, flat on my back, staring up at the ceiling, doing nothing, as I had been doing for two whole months now.
I just listened to the silence. The computer on my desk whirred slowly in it’s idle state; the walls creaked for no real reason; the keyboard clack of my mom working in the room across the hall; the loud booms and one-liners of Cal’s movie downstairs; the bubbles of the empty goldfish bowl on the nightstand directly next to my head.
There wasn’t much I could do, even if I wanted to. I’d beaten every game on my computer, all of my embarrassingly easy homework was done, and even Mario II had died in the middle of March and PetSmart hadn’t been open so I couldn’t adopt Mario III. The goldfish food was ready for whenever I did get Mario III, but who knows when I would be able to.
Then, of course, there was the origami; that was the one thing I’d been able to fiddle with in the hours of blah. Under my computer monitor, there was an unceremonious pile of paper cranes, stars, and cootie catchers. Really, anything I could find on the internet, I’d at least tried; I’d even found instructions for an origami Yoda, the little green guy from Star Wars. His misshapen form watched me from my desk, full of wisdom or possibly judgement. My fairly new Human Torch was next to him, reminding me of everything we were all missing at Claremont.
School had been fine, but just fine. Math classes, English classes, History – they all just blurred together nowadays. I hadn’t had to leave my room for either of them. All I had to do was log on to Zip and try to stay awake as the teacher droned on and try not to make faces at Katie Brooks, who shared most of my conferences. It didn’t work; me and Katie had both been sent warnings about ‘disrupting the learning environment’ because I’d made her laugh.
Mom mentioned after school that we were low on milk and I pretty much begged her to let me go get it, just to have a change of scenery. It wasn’t great, but it was something. Now I was back here, not sure how else to spend my day.
Well, there was one thing.
After about an hour of not doing anything, my computer had the familiar chime of a video call, and I practically leaped off my bed into my computer chair to answer it. As soon as I did, the tired but welcome smile of one Emily Madison appeared on the screen.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Largent,” Emily said, imitating the long, disinterested drawl of our shared Science teacher, Mr. Oxley. “It is good to see your smiling face today. Now, please open your textbook to page-”
“Okay, okay, you can stop now,” I cut in, laughing. “You’re gonna give me PTSD.”
“Well, I think it has to all be over before you can say Post traumatic stress,” Emily corrected. She started giggling and pointed at my head. “Have you even bothered combing your hair today?”
I looked up from the computer and the small mirror on my nightstand, and realized that half of my hair was stuck to one sign in a furious case of bedhead. I desperately tried to flatten it down, but I was lying to myself if I thought that would do anything. “I think I slipped into a nap like half an hour ago. And I am not letting mom give me a haircut.”
Emily tsk-tsked, unimpressed. “You’re simply insufferable, Clark. You know that, right?”
“It’s part of my charm.” I smirked.
Evidently it wasn’t a good enough smirk for her. “Are you doing alright, really?” she asked, concern very audible in her voice.
“I mean, probably not.” No lies there.
“Have you tried Mr. Millar yet? I hear he’s a godsend.”
Mr. Millar was the guidance counsellor at Claremont. Emily had suggested I just talk with him for weeks now, but I just hadn’t had the chance. Well…okay, that is a lie, I’d had multiple chances. I just didn’t want to spill my guts to a guy I’d barely even seen, let alone met. “I’m not sure I want to. I think I’m doing fine.”
Emily nodded, but it was half hearted. “His link is on the website if you think about it.” She glanced behind me to see a half-assembled Lego robot on my shelf. “Oooh, is that a new one?”
I was thankful for the change in subject. “Just came in yesterday. I’m thinking of calling him ‘Dimbert.’”
“What do you have against robots?”
“Nothing. They just need to know their place.”
And so it went for a while. Me and Emily could talk like this for hours, in a way that sort of felt like real life. Today, Emily was very interested in hearing how my five-minute trip to the grocery had gone, so I gave her an incredibly thorough play by play. Emily was even more starved for the outside world than I was – her family was incredibly strict on following whatever guidelines came out, and as such Emily hadn’t left her house since March. Selfishly, I really only wanted her to be able to get out so she could visit me, but I knew she probably had other places to go and other people to see. Ah, well, we were both suffering.
After about an hour and a half, I heard the door open and close downstairs and I assumed that Lacey had left. Confirming that, I heard Cal’s footsteps on the stairs. He appeared in the doorway and knocked politely. “Lacey just left, by the way.”
“I figured,” I sighed. “Come in, but don’t stay long.”
“This is my room, too, Clark. You just repossessed it,” he observed. “I have just as much claim as you do.”
“I have seniority.”
“I have dibs.” Cal looked at the computer and waved. “Hey, Emily! How are you?”
On the screen, Emily waved back. “Hey, Cal. Same as always, I guess!”
“Well, that sucks,” Cal commented, casually. He turned back to me. “You wanna play MarioKart downstairs?”
I gestured to the computer screen, to show that I was busy.
“Oh, you can go if you want, Clark,” Emily said. “I should probably be going, anyway. Mom wants me to help make dinner.”
Slightly disappointed, I nodded. “Sure thing.” I glanced at Cal. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
“Sweet,” Cal said, before leaving the room and pounding down the stairs. As expected, I heard a familiar ‘Wahoo!’ from the TV soon after.
I turned back to the computer. “Okay, well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow!”
Emily smiled. “I’m not going anywhere.” She put her hand on the screen, and I mirrored her. “Take care of yourself, okay? I know it’s getting to you, but we’ll be out before you know it. And just think, graduation is next week!”
Oh, yeah. Graduation. I completely forgot about that. “You’re right! Just a bit longer.”
Emily removed her hand so she could sign off. I did the same. “I love you, Clark. See you tomorrow!”
“Love you too, and see ya.”
The call turned off, and for a moment, my spirits sank again. I wondered if I’d ever see her outside of a computer screen ever again. I put my head on the desk and just sighed.
“Clark, it’s ready!” Cal called from downstairs.
With that, I lifted my head, stood up, ready for another distraction before I was inevitably back to square one.
What was a guy to do?
At a time when most of my friends have felt very alone, I have genuinely never felt more loved. It is a strange feeling, certainly. I shouldn’t be happy at this time, but…I’ve tried to spread that happiness to others as best I can. It’s the best I can do.
The most fun always came at the weekly meetings with the team.
Garfield set them up, actually – he was fulfilling his role as team leader like an expert. He’d tried to use the Zip application at first that Wheeler used, but it was a horrible product. Those Edu-Funs apps were always terrible. But now, every week, the OrigAvengers would gather on a Discord call to chat, watch movies and play video games. It was nice.
Tonight, the team returned to the Minecraft server that had now become a city over the span of a couple months. This was largely due to the incredible number of OrigAvengers who now worked in this server, several of whom had created entire stories of this world. Amazing what nothing to do and all the time to do it could accomplish.
“Has anybody heard from Andy in a bit?” Cassidy asked. Currently online were her, Gar, myself, Ally, Ezra, Dane, new people James and Lucas, Cal, and even Guillermo all the way from Spain. Myself, Cassidy and Ezra were erecting a statue of Captain America’s shield, a tribute to our good friend.
“He is doing well!” I reported. “He, Laura and Tilly all plan to go to the same college.”
“Be nice if he hadn’t abandoned us to be…” Ezra’s voice paused, dramatically. “Homeschooled.”
“Oh, don’t be like that,” Cassidy admonished. “Don’t forget that we’re all homeschooled now.”
Dane’s character avatar – Adam Warlock, of course – came walking up the path from the city. It was slightly concerning that I’d seen more of my friends’ Minecraft characters than their actual bodies lately. “Whatcha’ guys working on?”
“The next tribute,” Cal explained. His avatar was on the top of the statue adding some finishing touches. “We’ve got the hammer, the gamma…symbol, the star, and now the shield.”
“Nice,” Dane replied. “Have you started on the arc reactor yet?”
“Not quite,” Ezra said. “That’ll be next.”
“I’ll start laying the groundwork.” Dane’s avatar sprinted down the path, a few blocks away from the almost-completed shield, stone blocks at the ready for a new foundation.
From behind my computer screen, I smiled. These monuments were meant to commemorate those of us who were graduating next week. Thor’s hammer, Hulk’s gamma, Captain Marvel’s symbol, and now the shield and reactor, all meant to honor the OrigAvengers who had made the greatest impact on Wheeler. I felt proud, and sad, too. I would be done with the greatest part of my education in the blink of an eye, and I would have to do it from a computer screen.
A message popped up on my phone that Ally was heading over. I laughed, seeing Ally’s avatar disappear from the screen almost immediately. I sent a quick confirmation text back.
“I wish you all luck!” I said to the rest of my friends. “I will be back later!”
Several variations of ‘see you later’ came flying my way, and I signed out of Minecraft.
Ally pulled into the driveway just a few minutes later. My guardian, a kindly man named Joey who had been watching over me since I came to America, let her in, of course making sure that she was wearing her mask. I put my own on and walked down the hall to greet her.
There were only three times we had seen each other in person since the pandemic had begun. This was the third, and we acted like we had not seen each other in decades. We hugged each other tightly, and did not let go for several moments.
“Are you doing alright?” Ally asked, her head on my chest. She still barely reached my shoulders.
“As well as I can be,” I said, smiling behind my mask. “Putting on a brave face for the rest of them.”
My own eyes felt close to watering, but Ally’s were calm and quiet. She subtly led me to sit at the kitchen table. Joey set out a couple glasses of water before going to his own room.
“Is everything going well?” Ally asked, once again seeming very collected.
I nodded, slowly. “My flight has been booked. My parents are very excited to see me again. Packing has been very difficult, though.” I laughed. “I’ve picked up a lot of…crud, while I’ve been here.” I gestured to various knick-knacks, books and board games strewn about the kitchen, waiting to be laid into big cardboard boxes.
Ally quickly took a drink of water. “Mmm, yeah. I understand. If you need me to, I would be happy to keep a lot of your stuff safe while you’re gone.”
“That would be cruel,” I laughed again. “You do not want my crud.”
“I mean, I wouldn’t mind,” she said, shyly. I understood that it was a genuine offer, maybe to keep a part of me close.
“I’m sure we can find something!” I finished off my own water, picked up my glass and walked back to the sink to fill it up. “I am worried it will be so…different. Not just because of the pandemic, but because of how different I am. My parents will be expecting one thing, and life another…I simply planned on being here, in America, with you, for the rest of my life. It feels awful to say, but Iceland has been an afterthought.”
“For what it’s worth, I also plan on spending my life with you,” Ally replied. Her eyes were slowly welling up, the same as mine. We had both kept back tears for each other since I learned the unfortunate truth, and I didn’t want to start now. It was the only reason she was allowed to visit me and I wasn’t about to waste our time.
“I just don’t want to see the reactions of the OrigAvengers,” I sighed, walking back to the table. “I almost feel like I’m lying to them.”
Ally suddenly turned serious. “You know you have to tell them. Lying like that just makes your insides turn.”
“I will find the time, don’t worry.”
“You have a week before you’re leaving, Dove. Some of them won’t take it well that you’ll never see them in real life again.”
That single statement broke down the entire wall surrounding my emotions in a split-second. I started crying, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. “I…I don’t want to go.”
Ally hugged me tightly once more. She started crying as well. “I don’t want you to either.”
“We’ve had such a short time.”
“It’s been worth it.” She took a breath. “And we’ll still do it together, right?”
“Was there ever any doubt?” I said, trying to break the tension.
Ally stayed as long as she could before Joey had to send her home. In a week, this would be gone. I would never see my friends on American soil again, because of a pandemic forcing me back to what I considered to be my second home. And there was no Ally there to be with me.
I’ve tried to spread happiness to others as best I can. But sometimes, the best I can do is not enough.
Tuesday afternoon. School is done, Cal is out with Mom on an errand, and I have less to do than I usually would. Feels fantastic.
Because I had no standards, I was perfectly ready to spend the entire night watching TV while eating a bowl of Apple Jacks. So, that’s just what I did. I think golfing was on.
There was a polite knock at the door.
Even a polite knock was as surprising as a gunshot, nowadays. I fumbled on the couch and spilled some of my cereal on the floor. Swearing mildly, I called for Cal or my mom to get the door, but then I remembered I was the only one there. I had to answer the door. Frick.
I turned off the TV and took a step back. I’d never once considered how frightening opening a door could be. Within a split second, I took in all of my surroundings; the unwashed dishes on the kitchen counter, a layer of dust on the TV, me wearing baggy cargo pants and a t-shirt that was way too small for me, and, of course, the milk puddle. With lightning speed I dashed into the kitchen, grabbed some paper towels and sopped up the milk, threw the paper towels in the trash can and bolted to the door. All the while, there hadn’t been a second knock; whoever was outside must be very polite.
Instinctively, I reached for one of the masks that was hanging beside the door, but I shrugged. My house, my germs. I opened the door, expecting a delivery man or something.
What I got was a bear hug.
“Clark!” a familiar voice said, connected to a familiar freckled face and familiar mop of red hair. Andy Gardner was standing on my doorstep for some reason. I looked over his shoulder (he was still hugging me) and saw Laura behind him, waving happily.
“What-” I started, pushing Andy away from me, “And I can not stress this enough – the frick are you doing here, Gardner?”
On Andy’s face was a measure of disappointment that quickly disappeared. “I wanted to visit you, man! It’s been…well, half a year since we’ve seen each other in person.”
“I convinced him to, actually,” Laura piped up. “He’s missed you more than he’d like to say.” She put her arm around Andy, still beaming. The two of them had clearly gotten closer.
“If you haven’t noticed, there’s a pandemic currently happening,” I pointed out.
“We didn’t think you’d mind,” Andy replied. “You’re not usually one for rules.”
I stared. “And you are!”
There was a moment of awkward silence.
“Can we come in?” Andy asked.
I was suddenly self-conscious as I looked around my home and noticed every disgusting thing we hadn’t bothered to clean in the two or so months that we hadn’t entertained guests (Lacey didn’t count for some reason). My t-shirt still felt way too small.
Andy and Laura stepped inside and didn’t do much but smile happily and look around. I was able to take in some changes that they’d gone through as well – Andy was taller and bulkier, no longer a string-bean. His hair was a bit longer and shaggier, and he had the beginnings of a beard on his face. By contrast, Laura’s long blonde hair had been cut shoulder-length, and she had glasses now. They looked like…grown ups.
Andy noticed me staring and rubbed his hairy chin. “Do you like it? I’ve been told it makes me look ten years older.”
“It’s definitely a change.” I was quiet, still surprised. Finally, I blurted out my questions. “What are you doing here, why are you in my house…why?”
“To help you, Clark!” Laura explained. “We’ve heard that you haven’t been doing well and wanted to stop by. With graduation next week, you need to be on your A-game.”
“Pff,” I scoffed. “I’ve been doing just fine on my own, thank you very much.” I made sure I was standing in front of the milk-stained floor when I said that. “Quarantine has felt fantastic. It’s a chance to finally have some peace and quiet.”
Andy sighed. I glared. He must have sensed he was in a losing battle. “Good to know.” He looked around for a convenient topic change. “Where’s Cal and your mom? Have they been doing alright?”
“Cal’s actually trying for his driver’s test. The DMV is one of the few things that’s still open and this seemed like a bit of a necessity.” I moved behind the kitchen counter and to the fridge. “Do you guys want something to drink? Orange juice? A margarita?”
“I’d like a margarita,” Laura replied.
“Coming right up.” I grabbed the orange juice out of the fridge and some cups out of the cabinet. “Help yourself. It seems like you guys have been out and about. How is the outside world?”
“Different,” Andy said, sipping his juice. “People are different. It’s very important that you follow the rules. If you don’t, you’re disturbing the peace.”
“The rules are there for our safety, man.”
“Shouldn’t we decide our safety for ourselves?” Laura added.
“Not if it hurts other people.”
“We’re just hurting ourselves!”
“By being healthy?”
Andy held his hands up. “Easy. This is not the time, or the place.”
Me and Laura quickly glared at each other before going back to our drinks. “Fine.”
There was a bit of an awkward silence. I looked around the room for a moment, trying to come up with another topic. Laura actually broke the silence.
“Wheeler actually, uh, received a pretty big grant to help them stay open,” Laura brought up. “Not the most thrilling conversation, but we got an email about it this morning.”
I smirked. “Yeah, exciting.”
Laura pulled out her phone to pull up the email. She read aloud,
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our financial situation has been understandably impacted by these massive changes. However, recently we received a large grant from the Parrish Foundation. Emmanuel Parrish, the founder of this organization, has made it clear that he wants to keep schools of his home state of New York running to provide for the upcoming generation.
My eyes bugged out of my head. “You’ve got to be [censored] kidding me.”
“Language,” Andy said, reflexively.
“You know what this means, right?”
“We’re…better off financially?” Laura asked, confused by my outburst.”
“No, the name!” I spat out. “You guys know the name, right?”
Andy shrugged. “The Parrish Foundation? They’ve been offering grants to pretty much every school in the state to help them stay open through this thing. It’s been in the news. Have you…watched the news?”
“Of course not, gross.” I stood up from the counter and started pacing, worriedly. “This is very bad. Declan Parrish was Emily’s ex-boyfriend. He was super rich and his dad was on the school board and gave so much funding to the school that Declan practically ruled it.”
“I hate him already,” Laura commented.
“Funny. Anyway, his father has been giving grants to Claremont lately which, in turn, gives much more power to Declan to lord it over people. They both think that Claremont is the perfect model of a school. But, if he’s setting his sights on Wheeler, that means that…oh, God…”
“What?” Andy asked. “What does it mean?”
I took a deep breath. “He’ll turn Wheeler into Claremont.”
Andy and Laura looked at each other, still not getting the full, terrible picture, then back at me. “So?” Laura asked.
“Won’t that just give Wheeler more money?”
“Claremont would be awful for you guys, seriously,” I said. “It’s…well, for one, it’s painfully expensive. So many more kids would have to leave. And there’s the whole elitism and whatever, but…Okay. We’ve gotta fix this.” I pulled my phone out of my pocket and dialed a number. “Yeah, hey, mom. Where’s Cal? Still at the test? Tell him to get out of it soon. Declan is being an idiot again. No, no, not about Emily. Okay. Bye.”
I turned to look at Andy. I was ready. I needed this. This would be good for me. “Call it, Cap.”
Andy seemed hesitant, unsure of the next moves. He looked at Laura. “Yeah, Cap. Uh, call it.”
Laura shrugged. “Sure. Let’s…do something about this!”
I don’t know how to make my life interesting at this point. Before Clark and Andy showed up on that particular day, there was just nothing. And that is the biggest problem.
I plan things. I organize things. It’s how I function. I did it for F.O.L.D. and I do it for the OrigAvengers. When things don’t go to plan, I don’t do well. I haven’t been doing well for months.
I was upstairs in my room working trying to keep the Wheeler website up and running. I just needed something to work with, to fix myself, to know that I was in control. Captain Marfold stood resolutely on my computer monitor. I would do it for her.
Already, it was loud downstairs; my little cousin was pounding through the house like a jackhammer, and aunt Mary and my dad, who was home from deployment, were arguing about something. The last thing I wanted to do was get in the middle of it. But I heard somebody answer the door, and my aunt called down the hallway, “Tilly, it’s for you.”
I was immediately excited. It had to be Andy and Laura. They were the only people from ‘real life’ I’d seen in-person since March. Immediately I threw on some tennis shoes and bolted to the door.
Through the door, I could hear a conversation between some very familiar voices. “She’s not going to be up for it.” “She’s a part of the crew, she can’t not come.” “She’s been kind of… Well, the college stuff hit her hard. She’s not going to be down for punching another bad guy for no reason.”
I opened the door to see Andy and Clark arguing about something on the doormat. “I’m in.”
Clark’s face lit up while Andy’s was simply confused. I’d seen Andy a couple times since quarantine started, so I was used to his different look. Clark seemed more or less the same. Maybe a little more scruff on his face, and definitely a lot more tired. Laura and Cal were behind them, and they waved, kindly. Cal had had a growth spurt; he was probably taller than me now.
I then realized what I probably looked like. I was messy, my hair was untamed, and my clothes were from the very bottom of my drawer because laundry hadn’t really been my priority. Tilly Waterson, not your finest look.
“I mean, I’m in, in about five minutes.”
“No, wait-” Clark said, but I’d already shut the door so I could go change.
I bolted back through my house to find something else to wear. But on the way back, I was stopped by my dad.
To say that he was taking this whole pandemic thing seriously was an understatement. Aside from very short visits from super close friends, he’d barely let me take the trash out without wearing a mask.
“Who was that?” he asked. He was a soldier through and through, and he knew exactly when and how to use his commanding-officer voice.
“Andy, Dad. And a few of my other friends.”
“What are they here for?”
“Puppet stuff, Dad.”
To any other parent, that would be a very weird explanation, but my Dad had been a part of F.O.L.D. when he was at Kirby. He was one of the best members they’d ever had, and that level of organization had inspired him to join the military. Okay, the cause-and-effect wasn’t a straight line, but it was close. “Is it something that can be done on your computer?”
“On your computer, while you’re studying?”
My eyes narrowed. “No, Dad. And I’m done studying for the day. I’ll bring my mask, but I need to go.” I stepped around him.
“You need to make a good impression if you want to make it into AU next year. They won’t skip out on you then.”
“Yeah, sure.” I dodged my cousin for the umpteenth time that day, grabbed a mask and threw the door open a lot harder than I intended.
Clark and Andy were arguing again. I wasn’t in the mood. “Okay, guys. Who’re we punching?”
“Are you sure you want to come?” Andy asked. “I know you’ve been working hard on-”
“I’m not thinking about college right now, Andy,” I interrupted. “I’ll make it next year.”
“What happened?” Clark asked.
I didn’t want to explain the whole story again. I’d already done so for Andy, Laura, Guillermo, and a few of my other close friends. It got more and more frustrating every single time I thought about it. That single denial had ruined every plan I’d made for the next four years of my life. “Angleberg University had to limit students for this school year. I didn’t submit mine in time.”
“But I thought-”
“Andy and Laura both got in.” I pushed past Andy and Clark to step out onto the lawn.
“I tried to tell you,” I heard Andy whisper. His heart was in the right place, but he didn’t know how much I just wanted to ignore the issue.
Clark stepped off the doorstep. “Nice mask,” he commented. I looked down and noticed that I was wearing my aunt’s ugly ‘Is it wine time yet?’ facehugger. I gagged. “To answer your question, Tilly, the bad guy in question is Declan Parrish. He is a kid from Claremont who’s father is as rich as Scrooge McDuck. His foundation is planning on giving grants to Wheeler so they can infiltrate and make it a bourgeoisie hellscape.”
“Sounds intense. What’s the plan?”
Clark held up a finger. “Step one: gather the group. We just need Dove and Ally and we’ll be good to go.”
“They’re not going to come-” Andy started, but Clark hushed him.
He held up a second finger. “Step two: we, uh…” He thought for a moment, quietly making calculations. “Well, we’ll figure it out when we get there.”
Rolling my eyes, I smiled. “Don’t worry. This sounds like a job for the OrigAvengers!” Triumphantly, I held up Captain Marfold, waiting for everyone else to join in. “Guys, come on.”
“I don’t have one,” Clark said.
“I gave mine to Laura,” Andy said.
“I forgot to grab it,” Laura admitted.
“Mine’s in my pocket,” Cal announced, proudly.” He pulled out his Spider-Fold puppet, which had seen better days.
“Well, okay then.” I looked back at the house, where I knew Dad would be worrying about me skipping out on valuable study time. I needed to get into school next year, which was incredibly important to both me and him. I wasn’t going to allow myself to think about it for one afternoon. After that, I could go back to having my entire life on hold.
The final house on our…mission, I guess, was Dove’s. Somehow, I knew this wouldn’t go well. I’d heard some of Dove’s plans and they would not merge at all with Clark’s current insanity.
This was precisely the reason that I did not stop him. This unstoppable force needed to meet an immovable object.
Clark pounded on Dove’s front door. This was the house that he’d stayed in since he came to America, with that Joey guy. He always weirded me out. “Dover MacLeash!” Clark called inside. “We’re here to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative.”
After a beat of nobody answering, Clark looked back at the group. My arms were crossed, skeptically. Tilly and Laura kept looking back, wanting to leave as soon as possible. Cal gave him a thumbs up.
Clark turned to knock again when the door opened. Ally was in the doorway. She had a mask on and was obviously keeping her distance, but she looked well. The green streak in her hair was more vibrant, tied back in a ponytail.
“Guys?” she said, almost gasping. “Oh my gosh, it’s so good to see you all! I would come out and hug you all, but, well…” She gestured to the green fabric on her face.
“Not what I was expecting,” Cal observed. “We’re here to recruit you all for a mission to take down an evil businessman and his Draco Malfoy of a son. So, the usual stuff.”
“Where’s Dove?” Clark asked. “And why are you here?” He peered into the doorway. “Why are there so many boxes all over the place?”
Ally suddenly looked very sad. “He…hasn’t told you yet?”
Tilly shook her head, sadly. “He’s becoming a hoarder,” she guessed.
“No, no,” Ally said, with a small laugh. “He, um…actually, he should tell you.” She disappeared back into the house, and after a minute, returned, holding the arm of a Dove MacLeash. He looked even more reluctant to come to the door than Ally had, but I could see that he was glad to see us. He was just as big as he’d always been. His hair had gotten much longer and was now tied up in a bun.
“Dove!” Clark said, excitedly. “It’s been too long. So, you wanna come help beat up a guy with me?”
Without missing a beat, Dove shook his head. “No.”
“No?” Clark asked.
“I can’t. I shouldn’t even be talking with you, but Ally said it was important.” He squeezed her hand tightly.
“What’s wrong, Dove?” Tilly asked. Laura shared a look with me. This would be hard.
Dove took a deep breath. “You have been the greatest friends I could have asked for. I never expected to form such amazing bonds here in America. I am truly fortunate.”
Cal stepped next to Clark. “It sounds like there’s about to be some bad news.”
“Let him finish, Cal,” I said. It came out more forcefully than I intended, but this was important.
“Because of this pandemic, I will be moving back to Iceland immediately following graduation.” Dove’s eyes started to well up. “It’s not something I want to do, but I don’t have any control over it. I am sorry. I would love to go on one more adventure with you all, but I have been ordered to quarantine before my trip.”
“I can’t come either,” Ally added. “They made a special exception for me, and I’m not going to mess things up.”
“You’re…leaving?” Clark asked. The wind was taken out of him. “Why?”
“The pandemic, like I said,” Dove explained. “It is important that I stay with my family.”
“You have a family?” Cal asked.
Clark didn’t look happy about this at all. On the contrary, he almost looked angry. Not at Dove. But at everything, really.
“If you need help, we can do voice-call-”
“No, no voice-call,” Clark spat. He turned around from the door. “Have fun moving back to Norway.”
Dove’s face fell. “Iceland.”
Clark turned as if to apologize, but he decided against it. He stormed off back to his truck, not caring if anybody else followed, leaving the rest of the group to awkwardly stand on Dove’s doorstep.
Cal stared at his brother, aghast. He turned back to the door. “I’m really sorry. He doesn’t mean it. Clark!” He ran after him.
The five of us shuffled our feet, waiting for someone to break the silence. We all knew that this was coming whether we liked it or not. I caught Dove’s eye and we nodded to each other. We both knew that Clark wasn’t in his right mind now. It wouldn’t be fair to hold his outburst against him because we were all struggling in our own way. He just needed time. And help.
“Is there anything we can do to help you out, Dove?” Laura asked.
Dove shook his head. “You’re already helping me by being here. I’ve missed you all so much and I wasn’t sure we would be able to see each other again.”
“It’s not the best of circumstances,” Tilly admitted, laughing and proudly gesturing to her mish-mash of an outfit. “I love you all too much to care.”
Ally was impressed. “You really work that look, Tilly.” Tilly curtsied.
“I really hate to break this up,” I said, sighing, “But I think our mutual friend needs us.” I gestured to the truck. Clark was leaning against while Cal tried to get him to apologize.
Dove and Ally both nodded. “Joey will get mad at us if we keep the door open for much longer,” Dove agreed.
“Tell Clark that he doesn’t need to say sorry,” Ally said. “God only knows he’s listened to us when we’ve gone off the deep end.”
It hurt that we weren’t able to give them any goodbye hugs. One of our best friends was leaving for the foreseeable future and we couldn’t even shake his hand? It wasn’t fair. But then again, a lot of things weren’t fair.
Clark was feeling that unfairness pretty heavily. He needed us, whether he knew it or not. He was about to have to face his reality in a very unpleasant way.
He hadn’t moved from his position by his truck, cross-armed and brooding. Cal looked at us pleadingly as we walked up, begging us to do anything to help out.
Tilly was the first to approach. “You aren’t alright, are you, Clark?” she asked, quietly. She put her hand on his shoulder. It seemed as though Clark was forcing everything inside of him down to his feet. It looked like it hurt.
“Just…get this done,” he muttered. He clenched his fists but didn’t move. Tilly wasn’t letting him go.
Cal looked at me, worried. He knew things were about to get bad. “Let’s, uh, do this tomorrow, Clark. Sleep on it. We’ve done a lot in one day.”
“We haven’t done enough,” Clark spat back, turning around quickly. Tilly removed her hand reflexively. “We have to stop Declan. We have to fix Wheeler. We have to get the whole team, and everybody, and Emily, all back together. It’s the only way to win.”
“Win?” I asked, slowly. “Or else what?”
“Or else-” Clark stopped, and choked back tears. “I have to go back inside.”
For the entire three years that I’d known Clark Largent, I’d never seen him cry. I’d seen him get angry, and snotty, and annoying as heck, but for the most part he kept himself cool and collected. This was an entirely new Clark, one who’s barriers had slowly worn down and left what I assumed to be the real person down beneath.
Clark started to cry. Not sobbing, but tears started to roll down his face.
Tilly instinctively reached out and grabbed his hand. Cal looked surprised, and a little sad as well, to see his older brother break down like this. Laura grabbed my own hand, starting to cry herself.
“I’ll…I’ll have to go back inside,” Clark repeated, “And you guys will leave again.”
“We’ll do our best not to,” Laura jumped in to say. “But-”
Clark glowered. “No! Don’t even make an excuse. I know that everything went to crap, but, I don’t know! I don’t know.”
“There were- are, rules, Clark,” Tilly added.
“I wanted you all to break the rules for me! Me, just me!” He was finally shouting, reaching his peak. “My mom had COVID for two weeks and nobody knew. Ricky is thinking about closing his store and nobody cares. Nobody broke the rules to stay healthy, instead of checking if I was actually $#@%& healthy!”
“This isn’t going to make you healthy, Clark,” I replied. “You know that, right?”
“Of course I know that, Andy! But it should. I should be able to flip a switch and everything is better immediately. It’s what superheroes do.”
Cal rolled his eyes. His sympathies weren’t that big, I guess. “Bullcrap, Clark. You left for Claremont and I was stuck for months wondering if I was ever going to feel right again because of the hole you left. It took me a long time but I pulled myself out of it. Not by going to fix some monumental problem that might or might not exist. You need to stop. Let’s go home.”
“No!” Clark shouted again. “I can’t go back. Please don’t make me.” Clark slid down the side of the truck until he was curled up in a ball. Tilly kneeled down next to him, still holding his hand. They were quiet, for a moment.
“Plans don’t always work out the best way,” Tilly said, finally. “And, sometimes…we have to pause. And reevaluate. About what’s really important.” I think she was talking to herself as much as Clark. “I’m sorry we weren’t there like you needed us to be. We’re here, now, though. And as your friends we need to shut this down. You know that Declan isn’t important, right?”
“I’m painfully aware,” he groaned from under his arms.
I knelt down as well and put a hand on his shoulder. “What is important is getting you back on your feet. To make sure that you’ll be alright.”
Clark lifted his head slowly. He groaned. “Emily was right. I’m so dumb.” He gradually pulled himself up. “I know who to talk to.” He looked between each of us, apologetically. “I know you guys probably have stuff to get to with graduation next week. I’m sorry for dragging you along.”
I shook my head. “Why apologize? This was the most fun I’ve had in months. If you’re fine with it, I’d love to have you over a bunch more, when there isn’t a new threat hanging over our heads.”
“Give it a couple days,” he said, with the hint of his smirk returning.
Laura gave him a hug. “So, are we even now? After the whole Artron thing?”
“I’ll be completely honest, I’d totally forgotten about that, so sure.” As Laura let go, Tilly squeezed his hand one more time. “You’re going to be alright too, you know,” he said. “You’re Tilly frickin’ Waterson.”
Tilly laughed. “Maybe I do need a break. I just have to get my dad to stop the regiment.”
Clark and Cal hopped back into their truck. Clark had a purpose now, even if it was just talking to someone about his struggles. And for once, it seemed like a goal that could be overcome.
Spilling my Guts
By Clark Largent
Was it really a good idea to spill my guts to someone I barely knew? I mean, I guess that’s what therapy was. I didn’t need therapy, though. Did I? No, of course not. It would just be an awkward chat.
Or, I just need to keep my thoughts to myself.
Ding. I had successfully joined the meeting. Emily’s encouragement text was ringing through my mind. If nothing else, I would do it for her.
Slowly, two other video screens came into focus. The Zip application really was terrible. On one of the screens was Mr. Millar, a guy I’d seen almost every day at school but never talked to. He had an air of professionalism about him, but still approachable. He seemed nice enough, and he had a striking resemblance to Katie Brooks- on second thought, nevermind. I’m an idiot.
On the second screen was, to my surprise, Noah Minch, a good friend of me and Emily. He and his fiance, Frankie, had taken us under their wing when we started Claremont. I had no idea why he was here.
“Hi, Clark!” Noah said, waving awkwardly through the screen. He grumbled under his breath, “Webcams are stupid.”
“Yeah, it’s nice to formally meet you, Mr. Largent,” Mr. Millar said with mock formality. “Noah here has been shadowing my job for the past few months. If you’d like him to leave, just say the word!”
I raised an eyebrow and shrugged. This was so weird. “Uh, hey. No, it’s fine if he stays, I guess.”
Millar nodded and scratched his beard. “So, Clark! What have you been up to lately?”
I scoffed, with a bit more attitude than I anticipated. “Nothing much. It’s been pretty quiet.”
“Oh, really?” Millar asked, surprised. “I hadn’t really noticed.” I stared, before Millar smiled. “I’m kidding. It’s not every day that you’re in the middle of something like this. It’s changing the world, any way you slice it.”
“Yeah,” I said, sighing. “It’s…a thing.”
“It was an event going to the grocery store this morning,” Noah commented. “And Frankie can barely get anything done for the wedding.”
I smirked. “You’re still getting married during all of this?”
Noah matched my expression. “Impatience is setting in.”
Mr. Millar laughed. “Okay, easy.” He seemed genuinely happy to be hearing this dumb stuff, which I appreciated. I wouldn’t be able to tolerate it. “Have you gone out in a bit, Clark?”
Ouch. No punches pulled. “Yeah. Went out yesterday for almost the whole day, actually. It was nice, but it felt a bit like sensory overload.”
“I don’t know,” I said, honestly. “It was with my friends. And I just missed them so much that I wanted to do everything I possibly could. Which, I guess, isn’t that healthy.”
“I will say, our bodies weren’t exactly made for this, in more ways than one,” Millar commented. “We are meant for community and relationships. Our brains are built for it. For some people, quarantining has been more debilitating than the virus.”
“Has it, though?” I asked, skeptically. “You know, death, and all of that.”
“This is true.” He looked thoughtful. “How has it affected you, Clark?”
“I don’t know.” I scanned my brain. “Made me appreciate my friends a bit more, I guess. I always acted like I didn’t care all that much about them, but now I know that’s wrong. I care about them so much. I’ve hated being away from them.”
Millar nodded. “I’ve missed my friends as well. How have you dealt with that?”
I laughed. “I did great. I didn’t even realize it until yesterday but I completely shut myself off from all of them except for Emily, my girlfriend. It hurt them and it hurt me. And now I feel like I’ve wasted the time before graduation by removing myself like that.”
I noticed a look in Noah’s face that told me he understood completely. “I, uh…do you mind if I take this, Kenny?”
Millar sat back in his chair and held out his hands. “By all means. The floor is yours, Mr. Minch.”
Noah smiled, then paused, searching for the right words. Finally, he seemed to find them. “When I was a bit younger than you, Clark, I did the same thing. Not because of a pandemic, obviously, but because I was hurt. It was something involving Frankie, actually…the details are fuzzy.” He shook his hands around his head for emphasis. “But I closed myself off because I didn’t trust my friends to be there for me. My friends cared enough about me that they pulled me back. I didn’t do anything to help myself; it was all them.
“The fact that they cared enough to show up and tell you what was wrong means that they still want to be there for you. You might feel like you screwed up, but it sounds like your relationships are strong enough to withstand the…um…screwing, even if you don’t think they will.”
“You might be right.” I sighed. “But what can I do about the whole situation? I’ll still be stuck here.”
“Make the most of it,” Millar advised. “Create projects for yourself. Play games with your family, and be with your friends in the best ways you can. Even if it won’t be exactly as you like, you’ll look back and be glad you did.”
He was right. Totally. I couldn’t do anything to fix this enormous problem affecting everyone I knew, but I couldn’t sit on my butt all day wishing for it to change either. I just needed to change myself, to show myself the good instead of feeding myself the bad.
After all, isn’t that what a superhero should do? Never stop trying to make the world a better place in their own special way?
At that moment, there was a knock at Millar’s door. He looked to me for permission. I shrugged. “Come in!” he called.
Katie came into the room. “Dad, do you know where-” She looked at the computer. “Clark! Hi!” She looked from me to her dad and back. “Oh, well. Huh. Guess that’s out in the open now.”
“There is a resemblance,” I said.
She stood behind her father. “So, are you doing alright?”
I sat back and thought for a moment. I wasn’t perfect, per say, but I was better. I smiled. “Yeah, I’m doing alright.”
Coming Back Around
It wasn’t long after they all left that I knew something had to be done. While we watched a movie in the living room, I tapped Dove’s shoulder.
“I think it’s time that you tell everyone what’s going on,” I said, gently. “You saw everything. They all love you. They need to know the truth.”
Dove took the remote and paused the movie, and took a moment to breathe deeply. “You’re right. This needs to be done.” He left for a moment to grab his laptop. Opening up Discord to the massive OrigAvengers server, he dramatically cracked his knuckles. He leaned over to type out his announcement, but stopped midway. “I have no idea what to say.”
“Here, let me see.” I sat next to Dove. I started to type something out as well, but I realized it wasn’t something I needed to do. “It has to be your words, I think. Just type everything you want to. It doesn’t have to be a perfect essay.”
Dove sighed. “It would be nice if it was perfect, though,” he chuckled. “Of course, I’ve had experience with writing at this point.”
This is what he wrote.
Hello, OrigAvengers! My name is Dove MacLeash, the Mighty Thorigami. You all probably know that, actually, so I’m not sure why I told you.
Without beating around the bush, I have unfortunate news. After graduation, I will be returning to Iceland for the foreseeable future due to COVID regulations. It isn’t something I want to do, but for the safety of myself and my family members, it must be done.
You can not imagine how much I have loved living in America for the past three years. I do not exaggerate when I say that I will miss every one of you. Hopefully, I will be able to return in the future as well.
As for Thorigami, the title is now free for the taking, though I nominate Kurt Blum as my successor. He will do the title well!
I hope to see you all again someday,
“Goodness, Kurt being the new Thorigami?” I laughed, thinking about all of the chaos he might cause.
“He will grow,” Dove said, certain.
The responses came in soon after. Many were variations of ‘this is so sad, we’ll miss you,’ but some were incredibly heartfelt and touching. Gar explained in detail why Dove was such an inspiration to him, and even Seyla Solstice admitted how difficult it was for her.
Dove looked like a weight was off of his chest. Now that the truth was out there, it had truly set him free.
That night, I knew that my talk with Clark hadn’t just been talk. All of what I told him about plans and broken ideals came from my heart, and that’s when I realized that I didn’t need to worry so much about the future.
A very wise woman once said that ‘Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow. It empties today of its strength.’ My life had been filled with worry since the denial had come, and I was done with letting it affect me.
In short, I would do the unthinkable: take a break.
My dad wasn’t a huge fan of this new direction. “You have to be ready when the applications start again, Tilly. Are you completely sure?”
I nodded, trying to stare my dad in the face, which was hard, because he was a foot taller than I was. “I’m sure, Dad. I haven’t taken a break in four years. I think this is what I need. And if I get bored, well, that’s what studying is for!”
He didn’t come around immediately, but eventually he grudgingly accepted my decision. Instead of focusing on a million different superheroes and mentoring a bunch of younger kids, it was time to focus on me.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt as happy as when I’d heard that Clark had talked with Mr. Millar. Knowing him, I’d been so worried that eventually he would completely fold in on himself and collapse…which, according to Andy, he almost had. Instead, he had gotten the help even I couldn’t give him. It felt good.
He tried to explain everything that they’d discussed, but as wired as he seemed, he had a tough time doing so. I caught that Katie had visited by the end and they’d talked for a bit, that Noah was Mr. Millar’s assistant, and that Mr. Millar owns a real, actual broadsword that he showed once the meeting was done. I couldn’t help but laugh the entire time. Clark – my Clark – was back.
“It was huge! You could slash it back and forth like this.” He stood up in front of the monitor and mimed a sword slash and hit his knuckle on the table. “Ow. You get the idea.”
“I do, yes,” I said. “You’re a true knight in shining armor.”
“I want a sword, Emily,” he said. “When we get together again, I am going to the sword store.”
“Do we have one?”
“I’ll find it.”
I brushed the hair out of my face. “Speaking of getting together again, it’ll be just another week.”
Clark sat down. “Really?”
“My parents said I can come to graduation, in-person, and maybe hang out afterwards.”
Clark was usually good at controlling his expressions, but I saw pure joy cross his face in an instant. “Oh, thank God. Are you sure?”
“Do you think he’s doing fine?” Laura asked me over Facetime a few nights later. With graduation the next day, we were both kind of freaking out. At least she got to go to Wheeler for her graduation. I had to graduate at my church. Homeschooling.
“I hope so,” I said, trying on my cap. Laura giggled at the sight of it. “He’s stronger than he looks.”
“I don’t know, he looks pretty strong,” she replied. I shot her a look as she laughed. “Oh, don’t be like that, I’m kidding.” She looked at her alarm clock on her computer desk. “So, yours is at 3 tomorrow?”
“Yeah. It’ll give me time to get dressed and go to yours at 6.”
“Sounds good.” She grabbed a cup of water next to her and held it up. “Then college afterwards, right?”
“College afterwards,” I said, holding up an imaginary glass and toasting it. “Here’s to the future.”
“Here’s to our future.” Laura toasted her glass with a smirk and drank to our health.
Graduation Day came pretty soon afterwards! After the craziness of last week, I was so happy that Clark was finally feeling up to it. He looked good. Not excited, but then again, he hardly ever was excited. But there was a lightness to his sarcastic comments that I hadn’t seen in months. This was my real brother. It just took some time to bring him back out.
It wasn’t perfect. The set-up was still really dumb and a little sad. At Claremont Academy, the gymnasium was repurposed into the graduating stage because it was the biggest area they had. Only the senior’s families were allowed to come, while the rest of it would be livestreamed. I couldn’t even invite Lacey, let alone any of the OrigAvengers. But I knew they would all be watching. This was a big moment for my brother and I didn’t want anyone to miss it.
Clark himself was sitting in the front row of the seats, wearing his cap and gown. Emily was sitting next to him. It was a testament to his well-being that he was sitting next to Declan Parrish as well, his supposed sworn enemy, and didn’t seem to care one bit. I could see why Clark hated him, though. He looked like a jerk.
Clark looked back to me, Mom and Uncle Ricky, expectantly. I gave him a thumbs up.
Up on the stage, their principal, Mr. Sampson stepped up to the podium with a mask over his face. He called everyone’s attention. It wasn’t difficult to get it, since there were only about eight or nine families with graduates. Claremont was expensive.
“Thank you all for coming to this momentous occasion,” Principal Sampson announced. “This past school semester has been unprecedented. No one could have expected the changes we would have to face, and how that would affect our regular procedures. We thank you all for all the assistance you and your students have given. We are, of course, in this together after all.”
Principal Sampson cleared his throat. His vice principal stepped up the podium, rolling a cart with diplomas displayed on top of it. “Today, we recognize the accomplishments of students we have taught and nurtured for years…and some we haven’t.” I rolled my eyes. That was as pointed as any remark as ever I’d heard. “They have done the real work, and all we did was direct them along. So, it is my great pleasure to announce Claremont Academy’s graduating class of 2020!”
The auditorium clapped, politely. This wasn’t a school where people got excited, apparently. Principal Sampson held up his list of students. “When your name is called, please come up to the stage. Each student has been asked to prepare a short commemorative statement as well to enjoy their time in the sun.” He cleared his throat once more. “Abel, Wesley.”
The ceremony was…long. Very long. And boring. These rich kids talked and talked a lot. Wesley Abel’s ‘short commemorative statement’ lasted fifteen minutes, and that’s when I knew we’d be here awhile.
Finally, after the fifth student, the principal called for “Largent, Clark.”
Clark stepped up to the podium, with a determined look on his face. The principal didn’t shake his hand, but nodded importantly. “Congratulations, Mr. Largent. Your statement.”
Looking awkward in his giant robes, Clark retrieved his notecards from his pocket. He took a deep breath.
“This won’t be long, I promise,” he started. “I’m not one for long speeches. When I am, they never end well.” He paused. I gave him another thumbs up. “I know most of you have no idea who I am, since I just started Claremont this year. Honestly, it hasn’t been for me. So, this speech isn’t for you. It’s for my friends who I really hope are watching right now because if not, that would be really awkward.
“Thank you, all of you. If I hadn’t been forced into some weird superhero club because a guy broke my robot – which is so weird to hear out of context – I would be a lot worse off than I am today. You changed my life for the better, since you showed me that life wasn’t just about me. I went so far outside of my comfort zone I’m not even sure I have one anymore, and that’s all because of what you did for me.”
His eyes turned to me. “To my brother, thank you for always annoying me into being better.” I glared at him.
“To my mom and my uncle, thank you for showing me how to be a hero even when it’s hard.” Mom was already sobbing, which I expected, but even Ricky was tearing up.
“And to Emily, thank you.” I glanced over at Emily on the front row, who was also crying.
“This year has sucked. It’s been terrible and I honestly couldn’t care less about school itself, especially since I just joined this one. But the people I shared it with? They can’t be replaced, and I wish them all the best in whatever comes next. Thank you.”
Principal Sampson looked a bit irritated by Clark’s less-than-glowing endorsement of Claremont, but he still presented the diploma. After a quick photo, Clark stepped down off of the podium, officially graduated from high school.
He was done.
“Madison, Emily,” the principal called.
Emily, so much more comfortable in her robes, stepped up to the podium as well, wiping her eyes, but laughing gently. “That was mean, Clark. You knew I was coming after you.”
“Sorry!” Clark called back. Principal Sampson shot him one last glare, but there was nothing he could do about it now. I figured that was Clark’s one last act of rebellion against the school, and really, who could blame him?
Freedom must’ve felt pretty nice.
What Happened Next
With the ceremony finished, I was a free man. Not a care in the world, a lone wolf following his own path.
Well, I would be, if there weren’t so many people I liked now.
Outside the campus, I walked back to my truck with Mom, Uncle Ricky and Cal following me. Mom was still crying and giving me hugs. “I can’t believe it. Ricky, I can’t believe it. Look at him! He almost looks older!”
Ricky was touched as well. “I knew you’d make it, man. We need some shots to celebrate!”
“Yes!” I shouted, pumping my fist.
“He looks older, not 21,” Mom said, immediately shooting the plan down. I was disappointed.
“Nah, it’s a great plan,” a voice said behind me. I whirled around, already with a huge smile on my face, my cap’s tassel hitting me in the eye. She brushed her hair out of her face with one hand, and in her other was a small bag. “Congratulations, Clark.”
Seeing Emily standing there in front of me was even more exciting than sitting next to her. She was there, totally real, not on a computer screen or anything. Her family was still at the doors of the school chatting with the Parrish’s. The irony was not lost on me.
I wanted to run to her, but I didn’t know if they were still strict on the rules. As I waited, she nodded slightly.
I wrapped her up in the biggest hug I had ever given anyone and gave her a kiss. We spun through the air without a care in the world until gravity showed its ugly face and reminded me that I hadn’t worked out in a few months. I set her down lightly.
“Congratulations, Emily,” I said, beaming.
“I’m just gonna wait in the car,” Cal piped up. Mom and Uncle Ricky followed him.
“So, rules…?” I asked, hesitantly.
“We needed them for a long time,” she said, “But sometimes, life needs to be lived anyway.”
“Oh, shut up.” She remembered the bag in her hand. “Oh, my gosh. I hope the spin didn’t hurt him.”
Emily held the bag up so I could see inside. It was a little goldfish, looking remarkably well after the spin he’d experienced. “Say hello to Mario III.”
I held up the bag myself to look the fish in the eye. “He’s got even more rugged charm than Mario II,” I observed. “Thank you.”
“Bear in mind, I’m not sure he’ll survive another three-hour car trip.”
I shook my head. “There’s determination in those eyes. He’ll make it.”
“Hey, guys!” Cal shouted from the parking lot. “Get in here! We gotta get back to Rick-Rolled. It’s almost time!”
“Time for what?” we both shouted back.
The Real Graduation
The voices of dozens of kids shouted in lagged out recording times through the speakers of Ricky’s ancient laptop. The laptop screamed in pain as it tried to handle the mass amount of information being received. The grainy images of my friends barely moved as the computer tried to decide who to focus on.
It was amazing.
We, the OrigAvengers, were the guests of honor at a massive Discord call celebrating our collective graduation. Dove, surrounded by packed boxes, waved to everyone he could, while Ally seemed just a bit overwhelmed; Andy tried to say thank yous but was drowned out by every other person talking; Laura grinned from ear to ear; Tilly, hair now combed, waved Captain Marfold proudly; my other best friend Robby seemed preoccupied with appreciating his diploma; Leonard Broderick, my former enemy turned ally, looked happy to be included; Duncan Anderson, the Doctorigami Strange, tried to hide his enjoyment; and me and Emily held hands while Cal tried to see over our heads.
“This is for you guys,” Cal explained. “It hasn’t been easy, but everybody here looks up to you all in some way. You turned Kirby and Wheeler into the best schools anybody could have asked for. Superhero origami should never be cool, but you made it really, really fun.”
Almost everybody we’d ever met at both schools had shown up. As Tilly had told me, pretty much everyone was an OrigAvenger now, and they each held up their puppets. Even a few older friends, like Shelby Solstice and Noah and Frankie had logged on to show their support.
“We don’t know what it will be like in the future, but you’ve given us a solid foundation,” Gar, the Black Pen-ther, said. “We’ll do our best to continue the legacy.”
“You’re so dramatic,” Guillermo, Namorigami, tuning in from Spain, interrupted. “Just have fun!”
Since there were so many people talking at once, it was hard to pick out a single voice overall. But most everybody was telling a specific story about us or about origami. I caught Noah Jekan mentioning that he wouldn’t have gone on a date with Cat if he hadn’t had the origami. Ezra Cronin was explaining, in great detail, every single event OrigVenom had initiated. Dane Jackson seemed to be making a presidential address, and my friends from the Origami X-Men just seemed thoroughly confused. Katie did wave at me, though.
Two more video screens logged on, crowding the screen even more. It was none other than Jesse and Jessica, all the way from LA. “Dang it, we’re late,” Jesse muttered.
“I told you we were, you idiot,” Jessica sighed. “If you hadn’t been playing Fortnite with Alex-”
“I was winning, thank you very much. They understand, right guys?”
I laughed. They hadn’t changed at all.
“Is there anything you all would like to say before our computer dies?” Cal asked.
Andy held up his hand. Within a couple seconds, almost everyone had gone silent. Andy had that effect on people. “These past couple months have given me a lot of time to think about what’s important in life. You all are at the top of my list. Even though I don’t regret leaving, I’ve missed you and feel blessed to see you all one last time. We may have started the OrigAvengers, but you all have kept it going, taking the team to places we never dreamed it would go.
“I want you all to keep it going. Keep being heroes, keep making puppets. Wheeler is a better place for it. And from what Clark has told me, Claremont needs heroes too.”
Andy looked at Laura across the screen. “Now, would my, um, esteemed-”
“Girlfriend,” Laura smirked. “Esteemed girlfriend.”
Andy flushed brighter than his hair. “Girlfriend. Yeah, right. Would my esteemed girlfriend and the new Captain Americut-”
“I follow.” Laura held up her puppet victoriously, making sure the shield was in full view of the camera. “OrigAvengers?”
Dozens of voices shouted out in a cascade of bad connections and terrible quality, the point went across just fine. Cal, Emily and I’s voices were right in the middle.
Tying the Knot
“You look nervous, Clark,” Emily observed. She straightened my tie until it felt like it was strangling me. I hated dressing up nice.
“Nervous? Nah. Not at all.” I looked around the church sanctuary, trying to calm my nerves. I don’t think I’d ever been to a wedding before. It was too formal for me. I desperately searched for a change of subject. “Well, uh…Ally said she’s doing well. She sent me a text this morning.”
Emily squeezed my hand. “I still can’t believe you guys raised enough money for her to visit Dove.”
“They’re meant to be,” I commented. “Have you heard from Tilly?”
“She’s enjoying the rest,” Emily reported. “It’s nice to unwind.”
“Good for her.”
Just then, the ceremony began. The pastor said priestly things as the members of the wedding, including Noah in a very smart tuxedo, took their places.
A piano rendition of Annie Lennox’s ‘Into the West’ quietly played as Frankie in a really pretty – I mean absolutely gorgeous, according to Emily – dress came down the aisle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody look so happy. Well, aside from maybe Noah. Amendment – I don’t think I’ve ever seen two people look so happy together.
The pastor looked between the couple and began the vows. “Do you, Noah Minch, take Francesa, to have and to hold, for better or worse, for rich or for poor, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish her from this day forth, as long as you both shall live?”
He nodded, seriously. “I do.”
“Do you, Francesca Boyd, take Noah, to have and to hold, for better or worse, for rich or for poor, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish his from this day forth, as long as you both shall live?”
She nodded as well. “I do.”
“Then it is my honor to pronounce you man and wife. Noah, you may kiss the bride.”
As dramatic as ever, Noah swept Frankie into a dip and kissed her. Everyone applauded, of course. Those two were perfect for each other. We were all so happy for Mr. and Mrs. Noah Minch!
Jake, Noah’s best man, was beaming. Emily was crying. Truthfully, I was just happy to be out of the house. Okay, okay, I cried a bit too. So sue me. It was nice.
At the reception, after they cut the cake, I walked up to the newlyweds. I took my time to take in how beautiful the church was that they’d had the ceremony in. Tall arches, a giant stained glass window at the end of the wall, even fancy tables, one stacked high with a million different kinds of beautiful cookies. It was all gorgeous.
After shaking hands with some other friends, Noah and Frankie saw me coming and smiled.
“Congratulations, guys,” I said, feeling just a bit awkward. ‘Congratulations’ felt small. But they didn’t seem to mind.
“Thank you, Clark!” Frankie hugged me tightly and Noah shook my hand. “It just feels so surreal.”
“It does feel like we’ve been dating for way too long,” Noah added, smirking. “It’s about time, anyway.”
I laughed. “So, what are you guys planning on doing?”
“Well, we’re going to New Zealand for our honeymoon,” Frankie explained. “And then we’ve got some friends down in Virginia. We’re planning on getting an apartment and figuring out life from there!”
“You guys are leaving?” I said, not hiding my disappointment very well.
Noah put his hand on my shoulder. “Hey, you’re in good hands. You’ve got some great friends. And, I think you’ve got a great partner-in-crime, as well.”
He nodded towards Emily, who was mingling with some old friends from Claremont. I smiled. “You’re probably right.”
“Hold on to her tight, Clark,” Frankie said. “That’s an order.”
“I will. You have my word.”
I left Noah and Frankie to talk with more of their friends, and selected two steaming cups of coffee from the refreshments table and strode back over to Emily.
“M’lady,” I said, bowing and offering her one of the cups.
“Thank you, my liege,” Emily replied in the worst British accent I’d ever heard. We both started giggling.
After a moment, I shrugged. “Soooo…you wanna try this someday?”
Emily grabbed my hand tightly. “It could be fun.”
“I’ll take that as a maybe, then,” I said, grinning.
“You never know,” Emily replied. I kissed her on the cheek.
We decided to take things one day at a time. And, from my perspective, it worked out pretty well.
If nothing else, we were together. And we were happy. That’s a pretty good start.