©2009 The Angst Guy (

Daria and associated characters are ©2009 MTV Networks



Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to:


Synopsis: Compared to his intellectually and morally challenged classmates at Lawndale High, Daria’s classmate “Mack” Mackenzie is almost superhuman. What if he really was superhuman? Enter an alternate universe in which Mack is not only too good to be true, he’s even better than that. What could possibly go wrong for a straight-arrow guy who can do anything and everything? Let us see.


Author's Notes: This tale spun off from numerous discussions on PPMB about one or more of the Dariaverse characters having super powers. In particular, the basis for this story was derived from story ideas put forth in the Creative Writing thread under “Dusting off an old Iron Chef: Paying For It,” mainly ideas revolving around Mack, who is without a doubt the only non-dysfunctional male in the entire Dariaverse. Mack does not often appear in fanfic, a situation this story tries to remedy.

       This alternate-universe story parallels events in the fourth-season Daria episodes, “A Tree Grows in Lawndale” and “I Loathe a Parade.” Events in the first-season episode, “The Misery Chick,” are of major importance, too, particularly the origin of Mack’s real name and the situation involving Tommy Sherman.

       The information on quantum physics, including the Heisenberg Principle and the Copenhagen Interpretation (mangled just a teeny bit here), came from a fascinating essay on While it’s still online, see:


Also, a little bit of Ghostbusters went a long way.


Acknowledgements: My thanks go to Brother Grimace, who started an Iron Chef long ago about the guys of the Dariaverse, and got me to thinking then that more should be said of the male gender. Took me long enough. Thanks to Supergeek9 for making me change “umpire” to “referee.” (D’OH!) And with that, enjoy.











There were giants in the earth in those days . . .

mighty men which were of old, men of renown. . . .

the wickedness of man was great in the earth, [and]

every imagination of the thoughts of his heart

was only evil continually. . . .


Genesis 6:4-5






Chapter One



       “Forgive me,” the old man murmurs as his son helps him to his room. It comes out more like, “F’gi’ mih,” but Michael James Mackenzie understands what his father is saying. Though his father’s arm is draped over Mack’s shoulders and the old man’s footing is unsteady, the burden is negligible.

       “I’m a bad example,” says his father, his voice slurred. “Caught in my sins. Forgive me.”

       “Here,” says Mack, pushing a door open. “Here you go.” They reach his father’s bed. Mack helps the old man lie down, then he takes the old man’s shoes and sets them aside on the floor. Though it is a chilly mid-November outside, it is warm in the house with the furnace going full blast, and his father will not need a heavy quilt. The blanket at the foot of the bed will do.

       “Drank too much,” his father says. An arm covers his face. “Slidin’ again.”

       Mack smiles. “Hardly,” he says. His father had two beers after making dinner, while reading The Wall Street Journal.

       “I can’t slide. My life’s such a mess.”

       No response is necessary. A respected, methodical engineer for an electric power company, the elder Mackenzie is as solid as they come.

       “My daddy,” says the old man, his head resting on a pillow, “your grandfather, he tried to set me right. He preached to me from the Good Book, but I didn’t listen.”

       Mack nods absently, focusing on making his father comfortable. Sleeping in their clothes is no problem in the winter. It’s a guy thing, he tells relatives, and there are rarely any women around to correct it.

       “I didn’t want you to have the troubles I did,” says his father. “Don’t follow my ways. I have a bad seed. I disrespected my folks, ran around with my friends ‘stead of goin’ to school, stealin’ and drinkin’, wasted my life and my talent—” He feels about and catches Mack’s hand with a shaky grip. “Hear me out, Michael.”

       Giving in with a sigh, Mack pulls up a nearby chair and takes a seat. He is patient and has heard most of his father’s sad stories about growing up as a minister’s son.

       “He tired to change me,” says the old man, once Mack is settled. The room is completely dark. “Your grandfather said I had some good in me, that I had potential, but I was ruining it. He took a stick to me when he thought I needed it. Spare the rod, spoil the child. He laid it on good, too.” The old man takes a breath. “He meant well, my daddy, and he did the best he knew, but . . . I didn’t listen.”

       “You’re a good man, Pop,” says Mack, solemn and unworried.

       The old man shakes his head. “All of us are vulnerable to sin. My daddy did his best to keep his children from it, like his father before him. You especially can’t give in to the temptations that drag other folks down.”

       Mack finds himself thinking of the singing group called The Temptations, and he fights down another smile. This isn’t the time for mirth. “I know,” he says.

       “The wisest among us will build altars to evil and sacrifice their most precious possessions on it, for unworthy things. Even Solomon fell prey to it.”

       Mack frowns. King Solomon? This is a new wrinkle. He shrugs. Solomon’s story is familiar from childhood trips to Sunday school, but Mack is not sure what part of the half-learned tale his father has in mind—and he doesn’t want to ask. “You’re a good man,” he repeats, waiting for his father to get tired and fall asleep.

       “All things are possible with God,” says his old man. “All things. I hope—” He takes a quick breath “—I hope the Lord forgives me. I wasted it, my youth, wasted it—”

       Mack nods, but the topic is getting old. His father is not in need of forgiveness. Why his dad will not let go of this senseless guilt is beyond him, but again he does not want to ask about it. It will prolong things, and his father needs to rest.

       “I have a bad seed,” his father whispers. “I didn’t take to what your grandfather tried to teach me. He beat me till he almost knocked the black off of me, but I didn’t listen. I thought I knew better.” He looks at Mack in the darkness. “I’ve tried to make up for it, but I worry that I tried too hard. I worry I’ve asked too much of you, pushing you like I have, pushing you as hard as my daddy pushed me.”

       “You’ve been great,” says Mack, who cannot recall ever being spanked or whipped. “Get some sleep, Pop.”

       “Life was hard when I was young. I didn’t care about tomorrow. Street games and liquor, that’s all I cared about. Didn’t care about no God until it was too late.” His father’s grip tightens. “Mack, forgive me if I ever did you wrong, if I ever—”

       “You never have, Pop. Look, you need to get some sleep, okay? I love you, you know that. Just get some rest.”

       This eases his father’s mind, if only a bit. “I pray I didn’t do you wrong, driving you to do all the things you can do. I think I drove you beyond where God meant us to be, beyond where people were supposed to go, but I thought it was for your own good.”

       “And it was good, Pop. You did the right thing. Now—”

       “I wanted better for you than I had. My father . . . he never told me he loved me.”

       Mack hesitates in shock, a platitude on his lips. He has never before heard his father say this.

       “When you were born,” says the old man, his grip tightening on Mack’s hand, “that night your mama died, I thought God was punishing me for my sins. I don’t know if it’s wrong to say that, or if it’s true, but I believed it. I still do. I was a broken man. All I had was you. I couldn’t let you down as I had let my daddy down, and your mama.” He coughs. “I had to make the most of what we had. I had to make it work, had to push you all I could to do better. I wouldn’t beat you, I couldn’t do that, but I’d make you strong in my own way. You had to be strong to get along in this world.” The old man turns his head to Mack. “My daddy tried to do right, but he . . . I think he got things wrong sometimes. I forgive him, but . . . he still got things wrong.”

       Mack nods, listens, and waits.

       “I had to make you strong,” says the old man. “Strong inside, so that you alone would be the master of you. I taught you, when you were small, that all things are possible. Not just for God, but for you, too. I had to make you believe in yourself, stretch your limits. I pushed you to be the best at everything, to never stop trying. You had to learn to stand up for yourself and give it your all, in sports and everything else, and you had to read. You had to read all you could, and I pushed you to do it, but I pushed you for more. I hope it wasn’t too much.”

       “It wasn’t.”

       “You are more than any man ever was, more than anyone else could possibly be. Maybe God helped, but maybe it was science, too. I don’t know. My daddy, he didn’t have faith in science. He caught me reading a science book one day, a book about rockets and such, and he took it away from me and beat me good. Study the Bible, he said, not this trash. He threw my book out, but I got it back. He never knew.” The old man cracks a smile. “I hid a lot of books from him. Never wanted you to do that, though.”

       Down the hallway, Mack’s bedroom overflows with books, books piled as high as his sports posters. The elder Mackenzie bought many of those books for his son as gifts. He never stops buying them, never stops reading unless he’s asleep.

       The old man’s grip tightens on his hand. “Your grandfather was right about one thing, though. Listen to me, son. He was right about one thing. Evil is real, Michael. I learned for myself that he was right. Evil is real. It’s out there. You’ll see it one day, and you have to be ready for it.” He exhales, looks more tired than before. “That’s why I pushed you. Because I knew.”

       “Okay,” says Mack after he finds his tongue. What the hell is he talking about?

       “I saw it in my dreams,” says his father. “One was before you were born. Someone offered me riches if I gave you up, left your mama and ran off on my own. I could do anything I wanted, have it all, everything, but I had to give you up. I said no. . . . Then after it was just you and me, after your mama died, it came back.” His father hesitates, then forces himself on. “It told me that in return for you, it would give me anything I wanted. I could be president, even that, if I’d give up you. I couldn’t do it.” He closes his eyes. “I wanted you more than anything. I felt it, the evil. I . . . I was thinking tonight about . . . it was about you going away to college, being on your own. I was afraid for you. You have to be careful. Evil is real, Michael. You have to be ready for it. You can’t let it get to you like it almost got to me.”

       His father’s grip relaxes. Mack blinks. What is all this crap about dreams? Maybe two beers was too much for you, Pop. You should cut down to one a night. We’re not doing this dream thing again, for real. You’re freaking me out.

       The old man stirs and blinks. “When you were born, we named you for Michael, in the Bible,” he whispers. “The archangel who’ll fight the Devil in the age to come, or so the Book says.” Then the old man opens his eyes and smiles. “I almost changed your name once, did you know? Came within a hair of it, that year I went back to Chicago on business and saw the Bulls play. You were twelve, I think, staying with my sister. I almost changed your middle name to Jordan, like Michael Jordan. You believe that?”

       Michael Jordan Mackenzie? Mack shakes his head, grateful to have dodged this particular bullet if he dodged no others.

       “Don’t think your mama would’ve approved,” The old man’s grin fades. “She liked the name James. It was her daddy’s name.” He yawns a long moment. “Didn’t change it. You’re more than a basketball player, more than any man. All things are possible with you.” His eyes close again. “They’re all possible . . . with . . .” His lips move once more, then are still. Mack hears his father’s breathing and heart rate slow, feels his grip relax, and knows his patience has paid off.

       So, he thinks, I’m named for an angel in the Bible. That’s a revelation. The awful pun becomes apparent a moment later, and Mack groans aloud. He is glad, however, that he waited and heard his father’s story. It explains the old man’s drive to see his son excel. It explains why his father always said: You can do anything you put your mind to, anything at all. All things are possible for you.

       And so they are.

       In his reverie, Mack listens as his father sleeps. He hears a cat walking along the side of the house in the cold of the night. Tree branches blocks away click together, and he hears them but ignores them. He turns his head in the pitch-black room and glances at the books stacked on the nightstand by the bed: A Brief History of Time lies on top of Stephen King’s Insomnia, which lies on top of The New York Times, which his father gets by subscription on Sundays for the book-review section. Mack can read the titles clearly in the infrared light radiating from his father’s sleeping body. It is a talent he gained when he was only a few years old. He merely willed himself to do it. His father said he could do anything if he tried, and he tried it, and it worked. It was reasonable to think that this power, to want something badly enough to get it, was a gift from God, and perhaps it was. Like the five loaves of bread and two fishes that fed the multitude two millennia ago, the gift kept giving. And giving. And giving.

       At age seventeen, a junior in high school, Michael James Mackenzie has willed himself to see the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from long radio waves to cosmic radiation. It’s impossible for him to explain how he can do it, but he knows it works and that’s good enough for him. He can hear the deepest subsonic noise and the shrillest ultrasonic shriek. He can detect and identify odors and tastes better than any creature, feel pressure and temperature changes only subtle instruments would note, suppress pain, enhance pleasure, and sort all this sensory input and keep it straight in his head.

       And there is more. His intelligence quotient is over three standard deviations above normal. Though he is careful to act like a normal teenager, his strength, speed, and endurance are, for all practical purposes, immeasurable. On a whim, he once placed his bare hands against a boulder in the wilderness and pushed, increasing the friction between his feet and the ground by willpower so he wouldn’t push himself away. He concentrated and exerted himself for several seconds until the outlines of his palms and fingers were pressed six inches deep into crushed and smoking granite.

       Towering over most of his fellow high-school students at six foot three, he possesses powers perhaps greater than those of Superman. He can push a hole through a steel girder with his little finger, crush a rock in his fist, throw a pebble for miles, even—if he dares do it—kill . . .

       No. Not that. I will not kill. Mack shakes himself and gets up from the chair. His father gently snores as he leaves the bedroom. By long-learned reflex, Mack adjusts his strength as he reaches for the doorknob, so as not to crush the thin metal. He could hurt someone if he is not careful. Experience has taught him to always be careful. If he was any more careful, he thinks, he would be insanely paranoid—but maybe better that than the alternative. There are people around, in Mack’s opinion, who deserve to be hurt if not worse, but he keeps the lid on, keeps his powers hidden. His father saw what was happening and raised him well, trained him to respect and love life, showed him the way to avoid the wrong. Luck helped, too, of course. His impulses are under tight, safe rein and he will never hurt another being by design or accident.

       He hopes.

       Adjusting his footsteps and certain qualities in the floor on which he walks, Mack goes without sound to his room and closes the door. The house is small but comfortable. Only the two of them have lived in the eastern suburb of Lawndale since his father moved from Chicago sixteen years earlier, after his wife’s death. Sitting down at his desk, Mack views the unfinished homework piled by his computer. It will take only minutes to complete if he works at his usual speed. As always, he will add a few errors to his math and spelling work. He cannot afford to look perfect and draw attention. Once in a while, though, he makes a genuine and unintended mistake and has cause to wonder. It reminds him that, even if he suspects otherwise, he is not perfect, and he needs to know this. Those little mistakes, the real errors, are like the Roman whose job it was to stand behind the emperor in victory parades and whisper, “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.” It keeps the lid clamped down over his inner urges.

       He reaches for his science book, but for a minute he hesitates and wonders for the ten thousandth time what his purpose in life is, what his destiny will be. Being a closet superhero, he has found, is largely a life of nonstop frustration. You read in the morning paper about where you should have been the night before. Lives are taken away, terrible events happen, millions mourn, but you can do nothing to stop it if you cannot see what is coming and be ready for it. Mack has not yet figured out how he is supposed to save the world like the heroes do in the comic books he secretly collects. Going public would threaten his father and their life together. It is enough for now to maintain the house, do his schoolwork, and be captain of the school’s football team, a teenager going through the usual teenager angst and turmoil with a shaky love life on top of that.

       At least, he thinks, there are no supervillains around to screw things up. He feels a twinge, though, whenever he thinks this. He isn’t sure it’s the truth. What if there are evildoers out there whom he was meant to stop? Wouldn’t Hitler have been such a being? Are there not Hitlers in the world today, and Hitler-wannabes, that would and should occupy his time? But would he do right in stopping them? How can you sort out the evil from the good through the morass of opinionated and inaccurate news reports? If you replace one Hitler, will a worse one take his place? How can you know the ultimate end of the good you try to do? Is it better to do what he’s doing now, to keep his world small and handle only those problems within his senses?

       And what about Tommy Sherman?

       I don’t want to think about Tommy Sherman.

       Restless, Mack puts down his science book, rises, and looks out his bedroom window. Feeling nostalgic, he restricts his vision to the human-visible part of the spectrum. Against the starry sky, beyond the branches of the trees, is a sliver crescent of a moon cupped around a faint glowing disk. Earthshine, he recalls; the light from earth is being reflected from the moon, what once was termed “the old moon in the new moon’s arms.” In ancient days, it was a worrisome portent. There was a poem, wasn’t there, about a Scottish sailor—

       Embarrassed, he shakes his head and smiles at himself. It is hard—indeed, almost impossible—for a true superhero not to be superstitious. Everything around him seems to have meaning, everything is a clue demanding to be learned so that the terrors of the future can be detected, fought, and controlled. It’s important to be careful of that, reading meaning into random things, but at the age of seventeen nothing seems random. Mack has seen and done too much already.

       He has even been to the moon. Thirteen men have walked on the moon to this day. Twelve were Apollo astronauts. The thirteen was Michael James Mackenzie. He went there several months ago out of curiosity, to see if he could do it, and he did it and marveled at the magnificent desolation, the glory of a dead world, then brought back a few rocks that left gritty black dust over everything they touched and smelled like burnt gunpowder. They lie in a shoebox under his bed. He dares not go to other worlds yet, out of sight of the earth. It would be easy to get lost in the vastness of the universe. The earth is very small when seen from a great distance, small enough from the moon to cover it with your thumbnail. Mack has seen the earth from the moon and since then worries at night, if perhaps the earth is too small, too vulnerable, too precious, too easy to lose.

       Turning from the window, Mack sits down and with a sigh does his homework for the next two weeks. It takes him fifteen minutes. As he works he thinks about tomorrow afternoon’s big football game between Lawndale High’s Lions and Washington High School’s Hatchets. Mack is the team captain of the Lions. If Kevin Thompson’s knee has healed from that motorbike-and-parked-car collision a month earlier, and Mack can talk the moronic but talented quarterback into rejoining the team, the Lions should win big.

       Of course, were Mack not pretending to be incompetent as the replacement quarterback, the Lions would have no rivals at all. Being less than what he is grates on Mack’s nerves, but it has to be done, and he does it. Getting Kevin back in the game will be good for Kevin’s battered ego, good for the student body, good for the community’s spirits, and, he hopes, good for the school principal, Ms. Li, who has been bargaining with the devil (say Mack’s teammates, not entirely in jest) to turn Lawndale High’s football team into a winner again. Moe, the twenty-year-old dropout she admitted to school to take Kevin’s place as quarterback, is driving the team and his classmates crazy with his crude, oafish behavior. Mack fears he will have to do something to keep his teammates from being hurt, and he doesn’t want to be forced into showing off who he really is, especially for a low-class thug like Moe the ringer. He cannot afford to give into his impulses again.

       As he did with Tommy Sherman.

       Mack swallows. He doesn’t want to think about Tommy Sherman ever again, but he always does.

       Behind him, the new moon cradles the old and waits.





Chapter Two



       So far, so good, Mack thinks the following day. It is midmorning, Friday, and his father should be plowing through technical drawings at work on his fourth cup of coffee. Meanwhile, Lawndale High’s science teacher and shrill-voiced misanthrope, Ms. Barch, has not interrupted Mack’s report on quantum physics more than twice so far. Mack is getting to the good part, too.

       “So,” he says, shuffling his index cards without looking at them, “Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle basically means that when you attempt to examine something, you change it. You cannot predict with absolute certainty what every aspect of an observed particle will be. You either know where the particle is at, or what kind of motion and energy it has, but you cannot know both things for sure. The universe and the future are ultimately unknowable and chaotic, composed of nothing but possibilities.” He thinks of his father, surrounded by paperwork at his desk, and smiles. “It might be true for God that anything is possible, but ironically it’s also true that anything is possible for us, too.”

       Ms. Barch frowns at his mention of God and appears to be on the verge of speaking out, but she subsides instead. Of the other eleventh-grade students in Mack’s class, most are struggling hard to follow his reasoning. A few, like Kevin Thompson or head cheerleader Brittany Taylor, stare at Mack with a complete lack of comprehension but apparent fascination at the authoritative way he presents his report. At least, Mack hopes it is his speaking style they like. Brittany’s daydreaming gaze is focused somewhere around Mack’s crotch. He tries to ignore that. Blonde, pigtailed Brittany is built like a porn star and is almost as open-minded, but she’s also sweet and cheerful and one of the few genuinely good people Mack knows. Seducing her would be simple but probably evil. Plus, she’s Kevin’s girlfriend, when she isn’t secretly banging someone else, and getting involved with her would be like sleeping next to smoldering explosives.

       And Mack already has a hot girlfriend and no urge to ruin it.

       Only Ms. Barch and the two brainiest girls in the school, Jodie Abigail Landon and Daria Morgendorffer, seem to be keeping up with his quantum psychics report. Mack is pleased about that. Jodie is his attractive and overachieving girlfriend, an African-American like himself with cornrow braids and a jaded attitude about the System she works so hard to support. He sees her as a future politician and is not unhappy with that, though he thinks her cynicism and pragmatism have eroded her ideals. Her father pushes her hard to excel in all things, a situation with which Mack is all too familiar. Sitting beside Jodie is the short, brown-haired, glasses-wearing Daria: brilliant, sarcastic, and contemptuous of falsehood and hypocrisy. As long as neither of them raises a hand to ask a question, everything will be fine. Jodie and Daria together make Mack a little nervous, and he cannot explain why. At the moment, they watch Mack with intense concentration and total silence. Less than five minutes to go until the bell.

       “Now,” Mack continues, raising a finger, “along comes this other scientist named Niels Bohr, and he and his physicist pals come up with this thing called the Copenhagen Interpretation of reality. It’s about quantum physics, really, but you can say it’s about reality, everything that exists. Bohr said that if the uncertainty principle is true, then elementary particles do not exist until they are observed. This is like saying reality itself doesn’t exist until you see it, you follow me? In other words, an observer has to be present in order for something to exist. We create reality as we observe it.”

       “That’s an oversimplification, of course,” interrupts Ms. Barch with a voice like fingernails screeching down a blackboard. She adds in a lower voice, “Men like everything simple.”

       “Yes, ma’am,” Mack says pleasantly, “but it would be hard to get it across if it was any more complicated than that, I think.” He thinks better of his remark and adds, “I’d sure have trouble with it, anyway.”

       His classmates smile, and a few chuckle. Can’t look too perfect, Mack thinks before he goes on. “So, all space and time can be thought of as a gigantic series of probabilities, all of which are activated by an observer, any observer. It’s like the universe might exist or might not exist, and it depends solely on whether we show up in order for it to become reality. To be or not to be, that is the question, and only you determine the answer.”

       “Man!” exclaims Kevin, shaking his head. “I am so not following any of this!” Almost everyone else laughs, but they aren’t mocking him. They feel exactly the same way he does.

       Daria, however, does not laugh, and neither does Jodie. Daria clears her throat and adjusts her glasses when the laughter dies. Mack turns to her and feels his stomach clench. He doesn’t know why. It’s just Daria.

       Who, like Jodie, is possibly even smarter than he is.

       “What happens,” asks Daria in a monotone, “if instead of observing, you go out for pizza?”

       When the laughter dies down, Mack grins, relieved that she pitched him a slow ball. “I guess when you go out for pizza, you activate the reality for the pizza parlor and leave the rest of the universe at a zero probability of existence, except for the parts other people are observing,” he says. “Although there have been a number of replicated experiments that show that the whole universe is connected together in weird ways, as if any change to one part of space causes a change to another part, and it happens instantly. What I mean is, reality is all linked together in ways we don’t understand, and a change to one part can potentially affect another, anywhere. Getting back to your question, if you go into the pizza parlor instead of the library, the particles making up the library don’t exist except as probabilities, but you can come back to the library later and make it real.”

       “Do you mean my bedroom disappears when I’m not in it?” squeals Brittany in shock, twirling the tip of one of her blonde pigtails with a finger.

       “Well, yeah, in a way,” says Mack, startled that Brittany actually got it. She’s barely smarter than Kevin. “In quantum physics, the particles making up your bedroom would not exist when you left it, but your bedroom is still somehow connected with every other part of the universe in ways scientists don’t yet understand.”

       “The male ones, anyway,” Ms. Barch grumbles.

       “Whoa!” says Kevin. He gives Brittany a significant look. “You mean like her bedroom is right here, too? Oh, man!

       “Uh,” says Mack, “that’s not exactly—”

       “But I don’t want anyone in my bedroom right now!” Brittany cries.

       “Babe!” says Kevin in shock. “Hey, remember me?”

       “That was before you got hurt and quit the football team, Kevvy! And I don’t want my bedroom to just disappear!” The pigtailed cheerleader is on the verge of tears.

       “Does anyone have a tranquilizer?” mutters Daria. “For me, her, whichever.”

       Class!” shouts Ms. Barch. “It’s Mack, but pay attention anyway!”

       “I have a question,” says Jodie. Her strong, melodious voice cuts through the mounting racket in the classroom. Everyone falls silent—even the panicking Brittany.

       “Is it possible,” Jodie says, never taking her eyes from Mack’s for a moment, “for an observer, simply by wishing, to affect the commonly agreed-upon reality around him? In other words, if an observer activates reality merely by observing, is it possible for a certain observer to change reality, just by willing it to be so?”

       Mack’s throat goes dry. Jodie is dangerously close to his own theory as to how he was able to gain and use superpowers. “Uh,” he begins, licking his lips. “I—”

       “What I mean is,” Jodie goes on, “could the observer change the reality of himself, for instance, making himself stronger, taller, smarter, or better looking, solely by belief or will? If an observer is required in order for reality to exist, could a special observer, someone with a unique link to the universe or to reality, change reality for everyone else who observes his environment with him, solely by observing and wishing?”

       “What?” says Kevin. “What was that?” Others begin to talk, too.

       “Well—” Mack says, his hands sweating.

       Daria interrupts in her deadpan voice. “You mentioned the Bell experiments, I think they were called, the ones done in Paris in the mid-nineteen-eighties in which altering the physical properties of one area of space caused a faster-than-light alteration of—” Jodie at this point gently elbows Daria without looking away from Mack, but Daria is locked on and continues “—another noncontiguous area of space, so if a human mind is one such area of space, could it by its own actions and by pure intent or belief, thus altering its physical properties, cause permanent alterations another area of reality?”

       “Are you still talking about my bedroom?” asks Brittany in confusion, looking from Daria to Mack and back. The noise in the room rises. Mack feels as if Jodie and Daria have just seen through him. They’ve actually nailed it. He is afraid and cannot even think of how to respond to their questions.

       “Just curious,” says Daria, by way of apology.

       “Me, too,” says Jodie, who has not once blinked.

       A lifeline comes to mind. Mack fakes a smile. “Affecting the world by willpower alone isn’t really science,” he says. “What you’re talking about is magic, and I don’t think they teach that at Lawndale.” His smile broadens. “Yet,” he adds.

       Everyone laughs—almost everyone. The spell is broken. He is saved.

       The bell to end class rings out in the hallway. Mack has never been so relieved. He clutches his unread note cards and heads back to his seat to get his books.

       “A fair presentation,” cries Ms. Barch over the noise of the class’s leaving, “despite the usual flaws one commonly expects when giving a masculine perspective. Remember your homework this weekend, class! Everyone, especially you hormone-driven males! Homework due Monday!”

       Mack pretends not to notice that two classmates have walked up to him as he collects his books and papers. He wants to escape and head for lunch, where he can be alone to think while Jodie is in French class.

       “Sufficiently advanced technology,” says Jodie behind him, “is indistinguishable from magic.”

       “Arthur C. Clarke,” adds Daria. “Quantum physics looks like magic, too, depending on your perspective.”

       “That would take some technology to do what you were suggesting,” Mack says. He lifts his books and turns. Though he steels himself to meet their gaze, he still feels a spark of anxiety—and a little aggravation, too. “Thanks a lot for almost tripping me up right in front of everyone,” he says, more pointedly than he wants.

       Jodie’s face works—and a smile breaks out. “It was Daria’s idea,” she says without shame.

       “Hey,” growls Daria, “you told me to do it first.”

       “Do what?” asks Mack.

       “Jodie wanted us to put the screws to you,” says Daria. “She didn’t want you to get a swelled head from having such a big brain.”

       “Daria looked up your research topic and came up with the questions,” finishes Jodie. “Sorry if we messed up your lecture, Herr Professor.”

       Something about their manner does not ring true, but Mack doesn’t want to deal with it. “That’s okay, it was kinda dry anyway,” he says, relieved. It sounds like the whole incident was just a joke. “I guess I did get a little full of myself.”

       Jodie snorts, her smile in full bloom. “You were great, Mike.” Her gold-brown eyes shine. “Everything’s possible with you.”

       “I liked the part where you made Brittany’s bedroom disappear,” says Daria. “If only you could have gotten the rest of her, too.”

       “Daria,” chides Jodie, who knew Brittany as a friend years before Daria’s family moved to Lawndale.

       “I can dream, can’t I?” Daria grumbles.

       Jodie takes Mack’s arm and steers him toward the door. Her fingers do not linger on his elbow, to avoid being called by Ms. Barch for a PDA—Public Display of Affection. “Walk me to French, would you, Einstein?”

       “Of course, Madame President,” Mack replies, noting Jodie’s position in the school’s Honor Society, and they leave together. Daria gives them a wistful gaze before heading off to find her friend Jane, and Mack sees the look in her eyes and thinks Daria is lonely. Jane and Daria were once inseparable, but lately Jane is dating a guy from another school, and Daria is often on her own, looking downcast and lost.

       Mack turns his thoughts back to Jodie and hopes the conversation will turn to the coming big game with the Washington Hatchets. He does not want to think about quantum physics for the rest of the day.

       “I was thinking,” says Jodie at his side, “that the Copenhagen Interpretation as you describe it, and as Daria rephrased it, would explain why people think prayer can really make things happen. Prayer actually works.”

       “Jodie, let’s not go there.”

       “Mmm-hmmm. And you didn’t say how it was possible for a live person to exist if he or she wasn’t being observed.”

       “Oh. Well, the person’s observing, isn’t he? I mean, if he’s alive, he exists. ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Descartes had it right all along.”

       “Oh. Hmm, didn’t think of that.”

       “Well, of course not. He was a guy, and you’re a girl.” Mack prepares for Jodie’s vicious arm punch, which follows a second later. Had he not been Mack the superman, it might have stung. He keeps his arm fleshy and tough, but deadens the nerves and flinches to make it look painful.

       “Well done, Mister Smart Ass,” Jodie whispers, smiling at the students hurrying by in the corridor. “You think throwing a football is all the physics you need to know, right? Let’s see if you get any happy time before the new year starts.”

       Mack groans. It’s only a game and he knows it, but he has to play along. The “happy time” he and Jodie share in their rare private moments is his key to staying sane in a crazy world. “I didn’t mean it,” he says, hiding a smile. “It was the testosterone talking. I swear it.”

       “Uh, huh. Enjoy your time alone with your online hotties instead of with me.”

       Twenty-five minutes later, things with Jodie cheerfully patched up and lunch with extra helpings eaten, Mack sits in Lawndale High’s cafeteria and stares with a bit of amazement at the spectacle of Kevin and Brittany deep-kissing in front of everyone around. They’ve earned several PDAs by this time from various teachers, but Mack is sure that Ms. Li will negate the punishments if Kevin plays for Lawndale—which he’s finally agreed to do, at Mack’s insistence. Kevin’s knee is fully healed, he and Brittany have made up and are officially dating again, and all is right again with reality, such as it is in Lawndale.

       Daria was eating lunch with her friend Jane Lane nearby when Kevin threw aside his crutches, announced he was rejoining the football team, and rekindled his off-and-on-again romance with Brittany. The Cynical One wanders over as Mack dumps his tray and prepares to leave for history class. “Love conquers all,” Daria says when she catches his eye. “If only it didn’t leave so much collateral damage behind it.”

       “Tell me about it,” says Mack, amused. “You coming to the game?”

       “Jane and her boyfriend Tom are going, so that would be a reluctant yes. I’ll try to work up a cheer.”

       “Thanks.” Mack starts to leave, but Daria doesn’t move. He stops, unsure if she wants to talk more. “I’m hoping that with Kevin back on his feet, we’ll start winning all our games again,” he says to fill the space.

       “I’m a little curious as to why we’re losing at all,” says Daria. Her voice is very low, and she looks around as if making sure they cannot be overheard. “We should be winning without fail, as I see it.”

       “What?” His hands get clammy again. “Well, I hate to say it, but it is Kevin. He’s the best quarterback that—”

       Five-foot-two Daria turns her face up to six-foot-three Mack’s, cool brown eyes peering into warm brown ones. “What’s the moon like, Mack?” she asks in a whisper.

       With the greatest effort possible, Mack keeps his expression quizzical. Sweet Jesus, does she know?

       “The moon?” He stalls for time until he can think of a clever answer.

       “I was walking home from Jane’s on the night of July twenty-seventh,” Daria says in a soft voice. “I took a different path than usual and was not far from your house at about eleven-thirty p.m. There was a full moon out, if I recall correctly.”

       She knows.

       I knew there were people around, Mack thinks, remembering that night. I knew there were people around, but I ignored them and went ahead and did it anyway—and I took off slow to watch the horizon change from flat to curved. Way to go, dope. He takes a deep breath as he turns his head. He cannot look Daria in the face.

       “I shouldn’t have said anything,” Daria says, “but I had to know.”

       Mack shrugs as if it were a little thing. “That’s life,” he says lightly. He doesn’t want to lie. In a way, it’s a relief to have the secret out. And it figures Daria would be the one. “Does Jodie know, too?”

       Daria nods, her face paler than before. “I told her.”

       His anxiety builds again. Great. Just great. “I’m surprised she believed you.”

       “She didn’t, but then we did an experiment.”

       It hits him. He closes his eyes and lets out his breath. The car. It was the car. Right after school at the end of September, Jodie gave Mack her dad’s car keys and asked him to retrieve the Mercedes from a service station. She could not get it herself because of “extracurricular commitments.” He arrived at the service station to find the car parallel parked in an alley behind the building, between two other cars with only inches of space from bumper to bumper. After a brief check to make sure no one was nearby, he gently dragged the car horizontally out of the slot, grasping the chassis under the side doors. Piece of cake.

       Except he obviously didn’t check well enough for distant viewers. Daria and Jodie watched him do it, probably from an elevated position using cover. How Jodie, of all people, could go this many weeks and say nothing is beyond him.

       Or maybe today she felt it was time she did. That would explain the questions in class, the implications of which no one understood but Jodie, Daria—and Mack.

       “Did you use a telescope?” he asks, without explaining what he means.

       “She had binoculars,” says Daria. “I had a telephoto camera.”

       He looks up at this. “Daria—”

       “I didn’t take pictures,” she adds quickly. “I was a little too surprised, Kodak moment or not.”

       It sounds like the truth. Mack rubs his face and sighs. “Thank God for small favors.”

       When he looks down again, Daria swallows. It occurs to him that she is afraid. She did not know if he would tell her the truth, and she wasn’t ready for it. “Why’d you decide to bring this up now?” he asks, more than a little tense. He doesn’t want to make her feel comfortable, now that she’s intruded into a place he wanted no one to visit.

       “When you showed Jodie your report last week, it made her think, and she called me up. We’ve both been wondering. She won’t ask you about it directly, though. She told me not to say anything to anyone, especially you.”

       “So of course you did.”

       “You aren’t being careful about your secret, Mack,” says Daria with building intensity. “If you’re trying to keep it a secret, you need to know if you make a mistake. You’ve probably made more than one, too. You ought to know.”

       She has him, there. “Yeah,” he says, deflating. “Damn.”

       “You’re going to tell Jodie I told you this?”

       “No, of course not. Are you?”


       “Then let’s forget it.” The absurdity of his words becomes clear as soon as he says them. “Look,” he says in defeat, “can we talk about this some other time?”

       “We don’t have to talk about it at all, if you don’t want to. I just wanted to let you know that you might be putting your secret in jeopardy. That’s all. I think.”

       He lets out his breath. Daria can be trusted to say nothing, not even to her best friend Jane, if it is important enough. He hopes so, anyway. “Thanks,” he says. “I really mean it.”

       “No problem. You know that Tommy Sherman is coming to the game, right?”

       The day is just full of shocks. Mack can only shake his head. What next? “No, I didn’t know.”

       “He’s going to give a pep talk before the game. Ms. Li asked him to come. She was hoping it would make our team fight harder, maybe break our losing streak. Does she know Kevin’s rejoined the team?”

       “No.” He shakes his head, looking into the distance. “Tommy Sherman.”

       “You saved his life,” Daria prods. “Of course he’d come back.”

       “Yeah, I guess.” Damn it!

       “He has an interesting spin on what happened when he walked out on the football field last year, visiting the memorial goal post that Ms. Li named for him, when you came out to talk to him about his behavior. I assume that was why you talked to him.”

       Shut this down, now. “Yeah, well, let’s drop this, okay?”

       “Sure.” A bell rings in the distance. “Better head for our daily dose of American History. Not that we aren’t living it right this second.”

       He sighs, suddenly worn out. “Whatever.”

       Daria hesitates before she goes. “I am sorry, Mack. I thought you had to know.”

       He nods. “You were right, as usual. Look—” He wants very much to say something like, For God’s sake, don’t tell anyone else, but the look on Daria’s face tells him she has no intention of that. The secret is a burden for her, too, and he wonders if she regrets her little experiment, if she wishes she’d taken another route that night in July that did not go past the Mackenzie home.

       “Thanks,” he says again.

       She nods and leaves. Mack trudges out of the cafeteria to his locker to get his books for the afternoon. He wishes the day were over with and he was home in his room. Thanks to his carelessness, his secret is out of the bag. Who else knows—besides his father, Daria, Jodie, and Tommy Sherman, that is? Nothing he can do about it now. Mack starts down the hallway toward history class, then makes a turn at a side hall and heads for the main office. He should let Principal Li know that Kevin’s back on the team. This, he is sure, will bring a little happiness to someone today.





Chapter Three



       The meeting with Ms. Li does not go as planned.

       “You what?” she shrieks at Mack, jumping out of her chair. “You did what?

       Mack is too taken aback to answer, so Ms. Li continues her rant. “I’ve already signed a contract with Mister Lecht for his serv—for his education at Laaawndale High for the remainder of this year! Moe has to play on the team!”

       “Ms. Li,” says Mack, recovering, “with all due respect, the Lions are falling apart with this idiot bullying the players and disrespecting the school.” He adds this last part in the hopes that the principal, an ardent school loyalist, will be inclined to see his side. “Moe doesn’t throw as well as Kevin, to begin with, and he’s not as agile. He stands there like a brick wall if he can’t get a receiver, then he gets into fist fights with anyone who tries to take him down. He curses referees, players on the other team, and our players, too. We’ll get so many penalty calls, we’ll look like a prison’s hockey team.”

       The middle-aged principal sits heavily at her desk and puts her face in her hands. “Mister Mackenzie,” she groans, “you have no idea the trouble I’ve gone through to turn the Lions back into the champions they deserve to be. Our entire community is suffering! Property values are plunging, morale is at an all-time low, and—”

       “Ms. Li, please! Just a minute!” Mack uses his best calming voice. “Kevin can turn everything around, like he’s always done, and we won’t have the penalty calls to suffer for it. He’s a great—he’s a good enough team player, a heck of a lot better than Moe. Maybe you could tell Moe that you’re keeping him in reserve in case—”

       “I didn’t bring Mister Lecht in to be a reserve anything! I’ve . . . I’ve had to make certain concessions and promises that . . . oh, what’s the use.” Defeated, she lowers her head to her folded arms on her desk.

       She’s made some kind of deal with Moe to pay him off for playing for Lawndale, and now she’s got to keep her bargain to keep him from spilling the news to the media and starting a scandal. Mack almost groans. Great. Just great. If I was in a normal high school, the principal wouldn’t have squat to say about who was on the team unless academic issues were involved, but she micromanages this little gulag like a Stalin. If she ever had a soul, she sold it years ago.

       “Ms. Li,” Mack says softly, “if Moe plays, we might win the game, but we’ll lose the respect of the community, the student body, everyone. The board of education could take away our right to play. There’s nothing I can do to prevent it. He’s practically destroyed the team as it is.” He takes a deep breath. “Kevin Thompson is our only hope,” he says—and winces. Whoa, did I really say that?

       For a long moment silence reigns.

       Ms. Li then raises her head, adjusts her glasses, and smoothes her hair with one hand. “Very well,” she says, looking at the wall behind Mack. “Kevin’s back on the team. I’ll deal with Mister Lecht. Perhaps we can work something out.”

       Wonder if he’s related to Hannibal Lechter. That would be funny. Not. “Thanks, Ms. Li. You won’t regret it.”

       The principal of Lawndale High gives Mack a strange look, then shakes her head and reaches for the phone. He has been dismissed. Though he waves as he leaves, Ms. Li ignores him as she calls in an announcement for Moe to come to her office. The office staff gives him an excuse note to get into American History class late.

       The rest of the afternoon proceeds as usual for a game-time Friday, though Ms. Li calls Daria and Jodie to the office during last period to take part in a “special pre-game event,” a euphemism that in the past has covered picking up trash in the stands, directing traffic in and out of the school parking lot, and restocking and manning the refreshment stand. The girls grumble about fleeing to Canada as they leave Ms. Defoe’s art class, but Jodie promises Mack she will watch the game as much as her new and sure-to-be-hated duties allow.

       Shortly after school lets out that afternoon, Mack is in the Lawndale Lions’ locker room, suiting up for the game that starts in a half hour. His mind wanders as he dresses, going over long-familiar territory: what to do about his great powers. The responsibility part he understands well, but coming out of the super-closet is going to be super-tricky.

       Ever since Mack was ten, he has kept notebooks of all the things he needs to remember to do (and not do) as a superhero. He’s read every comic book he can find that might have information on this matter. However, acting on this knowledge does not always work out as he thinks it should, even in the realm of the little things.

       For one thing, he cannot think of a good superhero name. Many superhero names are inherently dorky. Elastic Man, the Boy Wonder, Invisible Girl—oh, please. “Maxus” appeals to him most, as it is masculine, reflects the idea of being the maximum one could ever be, and is a little like his real name. It hasn’t been taken by a comic-book hero, either, so far as he can tell. On the down side, it sounds like the brand name for a line of condoms or men’s porno magazines. Also, he would not like to be called Max, but perhaps he could get used to it if he had to. There are worse things to be called: Michael Jordan Mackenzie, jeez, or especially—

       “Hey, Mack Daddy! How’s it going, bro?”

       One thing for sure, Mack decides: He will never have a sidekick. He sighs and closes his locker in the team dressing room. Kevin Thompson has just walked in, ready to put on his uniform. “Don’t call me that,” says Mack. “Glad you’re back, Kevin.”

       “Hey, I couldn’t let my team down! I’m the QB!”

       “That’s great,” says Mack without enthusiasm. “Go get ready, okay?” He pulls a yellow-gold jersey over his head and shoulder pads. “And put an elastic bandage over your knee, just in case.”

       “Sure thing, Mack Daddy!”


       “I mean, sure thing, bro!”

       The gold jersey reminds Mack that he lacks a superhero costume. No material known could stand up to the punishment he could inflict on it just by flying around and bumping against things, not to mention the damage caused by an actual battle. On the good side, Mack has discovered that he can create a costume of sorts around his body simply by willing it to be so. The material appears out of thin air. If he wants the costume to be invulnerable to damage, it will be. With no skills at fashion design, he cannot come up with anything more clever than a thin bodysuit of a simple color, without a cape (he hates capes) but with a little padding in the groin to avoid making it look like he is wearing skintight Speedos. The invented suit doesn’t pull away from his skin, doesn’t leave him exposed, doesn’t get in his way, and is serviceable if unimaginative. It’s a guy thing, he knows. It’ll do.

       As he tucks the jersey into his blue pants, he hears someone approach the locker-room door from the gym outside. The footsteps are heavy; the stride is purposeful and possibly angry. Not a regular Lawndale student. It must be—

       The door bangs open; the heavy feet stomp in. The players around Mack cringe and move away. “Hey!” yells Moe with a voice like a fog horn. He rounds a row of lockers to confront Mack. “Li said I wasn’t playin’! What’s the big deal?”

       Mack frowns. Took him long enough to come around and complain about it. Why’s he even bothering to see me? I’m sick of this joker. Both young men are massively built, Moe more so than Mack—not that it matters. “The big deal is,” Mack says, “you’re off the team.”

       “I’m what?” snaps Moe, eyes blazing. With his wide nose, thick features, beetled eyebrows, bad skin, and outthrust lower jaw, he looks like a pissed-off bull. A fairly stupid pissed-off bull.

       “You’re off the team. Clean out your locker and go home. Or watch the game, I don’t care. Just go.”

       “Why don’t you clean out your locker, kid?” Mack recalls that Moe, at age twenty, is the oldest senior in the school’s history. He was thrown out of several other high schools for fighting and conflicts with authority, despite his athletic abilities.

       The other players in the locker room stare nervously at Moe and Mack. Their fear of a violent confrontation is palpable.

       He’s trying to start something, getting his jollies by pushing people around. “Look, man,” says Mack in a low voice, “I told you to get—”

       Moe’s right hand goes for Mack’s upper arm, probably to push him aside. Despite spouting veiled insults and mumbled threats on the playing field, he’s never gotten physical with Mack before. Mack sees the move the moment it begins. His left hand comes up in a snap and catches Moe’s wrist, intending to twist it backward just a little bit. In that same instant, Mack knows he is losing his self-control, but he doesn’t care. He is rattled by the day’s events and wants this creep to beat feet.

       Moe pulls back, and Mack tenses to stop Moe’s escape. It doesn’t work as planned. Moe is tougher than expected. Force struggles against counterforce as they pull against each other in their tug-of-war, muscles knotting. In less than a second, Mack realizes he is exerting his strength several times over his safety limit—and Moe is still resisting, still fighting, so far unharmed. Fearful of breaking Moe’s arm, Mack releases his grip on his opponent’s wrist, letting Moe stagger back off-balance. Alarms go off in his head as he increases all of his powers and armors himself more than usual. He takes a step closer to Moe, ready for whatever comes.

       “For the last time,” he says, “get your sorry ass out.

       Moe takes a step back as he rubs his wrist. He looks at Mack with evident shock. The look slowly changes to naked hate.

       “I will get what is owed me,” said Moe, who for a moment doesn’t sound like himself. With a glare, he turns and leaves. The locker-room door bangs shut behind him.

       Delirious cheers ring from every throat around Mack. When his rage fades, he realizes the other guys are slapping him on his back, but for them it’s like slapping a stone monument. Some guys already look at him in surprise, jerking their hands back in mild pain. Mack hastily relaxes some of his powers so that he feels more normal to the touch but is still protected in case Moe returns.

       Mack doesn’t remember much of what happens before Coach Gibson comes in. He is too unnerved by the confrontation with Moe, too upset over his breakdown in self-control. What the hell just happened? I could have killed him! If he hadn’t turned out to be so strong, I might have ripped his arm off at the shoulder. What’s wrong with me? And how’d he get to be so strong? I was way above weightlifter level in power, wasn’t I? What the hell is going on with that guy?

       After Coach Gibson gives his rallying speech, Mack is called upon to say something. Nothing exceptional comes to mind. He lifts his head, tired of it all, and says, “Let’s kick some butt.” The response is deafening in the packed space of the locker room. Even Kevin shouts Mack’s name until he is hoarse.

       Outside, the stands are packed with supporters from both teams, though Lawndale’s side seems listless until it sees Kevin Thompson, both arms raised and fingers making victory signs. Delighted applause then fills the air. In his recent efforts to seem less competent than Kevin at being a quarterback (and thus anything but superhuman), Mack has missed receivers or allowed himself to be sacked a few times. Lawndale lost a major game against its arch-rival, the Oakwood Taproots. Few fans cheer today for Mack except out of politeness and a grudging respect for his work as team captain. It doesn’t matter. He thinks he came so close to screwing up everything with Moe that fading into the background is perfectly fine with him.

       After the National Anthem is played, principal Angela Li stands before a microphone on the sidelines. She seems as rattled as Mack, her face almost bloodless. “Students, parents, teachers, and all other athletic supporters of our dear Laaawndale High!” she shouts. “Please welcome a few words from our guest of honor, the greatest quarterback the Lawndale Lions have ever known, the man who led us to victory in the state championships four years ago, Mister Tommy Sherman!”

       The roaring is back, redoubled, from the throats of all who remember his achievements if not his personality. Mack claps without spirit. He feels little warmth toward Tommy, who used to be almost as big a self-centered jerk as Moe. Used to be, Mack thinks, until he and I had our little talk and I let things get out of hand. He absently scans the crowd for Jodie, using magnified vision. It doesn’t help. She is not in sight. Just to be sure, he looks at the Washington side of the stadium, the fans decked out in red sweatshirts and jackets, and scans the crowds around the refreshment stands. No Jodie. He frowns, but she’s probably in the parking lot, directing traffic and bitching to Daria about life.

       Mack sees Daria’s parents near the front of the western side of the stands, and her fashionable younger sister Quinn is present as well. In moments, he also spots Jane Lane, Daria’s best friend, but she’s with her boyfriend from Fielding Preparatory Academy. Daria is nowhere in sight. Jane and Tom are scanning the crowd much as Mack is, with unhappy looks on their faces. Parking lot duty, for sure. Could be worse, Mack thinks. I could be picking up trash.

       “Hey, Laaawndaaale!” Tommy Sherman shouts into the microphone, and the crowd responds with powerful cheers. He sounds as if he has a head cold. Even from a distance, eagle-eyed Mack can see Tommy’s flat, crooked nose, an often-broken relic of his glory days in Lawndale football. Tommy wears a nice suit tailored for his huge frame. Business as a used-car salesman must be good. Mack hopes he isn’t forced to buy a used car from Tommy one day, though half of Lawndale apparently has. He doesn’t want to test Tommy’s new reputation for honesty.

       “Ms. Li asked me to say a few words ‘fore the game,” Tommy Sherman says, smiling. “I don’t know that many words, maybe ‘cause of all the classes I missed when I was going to Lawndale—” He pauses for the laughter to die down “—but I did wanna say a little something ‘bout learning new things.”

       Tommy Sherman’s gaze roams over the Lions—and comes to rest on Mack. He swallows, but goes on. “Anyway, I came back to school for a visit, a year ago, ‘cause Ms. Li wanted to show me the new breakaway goalpost the school was dedicating to me. That was cool and all, but when I came back, see, I wasn’t that nice of a guy. No, it’s true. I was kind of, uh, kind of a jerk. Yeah. I was all full of myself.” He looks pained and sneaks another glance at Mack. “I said and did some things that I’m sorry for now. I made some people mad, and hurt some other people’s feelings. I wanted to say I’m sorry for it now, but what got me on the right track was one of your Lions over there.”

       He points. “Mack Mackenzie. Hey, Mack!” He waves. “Yeah, the Mackster took me aside and got me all straightened out. I won’t say I tried to have a fight with him, but I will say I thought I was the toughest guy in the world, but I was nothing, nothing compared to him. No, I swear! He’s the man! No hard feelings, hey, Mack?”

       Embarrassed, Mack smiles and raises both hands in mock surrender. As angry as he once was with Tommy for trying to make it with Jodie, he has briefly forgotten all about it. Instead, he is terrified of what Tommy is about to reveal.

       “Mack showed me right from wrong,” Tommy says. “I never saw anyone move like he did when the wind broke that goalpost off and I thought it was going to kill me. He got to it faster than I’ve ever seen anyone move, then knocked it aside like it was a toothpick. He did that, and I’m standing here today to tell you it was ‘cause of him that I’m alive. That’s the truth! Thanks, Mack!”

       Applause and cheers rise from all sides. Mack is mortified and rubs his burning face after waving back. It was a narrow escape. He is glad Tommy didn’t linger on the fight between them. Mack is not proud of the way he goaded Tommy in their confrontation, letting the brutish sandy-haired twenty-something pound on him with no effect, then catching one of his fists and refusing to release it until Tommy apologized—and then promised to apologize to everyone else at school he’d offended, especially to Jodie. Tommy did it, which stunned more than a few people that day, Jodie among them.

       Mack, however, has felt nothing but shame since then. He didn’t mean to teach Tommy a lesson. He wanted to kill Tommy. He almost did.

       “When I left school that day,” Tommy says, “I’d learned more than I had in years. I wasn’t the best at football anymore. I had to leave all that behind me and do something else. So I got me a job, down at Happy Herb’s Used Cars, and this year I just cleared forty-five K, not counting bonuses, and I’m engaged—yeah, thanks, I am, really!—and now I feel like I’m somebody again! See, I was scared when I went back to high school last year. I was scared I wasn’t going to be anybody anymore. Mack showed me the hard way that I had to move on and find something else to do, and I did it, and Mack, you are the man! Thank you!”

       The clapping and cheering is so loud, Mack can barely hear Tommy’s last words. “You can never stop learning! So, I want you Lions to get out there and give it your best, but remember, you’re gonna learn that there’s life after high school, and I’m the proof! Now, let’s have some kick-ass football! Go, Lawndale!

       As the marching band strikes up the Lawndale fight song, teammates again pound Mack on the back and shoulders in congratulations. He shakes his head and waves again to Tommy, still embarrassed and ashamed, but glad it seems to have turned out well.

       “One more thing,” says Ms. Li over the loudspeakers as the cheering fades and the players prepare for the game. Mack hears a curious note in her voice and turns to look back. She holds the microphone with a trembling hand and points to the eastern end of the field, in the direction of the repaired Tommy Sherman Memorial Goalpost. A short distance behind the goalpost is a large pile of cut firewood that several workmen have finished unloading from a truck and stacking into a rough pyramid shape.

       “In honor of our newest addition to our student body,” says Ms. Li, her voice too high, “we will light a special bonfire, just like in the Olympics, in honor of . . . of the victory of education over the forces of . . . of everything else. This is for you, Mister Moe Lecht, and may it bring us triumph on the gridiron!”

       A hulking, grim-faced figure shouts from the crowd nearby. Mack’s super-hearing picks up his rough, familiar voice. “It’s Moe Lek! My name is Moe Lek, not Lecht!”

       “Right you are!” says Ms. Li, forcing a grin. She gestures at the workmen waiting near the large woodpile. “Play the fight song again, light the fire of knowledge, and let the game begin!”

       Standing around on the field, the Lions watch in puzzlement. “What is she doing?” asks Jamie White, one of Mack’s teammates. “I thought setting fires on school property was illegal or something.”

       The workmen get cans of gasoline and start throwing their contents on the firewood. The Lawndale High marching band cheerfully begins the fight song one more time as the cheerleaders jump and shake their pompoms.

       “Maybe she got a permit,” says Joey, another player. “She’s weird, man.”

       “That fire’s kind of close to the field, isn’t it?” says Kevin. “I don’t want to, like, throw a pass and have it get all burned up.”

       Mack doesn’t respond. He is listening. He heard something strange when he was concentrating on Moe correcting his name to Ms. Li. What he heard sounded like screaming.

       A workman pulls a small object from a pocket, then pulls out second object and holds the two objects together. Mack zeroes in on the man. He is trying to ignite a small firework with a butane lighter.

       And Mack can hear that strange sound clearly now, even over the band. Someone is screaming from the woodpile.

       Screaming his name.

       It’s Jodie.





Chapter Four



       It’s Jodie. Mack is positive of this. Despite the band playing the fight song, he can hear Jodie screaming for him in the direction of the woodpile.

       Or from under it.

       Sparks dart from the fuse of the firework in the workman’s hand. He quickly draws his arm back for the throw.

       Ahead and to Mack’s right, a referee in a striped shirt gently flips a football into the air, watching the events unfold just off the playing field. The football reaches the top of its short arc and starts to fall back toward the referee’s hands.

       You think throwing a football is all the physics you need to know, right?

       The workman flings the firework at the gas-soaked woodpile. He does not seem to hear the faint screaming from below the logs, with the band playing so loudly.

       Mack does not remember moving toward the referee, but he is there by the startled man now, the wind howling in his ears. His right hand snatches the football away in midair before it falls another inch. Turning, he focuses on the workman with the firework, plots his pass by instinct, and hurls the ball. He is seventy-six yards from the workman. On a nearly flat trajectory, the spinning ball crosses the gridiron like a tank shell, hits the firework halfway on its path to the woodpile and knocks it in another direction, then hits a sapling another twenty-two yards away and explodes with a bang. Its narrow trunk blown to splinters, the ten-foot sapling falls over in a shower of dead leaves. The crackling thunder of a sonic boom rolls over the Lawndale High School campus, as loud as if lightning had just struck the playing field.

       The firework pops harmlessly in the grass, far from the woodpile.

       After a few startled screams, the noise around the football field drops to nothing. Even the bands stop playing. Every player on the field and every spectator in the stands turns to stare at Mack.

       “Someone’s under the wood!” he shouts, pointing. He amplifies his voice, though not so much as to harm the hearing of those around him. “Under the firewood! Someone’s under the—”

       No one looks at the woodpile. Every eye is locked on him in complete astonishment. The consequences of the last three seconds begin to dawn on Michael James Mackenzie.

       “Oh, man,” he says in horror.

       He looks at the woodpile again.

       And sees another workman, startled by the football’s passing, flip a cigarette at it.


       He starts to run even as the yellow-white of the fireball blooms out of the piled logs, but running is too slow and he needs to get there now, and he body-slams the woodpile at rocket speed. Burning debris and smoke and bark and splinters fly through the air in slow motion as he grabs at logs and flips them away, slaps them aside, digs through the searing yellow fireball, and below the flames and gas-soaked logs he spies a long wooden shipping crate about the size of a coffin. His hands seize the burning lid of the crate and rip it free, hinges and locks and all, flinging it into the air.

       Jodie’s mouth had been covered with duct tape, but she rubbed her face against the top of the crate and peeled part of the tape back, just enough for her to scream, just enough for Mack to hear. Flaming gasoline and shattered logs fall in a hellish shower around them, though in Mack’s accelerated perceptions the chunks of debris float down like lazy dandelion seeds. He reaches for Jodie, still in the middle of a scream and turning her head to look up at him with startled eyes, and he pulls her from the crate—

       —and he sees a second coffin beside the first, hears panicked movements inside it. Little wonder that Jane and Tom could not see Daria, nailed inside the second long crate as she is. He grabs a handle on the second crate and pulls, trying to moving slower so that he doesn’t kill the two young women he’s trying to save, and they are free of the flames and falling debris and are gone with the wind.

       Mack circles around and lands on his feet on the football field, near the Tommy Sherman Memorial Goalpost on the ten-yard line. Setting his burdens down, he rips off the top of the burning second crate and lifts Daria out with care, setting her on the turf beside his hyperventilating girlfriend. Even without her glasses, Daria sees him perfectly well with eyes as large as saucers, but unlike Jodie she seems to have forgotten how to breathe.

       He throws the second crate away where it will harm no one, thirty yards beyond the well-scattered bonfire. Noticing his shirt is aflame, Mack tears it off and throws it aside. He creates a blue bodysuit around him from the neck down, seeing his blue football pants are ripped and burned as well, leaving only his hands free. Kneeling—Slow down! Slow down or you’ll hurt her!—he peels the duct tape from Daria’s lower face with infinite care, after adjusting the tape’s molecular structure so it is no longer sticky. He then begins tearing away the duct tape wound around the arms and legs of the two girls. They appear dirty, scratched, and bruised, but otherwise unharmed.

       “Oh my God,” Jodie gasps, staring at Mack and close to passing out. “Oh, my God. Oh my God.”

       “We didn’t set this up, I swear!” says Daria, finding her voice. “Not this time! But you won’t believe who—”

       “It’s okay,” says Mack, working on their bonds. “It’s okay. Hold still. Just a second—”

       Many more voices rise from all around, shouts and screams and cries and, curiously, even cheers. One name is repeated above all, not the superhero name Mack would have chosen. Perhaps making his bodysuit blue, like his football pants, has something to do with it, even if he doesn’t have a red cape and a large stylized S over his chest. Then, too, Mack belatedly realizes that from the moment he saw the fireball burst over the woodpile, his feet did not touch the ground until he landed here. The crowd’s mistake is understandable, though no one else thinks it is a mistake.

       Someone else is shouting, a loud voice from across the football field. Mack recognizes the voice and knows the only person Moe could possibly be shouting at would be him.

       “You dare do this?” Moe bellows, his voice loud and deep enough to vibrate the ground under Mack’s knees. “You dare break the covenant? You would violate the old laws and welcome chaos?

       Several football players have run up to Mack, though they slow down as they approach him. Kevin Thompson is the first to speak. “M-M-Mack?” he says. “Are you really—?”

       “Get Jodie and Daria out of here!” Mack snaps, looking past Kevin at the large figure standing at the fifty-yard line, near the Lawndale side of the bleachers. He rises from the ground and hovers to get a clearer view. The football players stare up at him with blank looks. “Get everyone out of here as fast as you can! Clear the area!”

       “You got it, Super Mack Daddy!” Kevin says, every inch the good soldier now. He does an embarrassed double-take and adds, “Sorry! I meant Super-Bro!” He rouses the other players, and they help Jodie and Daria to their feet.

       “Mack, what are you doing?” Jodie cries, huffing away. “What are you doing?

       “I can’t talk now!”

       “We have to talk now!”

       “He can’t talk now!” shouts Daria.

       “Get them out of here!” Mack shouts at his teammates.

       Mack!” Jodie shrieks, but two fullbacks have her by the arms and physically carry her and Daria off at a dead run.

       Turning away, Mack begins to move in Moe’s direction, hovering about ten feet up in the air. No point in hiding anything from anyone now. “Who the hell are you?” he shouts at his opponent.

       “You know me!” Moe shouts back. Everyone nearby backs away or runs. “All gods of the earth know who I am! Why do you violate the covenant and take my sacrifices as your own?”

       “They’re not your—”

       Mack stops. Sacrifices? Sacrifices?

       He looks in the direction of Ms. Li. She stares back from the podium at the fifty-yard line by the stands, gripping the sides of the lectern with trembling knuckles, open-mouthed, overwhelmed, exposed.

       Sacrifices. Burning alive. This is for you, Mister Moe Lecht, and may it bring us triumph on the gridiron. Moe Lecht, Moe Lek, Moelek, Molech: Leviticus 18:21, And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech—Tobin, page 513a: MOLECH (MOH lehk), also known as MOLOCH (MOH lahk) n. bull-headed sun or fire god of the Ammonites and other peoples of the ancient Middle East (related to, confused with, or identical to similar gods of this period and region: e.g., Milcom, Malik, Baal), to whom infants and children were sacrificed by fire, their screams drowned out by music. Debased ancients made offerings to this gruesome deity when a critical favor was required of it—Play the fight song again, light the fire of knowledge, and let the game begin! . . . I’ve already signed a contract with Mister Lecht for his serv—for his education at Laaawndale High . . . I’ve had to make certain concessions and promises that—Tobin, page 513b: Trafficking with this monstrous being was vigorously resisted by rulers such as King Josias, who defiled its sacrificial grounds and fought its high priests in an effort to prevent the destruction of all social and moral norms, but other rulers fell victim to the siren of absolute power and committed atrocities in the name of—I Kings 11:7, Then did Solomon build a high place . . . for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon

       The wisest among us will build altars to evil and sacrifice their most precious possessions on it, for unworthy things.

       “No way.” Mack looks at Ms. Li, his voice carrying across the field. “No way that you would actually try to make us win a football game by summoning a—”

       White with terror, Ms. Li turns and dashes down the stairs from the podium, shoving her way through the surrounding crowd in her escape.

       “Damn,” Mack whispers as he watches her run. “Damn you to hell.”

       Many onlookers are fleeing the area, but some are only pulling back to an assumedly safe distance, and a few are staying, watching, taking photos, filming with video cameras, calling on cell phones—

       “Give me my sacrifices!” cries Moe in a rage. He has grown a few inches in the last few seconds. His flat nose and jaw are lengthening into a muzzle. “I am owed by the law! You cannot break the covenant set down among the highest! You cannot interfere!”

       “I can’t what?” Mack says, looking back at Moe. This can’t be happening. This just can’t be happening. This is impossible.

       “A contract was signed!” Moe shouts. “The forms must be obeyed!” The wind from his voice blows dust and debris before him. His skin is turning a dull bronze color, his eyes a glowing red. When he speaks, a red glow can be seen in the back of his black throat. He is eight feet tall and still growing.

       “What the hell are you?” says Mack.

       Moe—Molech—ten feet tall and still growing, snorts twin clouds of black smoke from wide nostrils. Its face strongly resembles a bull’s. The clothing Moe once wore tears to shreds over the creature’s expanding frame until it rises to just over twelve feet in height, short horns and tall ears crowning its bovine head, a sort of bronze kilt wrapped around its waist and reaching down to the knees.

       “I,” says Molech, lifting its chin, “am a god.

       Three seconds of silence pass.

       “Uh, huh,” says Mack, recovering. His jaw muscles tighten. “A god. Were you hit on the head during football practice yesterday, pal?”

       Molech frowns, eyes burning bright orange. “Do not mock me.”

       “Mock you?” Mack shakes his head, feels a crazy smile coming on. He drifts to the right, drawing the monster’s attention away from the escaping crowd. “You’re a bad special effect from a Sinbad movie, and you have the nerve to tell me I’m mocking you?

       You!” Molech thunders. It points a huge bronze index finger at Mack. “You have almost the strength that I have! I remember our brief play at wrestling. Are you a god?”

       The moment is almost comical. Are you a god? Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say

       “No.” Mack grins. He drops all limits on his powers and prepares himself for what he knows and hopes is coming.

       Molech’s eyes widen. “No?” it repeats.

       “And neither are you,” adds Mack, hovering in midair only twenty yards away. “You’re no god, Elmer. You’re a man who got lucky one day a few thousand years ago and got some weird powers, probably the same way I did. You went off the deep end and decided you ought to be worshipped, and you’ve been nothing but a psychopathic egomaniacal pain in the butt ever since. You’re no god.” He pauses for a beat. “From the looks of you, you wouldn’t even make a good hamburger.”

       The bull-giant’s lips part. “Blasphemy,” it says. The word hangs in the air like a poison cloud.

       Mack notes that no one is within thirty yards of the creature. “That’s rich, coming from you,” he calls. “You’re the most blasphemous thing I’ve ever seen, except maybe for South Park, and at least that stuff is funny.”

       Molech begins to glow a dull red, as if heated from within. Its lips pull back from fanged teeth.

       “You, on the other hand,” Mack finishes, “suck ass.

       With a roar like a Saturn V taking off, Molech charges.

       Mack launches himself right at the creature at a speed faster than sound, right fist swinging back.

       The bull-headed monster opens its mouth and a white fireball blows out, washes over Mack, and it is HOT. Mack screams and puts everything he has into the first punch into the end of Molech’s muzzle, which knocks the monster’s head halfway around its shoulders and breaks out two of its front teeth. Fists hammer and claws slash at almost invulnerable skins, thunderclaps ringing out a dozen times a second with every blow, nothing in either brain but a profound desire to see the other one die.

       After landing a kick between Molech’s legs that would have felled Godzilla, and seeing the bull-giant do nothing more than grunt and grit its remaining teeth, Mack breaks off the fight and flies to a point a hundred feet over the center of the football field. He is not yet tired, but he feels a terrible need to collect himself. The first round feels as if it has gone for years, but cameras later show it lasted only nineteen seconds. A large part of the field and some of the abandoned spectator stands are burnt to ashes, including the Tommy Sherman Memorial Goalpost, which Mack tried to wrap around Molech’s throat before it melted.

       Disaster sirens wail across Lawndale. Two helicopters and a light plane circle and watch from a half mile away. Perhaps thirty onlookers remain at a distance on the ground, blabbering into cell phones and running movie cameras in hopes of selling the result to a network or to America’s Wildest Home Videos. If Mack felt he could spare a minute, he would collect all those morons and throw them into a shallow pond a safe distance away, but there’s no time. They will have to fend for themselves. He prays he can keep them from getting killed.

       Coward!” roars Molech from the ground, immediately below him.

       “I don’t feel like killing you right away!” Mack shouts back. “I want to make you suffer first!” At least until I can figure out how to kill you, you miserable pile of crap, and then you’re going home to hell in a heartbeat. Weird, though, that you aren’t flying up to attack me. Wonder if—

       Mack seems to disappear in an instant. Molech’s eyes narrow as it stares straight upward, searching. A moment later, the creature spots something above it and starts to draw back.

       Falling like a meteorite, Mack hits Molech at the end of a hypersonic power dive from ten miles up. Cameras record the gigantic fountain of dirt that lifts into the sky from the center of the gridiron, the blast wave knocking down the scoreboard and almost all the remaining spectator stands, smashing windows for a quarter mile around. Half-buried at the bottom of a crater over twenty yards wide, Mack mercilessly pounds at Molech’s face until oily black fluid sprays from the bull’s smashed nostrils and ears. Molech’s left eye is swollen shut, and he has no teeth left except for molars—but the self-proclaimed godling is still alive and fighting back. The monster glows white-hot, then turns even hotter until the dirt itself burns around them, rocks melt into lava, and every blow Mack delivers causes him to cry out even with his nerves deadened.

       Again, Mack rockets upward and hovers in the air, panting this time. The crater below him smokes like a volcano, ashes falling everywhere downwind across the city. I can’t believe it! This damn thing will burn Lawndale to a crisp if it gets any hotter! I can’t keep doing this! What the hell is left—playing chess with it, winner take all? Didn’t it occur to me that a five-thousand-year-old Power Ranger villain might stand up to whatever I could give it?

       Fight me!” roars Molech from the bottom of the pit. “Come back and fight me, by the laws of the covenant!

       “What damn covenant are you talking about, Bossie?” Mack shouts back.

       The covenant that the old ones agreed to! You are a god! You must obey the covenant set down when we divided our spheres of influence and how we would rule the earth! Fight me!

       I get it now, Mack thinks, wiping soot from his face. There must have been other humans like us way back when, and they made an effort to stay out of each other’s way, to prevent the sort of chaos that’s going on now between Moe the Moron and me. Maybe Moe can’t or won’t fly because he promised he wouldn’t, leaving that to other “gods.” Everyone got special powers of his or her own, everyone got sacrifices, everyone was happy—except the people who were the sacrifices.

       And Moe wants Jodie to be his personal burnt offering.

       I’ll see him in Hell first.

       As angry as he is, Mack doesn’t fly down for a third round. He aches all over, perhaps even looks as bad as Molech does at this point. It doesn’t matter, and he doesn’t really care.

       Fight me!

       “Man, you are a glutton for punishment,” Mack mutters. In a louder voice, he calls, “If I fought you on the ground, I’d tear you to spareribs!”

       Nothing of the earth can slay me, fool! Nothing can pierce me, nothing can break me! Fight me and see!

       Mack blinks. Nothing of the earth can slay you? Nothing of the earth? Nothing

       An instant later, Mack is gone.





Chapter Five



       “Nothing of the earth,” Mack mutters to himself in flight. “Nothing of the earth.”

       It takes a moment to get oriented to a view of Lawndale from high altitude. He then spots his target and dives, trying not to break the sound barrier again and smash windows across the city. Enough damage has been done.

       Resisting the urge to crash through the roof of his home, Mack lands on the doorstep and hits the front door with his right shoulder before he’s finished trying to turn the doorknob. The door falls, hinges torn off, and the knob-and-lock unit rips away in his hands. Cursing his impatience, he runs to his room, trying to slow down but smashing his bedroom door into unequal halves anyway. He swears violently and flips his bed against the wall, knocking down uncounted piles of books, and there on the floor among the swirling dust bunnies he finds his treasure: an old shoebox covered with black dust that smells of burnt gunpowder.

       Nothing of the earth it is, then.

       A world that has been biologically dead for over four billion years ought to be good for something. Mack takes one rock from the shoebox in each hand, then bolts for the front door, books and papers swirling behind him. Rocks—moon rocks, but rocks all the same. The irony of using the oldest weapons known to humanity to slay a godling does not escape him. On his way out of the house, he remembers a poetic fragment he thought of the night before, a version of the Scottish ballad, “Sir Patrick Spens”: Last night I saw the new moon with the old moon in its arms. . . .

       He remembers the next line and immediately tries to forget it. The moment he is out the door and roaring into the heavens, the words come back with a childish ring: I fear, I fear, my captain dear, that we will come to harm.

       “No more harm,” he says to himself, feeling superstitious again and upset about it. “No more, except to Moe.” He senses movement and noise, spies a light plane a few hundred yards to his right, and dodges to avoid it, annoyed that he isn’t paying attention. Damn! They’re going to know where—oh, the hell with it. Sorry for messing up the house, Pop, and for messing up our lives as well. I tried to do the right thing, but I can’t hide my real identity now. My false identity, I mean. Wait, what do I mean? Who am I? I’m Michael James Mackenzie, Mack to my friends, but I’m really a superhero, Maxus, or whatever I’ll eventually call myself. I only looked like a Michael James Mackenzie, but I never was. I was never normal. I was always something else, someone else, just like Superman.

       Mack sighs at himself. C’mon, man, knock it off. This philosophy stuff sucks. Find Moe and finish this thing. Finish it now.

       As he flies, he extends his senses and listens for the characteristics of Moe’s voice—and he hears it.

       “It is too late to bargain, mortal one.”

       Who is Moe talking to? Can’t be me. Oh, no—some glory hunter’s trying to get an interview with him, and he’s—

       “You rejected my offers. I could have made you great among men, but—ah, you come with a weapon? You would punish me? More the fool you.”

       Mack accelerates. He sees the school grounds from far above and comes down—and spots Molech, fresh from climbing out of the smoking pit, speaking to a man in a business suit who has driven his Taurus through the wreckage of the football field to the crater’s edge.

       The Taurus has a familiar color and a familiar license plate. The man in the suit with his right hand extended, a handgun calmly aimed at the godling, is an older black man even more familiar than the car is.

       “Pop?” says Mack. He is so startled that he hesitates. His father has the handgun he kept at the house in case an intruder came by when Mack was away. The old man fires the handgun once, twice, three puffs of white smoke visible long before the crack of the bullets reach Mack’s ears.

       Molech, battered from the earlier beatings but suffering no apparent harm from the gunshots, picks up a short aluminum pole that was once part of the Tommy Sherman Memorial Goalpost. With the air of someone flipping a stone at a mouse, the creature tosses the pole at the man firing the gun. The pole goes through the man’s chest like a spear and clatters on the ground many yards away, streaked with red. The man crumples and lies still on the ground, the left side of his ribcage missing. The gun drops by his side.

       The universe narrows down to the fallen man’s face, his eyes half open in death.

       “Pop?” says Mack. He lands beside the man, intensely aware that his hesitation led to this end, and kneels by the old man’s head. A trickle of blood runs from his father’s mouth down his cheek. His son puts out a hand, still clutching a moon rock, and runs the back of a finger down the side of his father’s shaven face.

       Mack turns his head and looks at Molech. The bull-headed monster appears uncertain of what to do. It watches Mack but takes a step backward, toward the crater.

       “My father,” says Mack. He presses the back of his hand to his father’s cheek, warm blood sticking to his fingers. Rising, Mack stares at the creature, then slowly walks toward it. “You talked to him in his sleep,” he says calmly. “You tried to get him to give me over to you, years ago, but he never would. You must have known who I would be, or suspected it. You knew what I might do.” He nods. “Pop must have known, too. He must have seen our fight on the news and—no, he would never have had the time to drive here. He never went to work. I see. He drove here this morning and parked by the high school and waited. That was probably it. I think he was expecting you. Maybe he had another dream. Maybe he had a little of me in him, or I had a little of him. I don’t know, but he knew. He knew. He was a good man.”

       The bull-headed giant steps back once more. Its wide-eyed gaze strays to the rocks in Mack’s fists. “What—” it says.

       Mack’s first blow shatters the bones along the left side of Molech’s skull next to its eye, smashing the eye into pulp as well. The second and following strikes crush the godling’s face, chest, arms, and legs. Less than a second has passed since Molech uttered its last intelligible word. Falling, the huge creature struggles to block the hurricane of attacks even with its limbs broken in a dozen places, squealing in agony and terror. When it cannot raise its arms or kick with its legs, it tries crawl. Savage blows shatter its exposed spine, hips, and ribs. It writhes on the ground, trying to draw breath to scream.

       “This is what death is like,” says Mack as he works, his voice almost businesslike and normal. He is not aware of how fast and hard his fists rise and fall, the rocks tearing into the thing that called itself a god. The blows scatter black dust everywhere over the giant, black dust that burns through the giant’s bronze hide like hissing acid. The power of belief, Mack thinks. Molech’s face is no longer recognizable as a bull’s; too many features are missing or pulped or burned away by the black dust not of the earth. It is mildly interesting to Mack that the creature still tries to escape when by rights it should be dead, interesting but not unexpected. It is even welcome, the monster’s inability to die.

       Having no place left to strike that has not already been beaten into boneless ruin, and the moon rocks powdered and gone, Mack grabs the creature’s body in his blackened fists, lifting it over his head. The thing that called itself Molech shudders and gasps, rubbery limbs twitching as they drag on the ground. Of its head, only the long right ear remains relatively intact. Mack wanted it that way. He puts his mouth close to that ear.

       “We are going to the land of oblivion, you and I,” he whispers. “We are going to the place where death is all, and nothing else exists but the ending of things. It is not of this earth, this place. We are going there together. Say goodbye.”

       Feet rising from the ground, Mack heaves the body of the godling ahead of him, then accelerates upward hard. He does not care if he sees the flat horizon change, or if anyone sees him go. When the sky turns black and fills with stars, he searches until he sees the crescent moon come around the curve of the earth, then accelerates again and continues to do so as fast as possible. The earth passes and falls behind him. The thing that called itself Molech, perhaps sensing what is about to happen, tries without effect to get free.

       The moon grows rapidly. The crescent’s bright edge become tinted with blue, and stars around it change into purple streaks. Doppler effect, thinks Mack, guessing that he is moving at a sizable fraction of the speed of light. He does not consider whether he will survive the impact. With a broken godling in his grip, he drives for the middle of the dark side faintly lit by earthlight, until a prominent crater catches his eye and he aims for it instead. Copernicus? he thinks, and wishes he’d studied lunar maps with more care.

       The disk of the moon changes into a true world in seconds, swelling to fill Mack’s vision. The crescent curve changes to a radiant violet. Molech howls into a vacuum with empty lungs. The great crater ahead comes on in a flash, great mountains rising at its center, and Mack thinks of his father and does not remember the moment when they hit.



* * *



       Ms. Angela Li knows she will no longer be principal of Lawndale High School once Jodie Landon and Daria Morgendorffer talk to the police, so she works quickly in her office. She has again pulled back the carpeting and drawn out a giant double pentacle on the floor using chalk. After lighting the proper candles, she unrolls the papyrus with the incantation across the top of her desk and then sketches out a circle of protection around her desk and office chair. She likes the idea of commanding summoned things from her seat of academic power.

       She finishes the circle’s runic inscriptions, puts the chalk aside, and is dusting off her hands when she glances at the door to the office and cries out, a hand to her mouth.

       Mack is there. He looks around the office with a blank expression, as if seeing his surroundings for the first time. The door’s locks are undisturbed. Ms. Li cannot imagine how he got into the room.

       “The strangest thing happened,” says Mack, looking at her for a moment before his gaze drifts on. He wears the blue bodysuit that Ms. Li saw him create before she fled the field. The explosive thundering that shook down ceiling panels and smashed windows across the school grounds ceased a half hour ago. She can guess who won the fight with Molech.

       Mack turns from a painting and looks at her. “I killed someone,” he says. “He used to be human, like me . . . I guess that’s not correct, though, is it? He was like me, a human who had special abilities, someone who could do things no one else could do, but he did evil things. People sacrificed their children to him, and it’s the strangest thing that I didn’t kill him because of that, because he was evil. I killed him because he killed my father. Just because he killed my father.”

       Ms. Li gets the picture and slowly backs around the desk to the place where the papyrus lies.

       Mack continues, his gaze wandering again. “I beat Moe almost to death with two moon rocks I had at home—I found them over the summer when I went to the moon, sort of as a test run—and after I beat him until everything inside him was broken, I hauled him into space and ran him directly into the moon, as hard as I could. We hit in the crater Copernicus, I think. I’ll look it up later. I was going too fast, though. I think I knocked myself out or something, when I hit, got all confused, and when I came to a little later, the earth was gone. I’d gone through the moon, all the way through it.”

       He looks back at Ms. Li, seeming not to notice that she has positioned herself in the center of the circle of protection, next to the papyrus on her desktop. “I floated there for a long time,” he says. “It seemed like a long time, but now I think it might have been just a few minutes. I was somewhere in the outer solar system, and all around me were the stars, more than I could count even with my powers, every color there is. I thought for a minute I was gone, but then I realized I could see the sun, a really bright star, the brightest around me, and I headed back to it before it went out of sight.” He looks away. “I was terrified. It was so beautiful all around me, but I’ve never been so afraid in my life. I was afraid I would not find my way back. It took forever to pick out our little world and its moon, but I found them and came back, but I still can’t get over it. I can’t believe I’m here again.”

       “We should talk,” says Ms. Li in a low voice.

       “I was thinking,” says Mack, ignoring her, “that belief is everything. It’s all that really matters. I don’t see why Moe should have been constrained by his perceived limits, like not thinking he could fly, and I think now it had something to do with a failure of imagination on his part. That’s weird, isn’t it? I mean, this morning I gave a report in science about everything being possible, but he didn’t believe it, Moe didn’t, and he made it so. Do you see? Some things were impossible for him, but they weren’t for me. He believed that anything of the earth would not hurt him, and when I attacked him with the moon rocks, I nearly killed him. I think Moe was dying then. He did die when he hit the moon, I’m sure of that. I sense nothing left of him anywhere, as if he’s completely gone from our universe. I think he is. He’s gone forever, and I killed him.”

       Ms. Li’s hands shake as she touches the edges of the enchanted papyrus, trying to fix the spell in her mind before activating it while keeping one eye on Mack.

       “But this is that part that confuses me,” Mack goes on. “Did Moe know that I had moon rocks? He would have believed he was vulnerable to them, you see. Or was it because I knew I had moon rocks, was that the key? Do you understand? Maybe it was both, that he made himself vulnerable by his doubt, wondering what it was that I had, and I made myself all-powerful in my certainty that I had a weapon that could hurt him. I don’t know.”

       “Mister Mackenzie—” Ms. Li whispers.

       “See,” says Mack, his voice rising, “what also bothers me is that I killed Moe because he killed my father. I haven’t dealt with that yet, that my Pop is gone, and I haven’t dealt with your trying to kill Jodie and Daria to get Moe’s help in winning a football game, which just blows my mind. And I haven’t dealt with Moe being Molech, the actual being to whom people used to incinerate their children, which I can’t figure out for love of anything—but it wasn’t any of that that made me kill him. I killed him only because . . . because he killed my father. I was just fighting him up to then. If he hadn’t killed my father, I’d have . . . I dunno, I might have just beaten him up and told him to never come back again. But he killed my father and I tore him into pieces and plowed him into the moon at almost the speed of light, do you follow me, Ms. Li?”

       Ms. Li glances down at the papyrus, then back at Mack. “I understand,” she says in a hoarse, dry voice, stalling for time. The incantation will take twenty seconds to read. Maybe if he turns his back, and she whispers the key words—

       “Huh,” says Mack. He turns his back to look at another painting, a copy of an abstract. “I’m not sure I understand. It’s almost too much. How many more are there like me? Old gods, demons, devils, monsters from myth—all of them people like me, who had a power to make things happen by sheer will? They have a code of behavior, a covenant he called it, and I don’t follow it. I wonder now if Molech meant to kill me or raise me as his own, as another twisted godling, if he’d gotten me away from my father. I don’t know.”

       Ms. Li is whispering. Mack does not seem to notice.

       “They’re going to close the school, you know,” he says. “We’ll have police and fire departments here from all over, and the governor will come, and the FBI, and who knows who else. I wonder what the news will make of it, all the camcorders and photos and eyewitness reports. Can’t imagine what they will say really happened here. It won’t be the truth, for sure.” He gives a single laugh. “Jodie and Daria will know, though. They know for sure. I wonder if they’ll talk about it to the media. It’s been a pretty wild day for—” Mack’s voice imitates Ms. Li’s “—Laaawndale High, wouldn’t you say?”

       Ms. Li finishes her whispers. The temperature in the room falls to below freezing in seconds, and the ceiling lights go out. Only the candles around the pentacle remain lit. “Arise and serve me!” Ms. Li shouts at the dark spot in the center of the pentacle.

       Mack turns around. Out of the center of the pentacle, up through the floor, rises a thing made of night. It is all wings and eyes and tattered robes. It rises to the ceiling, not making a sound.

       Azrael, Angel of Death!” screams Ms. Li, white-faced, “you are bound to my commands!” She points at Mack with a trembling finger. “Kill him!

       Mack stares at the tall figure made of night. It stares back at him without moving an inch.

       With a sigh, Mack makes a small hand gesture in the direction of Ms. Li. As he does, the circle of protection she inscribed around her on the floor vanishes, wiped away as if it had never been drawn or even thought of.

       “Belief is everything,” Mack whispers, as if talking to Ms. Li, though it is more to himself. He turns to the winged thing. “Take her away,” he says. “I do not ever want to see her again. And do not ever bother me in this world or any other.”

       Tattered robes swaying, the tall figure made of night moves in silence across the pentacle, erasing the chalked lines as it passes. It approaches Ms. Li, who steps back as her mouth falls open. She looks down and sees that the circle is gone, the circle that would protect her, and her eyes become impossibly big behind her glasses. A queer sound comes out of her mouth, a sound not quite a word, and when she looks up the Angel of Death is upon her and she is within its shadowed wings and the room is suddenly empty except for Mack, who stands and looks for a long time at the empty place where Ms. Li last stood.

       When finally he hears the sounds of many men coming up the school’s stairwells and being landed on the roof by helicopters, he stirs and gives a small shrug. “Funny name, Angela,” he says to himself, and he vanishes, too.





Chapter Six



       For the past week, since the day Lawndale High lost its football field and was closed down by the police, Daria Morgendorffer has left her window shades open at night and her bedroom lights turned on. She bathes and changes clothes in the hall bathroom she shares with her sister Quinn, but otherwise lets the world look in on her in her bedroom, where she has stayed every day as police cars patrol the streets outside her family’s home.

       Tonight she has a hardbound book by Carl Sagan propped up on her stomach and seems to be reading with quiet intensity. She has not yet changed for bed and wears her usual outfit of green and black. The boom box on the floor plays Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp in C, K 299, at low volume. She stretches a finger to turn a page.

       “Daria?” says a voice in the room, barely above a whisper.

       She glances up without moving her head. Of course, she sees no one. “Hmmm,” she says aloud, “that voice is back that tells me to kill and kill again.”

       A groan is heard. “Daria—”

       “Keep it down,” she says mildly, closing her book. She slides off the bed, walks over to the CD player, and pops out the Mozart. Selecting another CD from the pile on the floor, she pops that one in instead, and the sound of rainfall fills the room as she turns up the volume.

       “White noise,” she says, not looking anywhere in particular. “Good for drowning out conversations.” She scans the room, still sees no one. “Hi, Mack.”

       “Hey. Is this okay with you? Me being here?”

       “Is it okay having an invisible guy in my bedroom, you mean? It’s fine with me as long as we don’t rush downstairs and announce it to my parents. It might upset their quality time with the TV.”

       “I was . . . sort of worried you wouldn’t want to see me.”

       “Good pun.”

       “What? Oh, you know what I mean.”

       Daria inhales deeply and sits down on the bed again, looking at the floor. “You’re worried that I wouldn’t want to see you,” she repeats, scratching behind one ear. “I can understand that. However, I was a little more worried that I wouldn’t see you again and say an appropriate thank you for rescuing Jodie and me from the clutches of the Wicked Witch of Lawndale. So, thank you, before we do anything else.”

       A low chuckle. “You’re welcome. Have you been doing okay? Since—well, since the, uh—”

       “I would have to say yes,” she says, her voice deadpan, “but it’s a qualified yes. I don’t like being in confined spaces without having all the windows open, and I don’t like those confined spaces to be dark, so I keep my room lights on all the time at night. It didn’t use to bother me, until the crate thing. I even remember having a refrigerator box once . . . let’s skip that. Otherwise, I think I’m coping with life after Ms. Li’s amusing after-school prank. I’ve coped with Quinn all these years, after all, so I’ve built up a certain resistance to mental and emotional traumas. Speaking of Ms. Li—”

       “I was worried about you. You and Jodie, I mean.”

       “And how is Jodie? I haven’t seen her since last week. Mom told me that she moved.”

       “Uh, yeah. Yeah, her parents packed up and left with her, her sister, and her little brother. They’re not coming back.”

       “I see.” Daria sighs again. “That will drop the average IQ of Lawndale into the single digits, but I suppose it can’t be helped. Have you seen her yet?”

       “Yeah.” Mack sounds tired. “She—they didn’t want—oh, I guess it doesn’t matter. They went to New York. Her dad had some connections there, and they’re buying a place along the Hudson River, somewhere secluded and far away from Lawndale and the news media. They didn’t want anyone to know where they’re at.”

       Daria’s eyes roam the room, trying to pick out where the voice is coming from. “You talked to her?”

       “Yeah. Big mistake.” He exhales heavily and doesn’t elaborate.

       “You know,” says Daria, “having a conversation with thin air is interesting, but it lacks something. Perhaps you could appear somewhere in my room where I could see you, away from the windows—if you wouldn’t mind it, I mean.”

       “I could, but the only place I could sit without being seen would be on your bed, near the corner.”

       Daria looks around, chews her lower lip, then scoots over on her bed until she sits at the foot of it. She removes the pillow and book and puts them on the floor, then watches the space at the head of her bed. Moments later, a dark translucent shape settles down on it, sinking into the mattress. Mack takes full solid form a few seconds later, wearing a black bodysuit without adornment. He looks as he always did. After glancing at Daria, Mack rubs his chin and looks at his hands in his lap. “Hi,” he says.

       “Hi,” she says back, relatively calm despite her pale face. “You were saying something about you and Jodie.”

       “Oh. Yeah, she . . . I left her a note, like I did for you, and she saw me that night.” His face falls. “She said she didn’t want to see me after that, though. It was too much, the kidnapping and everything with Ms. Li, but she said it was . . . more than that.” He swallows. “She said it was me. She didn’t understand why I never told her what I could do. She said she just thought I was really strong, but she had no idea I could do anything else, really. I told her I thought you and she had worked it all out, but she said no, maybe you had, but she hadn’t. She hadn’t really believed I could fly. She was just humoring you, and she wasn’t ready for any of it when it all came true.”

       Mack takes a ragged breath, looking across the room. “And then she started getting mad at me. Why didn’t I trust her, and all that. And why did I think I had to fight this other guy, what was it with me that I thought I had to fight people, when if I had all these powers, I could work it out some other way.” He makes a helpless gesture. “I didn’t think she got it, that there wasn’t anything else to do, but she made me wonder if maybe she wasn’t right, you know? If maybe I could have worked it out with Moe, or Ms.—” Grimacing, he stops, wishing he’d not said anything about Ms. Li.

       “Ah,” says Daria, nodding as she watches him. “And in the end, Jodie told you to go, and you left, and that was it.”


       Her gaze lowers. After a few moments, she looks up. “Mack?”


       “I’m sorry about your father. I really am.”

       “Oh.” His expression becomes sad, then slowly clears. “Thanks. I am, too. He was a good man. I sort of sneaked into the funeral and saw you and Jane there.” His face tightens for a moment, then he relaxes and rubs his eyes. “He . . . Pop knew who I was. What I was, I mean. He could deal with it. He was the only person around who could, I guess.” He looks up and gives Daria a slight smile. “Although you seem to be doing pretty well.”

       “As I said, I’ve had Quinn around most of my life. I could get used to almost anything.” Daria tilts her head. “You said what you are.”

       “What I am. I’m human, I’m sure of that, but I’m—I’m different.”

       “Different in the way we were talking about in class last week? The quantum thing?”

       “I think so. That’s the only excuse I have for it that makes any sense. I mean, it shouldn’t work like that, I know, but—” He spreads his hands. “—it does.”

       “Whatever you wish for comes true.”

       “Uh, no, not like that. Just . . . well, sort of. It’s hard to explain.”

       “I’ll bet. So, was Moe like that, too?”

       “Uh, yeah. Yeah, he was. Just like me. Older, of course. He’d been around for a long time, but in a lot of ways, just like me.”

       “Is Moe coming back?” Daria’s voice is strained, though she acts as if it were nothing.

       “No. He won’t be back.”

       She nods. The stain in her voice increases. “And Ms. Li?”

       “Ah—” . . . death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns . . . “—no, I don’t think so.”

       She nods again. “Was any of this connected with that surprise asteroid strike on the moon last week? In Kepler Crater?”

       “I thought it was Copernicus. Look, maybe it’s not a good idea to talk about this, okay? You’re asking all the questions, so let me ask you some.”

       She shrugs. “Sure.”

       “Okay. I know about the school closing down—”

       “For only one more week, they announced this morning. Superintendent Cartwright appointed a new principal, don’t remember his name. He said he’d get the football season started as soon as he could, but the team has nowhere to practice yet. They might use a field at one of the middle schools.”

       “Figures they’d try to get the games going again.”

       “Mmm-hmmm. Everyone’s pretty mad about not having football to worship, but no one blames you for it. They blame Ms. Li. She told the workmen that the crates Jodie and I were in were full of fireworks. We were too well tied up and packed in for anyone to know otherwise. We were supposed to have the homecoming parade today, with that game against the James K. Polk Penguins, but that was called off.”

       Mack stifles a laugh. “They’re the worst team in the tri-county area. It would’ve been an easy win.”

       “Even without you.”

       He grunts and sighs. “I guess.”

       “Still, maybe sometimes it’s nice to be popular. Not that I would know.”

       “Hmm, yeah. Speaking of which, I hear they’re looking for me.”

       “For you, and Ms. Li and Moe, too,” she says softly. “No chance of finding any of you, I think, even for the FBI.”

       “Probably not.”

       “It would have been interesting to see Ms. Li on trial. Two counts of kidnapping and attempted murder, improper use of public funds, possible charge of—”

       “This isn’t a good topic,” says Mack, not looking up.

       “Okay.” She pushes her glasses up on her nose. “You know you’ve become Kevin Thompson’s hero and role-model, right?”

       Mack rubs his forehead as if in pain. “You’re not helping, Daria.”

       “He’s decided to become a crime fighter, just like you. He’s asking around, if anyone should see you, to find out if you need a sidekick. He’s calling himself QB Man.”

       Mack’s look of pain deepens. “I can tell you’re enjoying this.”

       “You could always send him into dangerous places ahead of you, sort of like having a canary in a coal mine. If he gets squashed, you know that there’s—”

       “Don’t say that. Kevin’s okay. He’s just . . . he’s okay.”

       “Tommy Sherman’s asking about a position with you, too. So are Brittany Taylor and the other cheerleaders, but I’m not sure if ‘sidekick’ was the position they want with you. Their desired position might be more horizontal.”

       Mack coughs to keep from laughing. “Coming here was a mistake.”

       “Perhaps, but where else do you have to go?”

       His mirth fades, and he doesn’t answer. Daria’s face slowly turns bright pink. “Mmm,” she says, “my spider-senses tell me that I’ve put my foot into my mouth all the way up to the hip.”

       “It’s okay,” he says. “You’re right. I don’t have anywhere else to go. I’ve just been hanging around, being invisible or disguised as something. Boring as hell. The FBI’s still looking over the house. They must have found the other moon rocks in my bedroom.”

       “Moon rocks,” says Daria, leaning closer.

       “Yeah. I got ‘em that night you saw me take off, last July.”

       “You went out to get moon rocks and didn’t bring me one? Some friend you are.”

       “Yeah,” he says, not laughing. He looks at Daria’s closet door on the other side of the room, his shoulders slumped. “I was wrong about everything. I got it wrong across the board. I thought I was a superhero, and I’m not at all. I thought I was unique, and I’m not.” He looks into Daria’s eyes. “There are a fair number of people around like me. Not more than a thousand, I’d guess, but they’re there. They have this whole set of rules they go by, to keep from getting into fights with each other and destroying everything. Some of them never came out in public, some of them did and pretended they were gods or angels or something, demons usually. The bad ones always made a mess, so the others came up with the covenant to keep the bad ones under control, more or less. I’m the only one who doesn’t follow the covenant. I’m the only one who has no limits on what he can do.” He manages a cheerless chuckle, looking at his hands. “They’re afraid of me, the others are. They know what happened to Molech.”

       “They told you this?”

       “Yeah. They got one of them to come and talk to me. Old guy, beard, one eye. Sort of a Scandinavian accent, Swedish maybe.”

       Daria thinks. Her eyes suddenly narrow. “You’re kidding.”

       “No, it was him. It was really him. He even had those two ravens with him. Maybe the others thought he was expendable. I think he was just too old to care. No fear in him at all. He wanted to know what I wanted to do, and I said I didn’t know. He said that was wise, that I knew I didn’t know, but I wonder if he wasn’t having a little joke on me. I told him what happened with Molech, the truth, and he seemed satisfied with that.” Mack licks his lips. “He said if I wanted to join them, the others like me, I could. I didn’t say anything about that, so we left it like that, for now anyway.”

       “Oh,” says Daria, and she looks away. “Lots of cute goddesses in the mythology books. A few succubi here and there, but there’s plenty of potential—”

       “I don’t want them,” Mack says quickly. “I don’t want to be one of them. I want to be Mack Mackenzie, football player and high school student and closet superhero, but that’s gone. I had this weird hope that I could save my old life as a secret identity, you know, like in all the comics, and I could pretend to be normal sometimes and take a rest.”

       Daria waits a few moments before asking, “Why can’t you rest now?”

       Mack inspects his hands again. “I’m not really over my father’s death,” he says. “I’m kind of settled with it, but not really. My whole life is ripped apart on top of that, and I don’t know who I am or where I can go, or what I’m supposed to do.” His hands close into fists. “And some of those guys in the covenant might have a problem with me. The old guy said there was some disagreement about me, but he didn’t elaborate. Probably couldn’t violate the covenant by telling.”

       “Maybe he wanted you to know, just in case. Maybe he likes you.”

       “Yeah, that would be great. Be Odin’s best friend.”

       “Or Aphrodite’s.”

       “I told you I don’t want that. Please don’t say it.”

       Daria’s face remains impassive, but she thinks about this for a bit. “What do you want?” she finally asks.

       Mack starts to laugh but it fades, as does his smile. “I want someone to talk to,” he says.

       Daria looks away. “Now, that’s funny. I’ve been thinking for some time that I’d like that, too.”

       “What? You have Jane. You can talk to her anytime.”

       She shakes her head. “Not since this Tom guy came on the scene. Every time we get together, it’s Tom did this or Tom said that, or ‘There’s Tom, bye Daria.’ Kind of ruins the taste of the pizza. They’ve been really supportive of me over this last week, but I knew it wouldn’t last. They’re at a movie tonight. My parents won’t let me out of the house, but I didn’t want to be a third wheel anyway, so I didn’t put up a fight. Wasn’t worth it.”


       “I can’t talk to my parents. Mom’s going to sue the school system over Ms. Li, so she’s preoccupied with getting that in motion, and Dad’s done everything except lock me in my room to keep me safe from crazed high-school principals and minotaur demons, which leaves Quinn, which means I really don’t have anyone to talk to.”

       It’s Mack’s turn to nod.

       Daria shifts in her seat on the bed. “So . . .” she begins, but she says nothing else.

       “So, what?”

       “So, nothing.”

       “So, you were wondering if you and I could hang out.”

       “I was actually wondering if you could read minds.”

       “Oh. No, I can’t do that.”

       “You don’t want to do that, you mean.”

       “Yeah, but I can’t, anyway.” He looks embarrassed. “I’ve tried before, with Jodie. It doesn’t work. I can sort of predict what people might do, based on their body language, but I can't really read minds.”

       “That’s good to know,” says Daria. “Very good to know.”

       “I suppose. I guess I do have some limits.”

       “If a man was able to read a woman’s mind, that would doom civilization. No one would have children, nations would fall, and we’d be at the mercy of the coyotes and possums.”
       “Well, some of us.”

       “Mmm, yeah, some of us.”

       “To answer your unspoken question, sure. Let’s hang out. If you want to.”

       “Me? Hang out with you? People will talk. Look at how you dress.”

       “You don’t like black? And people always talk. Let ‘em.”

       “That’s true. All right, you’ve talked me into it.” Daria chews on the inside of her cheek. “Um, I should warn you ahead of time that I’m not easy to get along with.”

       “Excuse me? Hello? This is Mack you’re talking to, Mack Mackenzie. We’re classmates, remember? I sort of know what you’re like, Daria.”

       “Oh. Uh, right.”

       “But I’ll still hang out with you.”

       “You must be really desperate. Um, that didn’t come out the way I’d—”

       “I’m desperate, a little, but that’s not why I want to hang out with you.”

       “I make a cute pet?”

       “Daria, come on. I can talk to you. You’re the only one I actually know who’s even remotely on my level, other than Jodie. On top of that, you’re about the only person alive who knows me and isn’t put off by who I am.”

       “Or what.”

       He rolls his eyes. “Or what.”

       “Well, it does help that you aren’t wearing a football uniform at the moment.”

       “I won’t do that anymore, promise.”

       Daria’s fingers drum on the blanket. “We’re going to have to think of more creative places to meet than my bedroom.” After a beat, she turns bright pink again. “Okay, that one really didn’t come out the way I’d—”

       “We’ll work on it.”

       “Good save. Thank you.”

       “No problem.”

       Daria takes a deep breath and lets it out, settling comfortably into place. “One of these days, I’d like to ask you what really happened last week.”

       “One of these days, I promise I’ll tell you.”

       “And you owe me a moon rock.”

       “For being my friend? Oh, fine, okay, I’ll get you a moon rock.”

       “An interesting one, not just any common ordinary moon rock.”


       They sit together in silence until Daria says, “I really am sorry about your father. I wish I’d met him before now. Everyone who knew him said he was a good man.”

       Mack nods, biting his lower lip, looking at the wall opposite.

       Without thinking, Daria reaches her right hand out, and Mack takes it, and they sit like that for a long time, hand in hand, looking at the opposite wall.

       Footsteps sound on the stairs at last, mixed with parental voices.

       “Time to go,” says Mack, letting go of Daria’s hand with reluctance.

       “Later,” she says without moving.

       “Later for sure,” he replies, and he is gone, just like that.

       Daria’s parents knock on her door, make sure that she is all right, then head for their own bedroom down the hall. Daria sits on her bed and looks at the place where Mack sat. She wonders if he’s still around, invisible, but decides he can be trusted. He was always a reliable guy who did what he said he would. It isn’t as if she can do anything about it if he isn’t honest now, but still, she thinks he can be trusted. He seems to need her. It is a new feeling for Daria, to be needed by a guy, and she doesn’t know what to think of it. She can still feel the warmth of his hand in hers. He seems to need her, exactly as she is. No one has ever needed her like that, except perhaps Jane, and certainly not in this way.

       “You were the thirteenth man on the moon,” she says to the space on the bed beside her, “and you didn’t bring me back a present.” She suddenly shakes herself and makes a face. “Friends. You two are friends. This isn’t like Jane and Tom. Get a grip.”

       She gets off the bed, pulls down the shades on all her windows, and changes into her bedclothes without thinking once that she was afraid of being in enclosed spaces, or that someone might be in the room with her. It isn’t worth worrying about. Not now. She shuts off the lights and lies in bed under the covers, aware that her head is about where he was sitting, and looks at the darkness with eyes open.

       Are there other monsters in the world like Molech, she wonders, waiting to prey on humanity as Molech wanted to? Will Mack be able to find and destroy them if they come out of hiding? Will some of the godlings of the covenant try to attack Mack from surprise, to destroy him before he can destroy them? Can she help Mack prevent that in some way, without getting herself squashed?

       And . . .

       Does Mack really need me? What does he really think of me? Is he put off by my habit of putting people off? He seems to like me, but does he really like me? Will he come back? Where are we going to meet? Are we going to stay in my bedroom the whole time? That could get rather clumsy in all sorts of ways. Speaking of which, is Jodie coming back, or is she gone gone? Is he still thinking about her? Why the hell do I even care about this? And why did I think of Jodie when I thought of my bedroom? I’ve always suspected that Mack and Jodie had something going on, but . . . did they? How did they manage that, with Mack all . . . super? Could Mack and I—WHOA, STOP!!!

       “I must have hit my head on something,” Daria says aloud. “I’ve never had this much brain damage before.” She shuts her eyes, rolls over, and makes herself go to sleep.

       Could Mack and I . . .

       Well, like he said, anything is possible.





Original: 12/27/04, modified 12/28/04, 09/26/05, 09/18/06, 07/26/08