“What was it this time?” Fletcher asked.
“I think it was a bus,” Miguel answered, going back to his lookout perch. “Sounded like it hit pretty close. I can still see the smoke.”
“Any idea what’s happening?” Josh asked.
“I can’t see much of anything through the dirt on this window,” Miguel replied.
“You could always clean it,” his mother said. Miguel ignored her.
“What’s to see?” Fletcher said. “Every time someone gets superpowers, they want to show off for Technein, then they wind up fighting one of his henchmen and we get to hide in the basement until it blows over.”
“We need someone with superpowers to stand up to that guy,” Miguel said. “You know, someone to lead a revolution!”
“I told you I don’t want to hear any more of that revolution talk out of you,” Miguel’s mom scolded as she smacked him on the back of his head. “You want to get killed? A revolution is the quickest way to end up six feet under.”
“We spend most of our time hiding in a basement while superpowered punks toss cars at each other. You call this living?”
“Your mom’s right,” Fletcher said. Like everyone else, he’d heard all about the so-called underground dedicated to overthrowing the “reign of supervillains,” but all that had come of it was a bunch of graffiti that read Super Powers Are No Match For The Power Of The People. It wasn’t much of a revolution. “Just look at our dad.”
“Dad was a hero!” Josh protested.
Fletcher and Josh’s dad had been a police officer back when that meant something. After Technein took over the city, their dad continued to enforce the law as he always had. His colleagues tried to tell him things had changed. They suggested he stop making trouble. They showed him how much money there was to be made looking the other way.
“Dad was stubborn and stupid,” Fletcher told his brother. “He could see that nothing he did was going to make any difference, but instead of just playing along, he took a stand and wound up dead for it.”
Josh started to argue, but backed down when he saw Fletcher’s expression. He barely remembered their father, but his brother never forgot the night he’d become “the man of the house” at five years old.
Their dad had responded to a call about a break-in at a warehouse. He called for backup, but by the time it arrived, he’d been electrocuted to death inside his patrol car. No one was ever arrested—even though it was pretty obvious it had been Zapmaster—and the police records officially showed it as an accident.
Their dad had always said he would rather die doing what he knew was right than have to come home every night and look his sons in their eyes knowing he was a fraud, and their mom made sure to repeat that every chance she got.
Fletcher didn’t care.
As far as he was concerned, Dad was an idiot who left two kids and their mom alone just so he wouldn’t have to admit the world was changing. There was no need for police any more. All that mattered now was who was most powerful, and one cop didn’t amount to anything in that equation.
“I haven’t heard any explosions in a while,” Josh noted. “Do you think they’re done? I want to get out of here.”
“Maybe,” Miguel said.
Josh nudged Fletcher, who still looked upset. “Let’s head home. Mom’s probably worried.”
They went back upstairs and slipped out the front door.
“I know how you feel, but remember what Dad told Mom—“ Josh said as they jogged the block and a half home.
“Dad was an idiot,” Fletcher said, refusing to listen.
“Miguel’s right about the Revolution,” the little brother insisted, “and I’m going to join it.”
“Then you’re an idiot, too—”
Fletcher’s insult trailed off as they came to their apartment building. Miguel had been right. It was a bus.
And it was sticking out of their living room wall.
They took the steps two, sometimes three at a time. Fletcher's fingers couldn't quite get a grip on the keys, and once he had them out of his pocket, it took all his concentration to unlock the series of deadbolts his mother had on the door. When the brothers stepped inside, they were almost knocked flat by the fumes from the bus's exhaust. The engine was still running and the wheels continued to spin, though they were going nowhere as the bus was on its side.
"Mom!" Fletcher shouted between coughing fits. He held his shirt over his mouth and nose, but it didn't make any difference.
They squeezed past the bus and into the bedroom where Josh threw open the windows and stuck his head outside to suck in several deep gasps of fresh air.
“Do you see mom?” Fletcher asked.
Josh shook his head as he coughed. She wasn't in the bedroom, and as they searched through the house, they didn’t find her anywhere. The only place they hadn’t looked was under the bus.
The boys made their way back to the living room, afraid of what they would find. The couch was a splintered mess of springs and fabric beneath the bus. Fletcher held up a hand to tell Josh to stay back as he dropped to his knees. He crawled along the ugly carpet, trying not to picture what his mother would look like if he actually found her.
But there was nothing there.
Fletcher heaved a sigh of relief, though he regretted it as soon as his lungs with bus fumes.
"She's not under here," he shouted to his brother.
"Let me see," Josh said, as though he suspected Fletcher might be lying to protect him.
"Go ahead and look," Fletcher repeated, holding up a hand to stop Josh. "But just so you know, the bus driver and a few passengers are still in there."
Josh glanced through one of the shattered windows and retched with his lunch backing up into his mouth. He dashed for the bathroom to throw up.
“Fletcher! Get in here!” Josh shouted.
Fletcher was in no rush to watch is brother puke, but the panic in Josh’s voice drove him to the bathroom in a flash.
Their mother was unconscious on the floor, between the tub and the toilet. Her eyes were glassy and her skin was turning blue.
“Let’s get her out of here,” Fletcher ordered his brother, hooking his arms under his mom’s armpits. “She must have gotten knocked out by the fumes.”
He expected Josh to grab her legs and help carry her, but instead his little brother leaned over the toilet and let loose a torrent of vomit. Fletcher dragged his mother out the front door and onto the landing. He nudged her gently and coaxed her awake with a quiet, “Mom? Mom, wake up.”
When that didn’t get any response, he panicked. He slapped at her cheeks—maybe harder than he’d meant to—and screamed, "Mom! You’ve got to wake up!"
Still, she didn’t so much as twitch.
Josh joined him on the landing, bits of his lunch clinging to his shirt. Josh pinched their mother's nose and covered her mouth with his own, trying to blow life back into her.
"Wake up, Mommy," Fletcher cried into her ear, but no amount of pleading would bring her back.
“It’s not working,” Josh said with tears rolling down his cheeks.
Fletcher laid her head gently in his lap and gently brushed her hair with his fingers, the way she had done to him when he was little. He and Josh each took one of her clammy hands and held them tightly.
Josh took the other hand and let loose a squeal like Fletcher had not heard since Josh was a baby. Because at that moment, the fifteen-year-old Josh really wasn't any different than a newborn who wanted his mommy.
Neither one of them had any idea how long they'd sat there on the staircase. The bus had finally sputtered to a stop a while ago, but they didn't dare go inside. The fumes might clear out eventually, but the memories never would.
After what must have been hours, an explosion in the distance roused Fletcher back to reality. He saw that the sunlight was growing dim. They couldn't afford to be out at night.
"Get up, Josh. We have to go."
"I'm not going anywhere," his brother pouted.
"Josh, I don’t want to go either, but we have to get off the streets or we’ll be dead, too.” He got up and grabbed his brother’s arm.
"We can't just leave her here!" Josh snapped.
"That exactly what we have to do," Fletcher argued. "We can't take her to the hospital. She's dead. And if we don't get inside, we're going to wind up the same way." He grabbed his brother by the shoulders and lifted him to his feet. "We can talk about this later."
With nowhere else to go, they wound up knocking on Miguel’s door again. Their friend’s mother immediately noticed their red eyes and tear-streaked cheeks. She looked behind them, hoping to see their mother, alive and well, but when she didn't, she understood immediately. "Oh,
," she cried, taking each in one of her arms to embrace them.
"What happened?" Miguel said as he walked in on the scene.
"Miguel," his mother ordered, trying to hold back her own tears. "Go get them something to drink."
He shrugged and went back to the kitchen.
Josh and Fletcher both sat on the couch and recounted the scene for Miguel and his mom, who shared what little food they had for dinner with the two boys. Afterwards, they pulled the cushions off the couch and took them into the basement with some extra sheets and blankets. Miguel and his mom kept their beds down there since it was the safest place in the house.
Fletcher didn't imagine he'd be getting much sleep, though.
Within minutes of her head hitting the pillow, Miguel's mom was snoring in the other room. Fletcher rolled about, trying to be as comfortable as he could be on a dusty old couch cushion. He looked over at his brother's silhouette and could tell he was having the same struggle. They were all each other had left, yet Fletcher didn't know what to say or what to do to comfort his brother.
"Get up and get your clothes on," Miguel whispered in the darkness. He lit a candle and held it up high to light up the entire basement.
"What?" Fletcher said, squinting as his eyes adjusted.
"You're coming with me," Miguel insisted. "But be quiet and don't wake up my mom. We have some people I want you to meet."
"What people?" Josh said.
Fletcher remembered the last time he'd been out after dark. He'd been fourteen and his mom, Josh, and he had missed a train because two supervillains were fighting on the tracks uptown. They'd had to walk home in the dark.
There was a saying that once the sun went down, there were only two kinds of people walking the streets: murderers and victims, so if anyone crossed your path, you had to decide which you wanted to be.
Their mom had told them the streets didn't used to be as scary back when the city had streetlights. Most of the lampposts had been ripped away by brawlers with superstrength who liked to swing them like baseball bats in fights, so there wasn’t much light and that made Fletcher nervous. Miguel was half his size, but he didn’t seem the least bit scared.
He moved quietly, slipping down an alleyway whenever a car drove by.
"Are you going to tell us where we're going?" Fletcher asked.
"You’ll know when we get there."
"You can't just drag us out into the streets in the middle of the night and tell us we're going to see the Revolution without explaining--"
Fletcher's complaint was cut off by something clattering inside a dumpster up ahead. A man's head peered above the rim, stopping the three boys in their tracks.
"Revolution?" the man said in a gruff voice as he lifted himself out and blocked the boys' path. "Did you say you're going to see the Revolution?"
"Back up," Miguel whispered, but Fletcher and Josh were already making their slow retreat.
"I bet Technein would pay good money for someone who knew how to find the Revolution." The man pulled a knife from his pocket and took a step toward the boys.
Fletcher's heart was trying to beat its way through his ribcage and he couldn't feel his legs, even though he knew they were slowly backing him out of the alley. The moonlight glinted off the dirty blade in the man's hand and Fletcher's thoughts went to his mother's pale body. Would he wind up like that here, in this alley? Would Josh? He couldn't let that happen. Without Mom, he was all that Josh had left, and he couldn't let anything happen to either of them.
He turned to run back to Miguel's house. It couldn't be more than a half mile. He hooked his arm under Josh's shoulder to drag him along, but his brother stood his ground, anchoring Fletcher like a dog chained up in the yard. The sudden jerk spun him around just in time to see the knife-wielding man attack Miguel.
Effortlessly, Miguel side-stepped the thrust of the knife, grabbing the man by the wrist. He threw an elbow into the man's jaw, then punched the wrist hard enough to loosen the grip and send the knife clattering across the alley. Miguel finished the man off with a head-butt, breaking his attacker's nose and dropping him limply into a pile of garbage bags.
"Hurry up," Miguel whispered as firmly as he could. "Someone had to have heard that."
"No way," Fletcher protested. "We're heading back. I knew we shouldn't have come out at night."
Miguel took off down the alley, and Josh was right behind him. That left Fletcher alone with the man who’d attacked them, and Fletcher wasn’t about to stay with him. He ran after his brother, making sure to avoid the groaning man in the trash.