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Our trip to the mall started off normal enough. I should’ve known it wouldn’t stay that way.
I was with my friends Milton, Sophie, and Miranda. Milton and I had gotten to know the girls a while back (long story). Then we were all nearly killed by a supervillain in an indestructible suit (even longer story).
“I hate back-to-school sales,” Milton complained, looking at a BACK-TO-SCHOOL SALE! sign as we wandered into a store. “They should call them summer’s-about-to-be-over-and-there’s-nothing-you-can-do-about-it sales.”
“That’s not quite as catchy,” I said. But I totally knew what he meant. Seventh grade was starting in a few days, and I wished there were a way to slow down time, to keep things exactly the way they were. Long days with nothing to do but hang out with friends. No classes, no homework, no evil maniacs trying to kill you.
“Hey, check it out!” Miranda said. “It’s you!”
Nearby was a rack of T-shirts, all with the same picture on the front. My picture. Except hardly anybody outside our group would recognize me. My identity was hidden by a uniform and a mask. Superheroic letters stretched behind me, spelling out THE NAMELESS HERO.
It was hard to believe that I’d briefly been the most famous kid on the planet. That I’d appeared on TV shows and in commercials, had my face plastered across all kinds of products. It had only been a couple of months since the hype over the Nameless Hero had died down, but to me it felt like a couple of decades.
And apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was moving on. The store was obviously trying to get rid of all its Nameless Hero inventory. A sign on top of the rack read
ALL NAMELESS HERO MERCHANDISE MUST GO!!!
Sophie nudged me with her elbow. “That’s a pretty good deal. Maybe I should get one.”
“Or fifty,” I said. “They’ll be collector’s items someday.”
“And every time I see it, I’ll remember the good old days.”
“Like getting chased around Times Square by clones?”
Our conversation came to a sudden stop when I noticed Joey and Brick coming our way. Just seeing the two biggest bullies in Sheepsdale knocked my mood down a few notches.
Joey had red hair and a pointed face that reminded me of a rat with an attitude problem. Brick looked like . . . well, a brick.
Joey gave Miranda a harsh look. “Who’s the new girl?” He turned his sneer on Sophie. “Is she a freak like you?”
Sophie stepped toward Joey and Brick. “Leave us alone.”
Even though Brick was about twice Sophie’s size, a shadow of fear passed over his face. He was probably remembering how Sophie had dismantled a hallway of lockers and sent him and Joey to the nurse’s office last year.
See, Sophie has the power of superhuman strength. But it comes with a slight . . . side effect. Whenever she uses her Gyft, it causes her skin to radiate in a way that makes her look like Tinker Bell. Except much bigger, and a whole lot stronger.
“What’re you gonna do?” Joey asked. “Show off your freaky glow-in-the-dark trick for everyone in the mall?”
He gestured to the crowds of shoppers moving through the aisles around us. As much as I hated to admit it, Joey had a point. If Sophie used her Gyft right now, it would draw a lot of unwanted attention.
And believe me, for kids like us, unwanted attention can be a very bad thing.
“Let’s just go,” I said to Sophie in a low voice. “They’re not worth it.”
“Speaking of freaky . . .” Joey turned toward Milton and me. “It’s the Amazing Exploding Dork and his trusty sidekick.”
My hands curled into fists. I could feel my own Gyftspontaneous combustioncrackling inside me. It always starts off the same: A tingling in my fingertips. A pounding heartbeat. Energy pulsing through my veins. It wouldn’t take much to make these two regret ever messing with us.
But a few shoppers were looking in our direction. I wasn’t sure how they’d react if I blasted Joey and Brick all the way to the underwear department.
“Come on,” I said to my friends. “Let’s hit the food court.”
“I sure could go for some cheese fries!” Milton was at the front of our group, an excited look on his face. He gets that way whenever cheese fries are an option.
Sophie didn’t look nearly so thrilled. I could see that the confrontation was still weighing on her.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Sometimes I just wish I could be”
“Like everyone else?”
Sophie let out a deep breath. “Exactly.”
I definitely knew how she felt. I’d spent my life trying to blend in, to be normal. But that’s basically impossible when you’ve got parents like mine.
“Those guys are jerks,” I said. “They pick on everyone. It’d be weird if they didn’t mess with you.”
“I guess you’re right.” A slight smile formed on Sophie’s lips. Her blue-gray eyes shone a little brighter. She looked like she was about to say something else when a voice cut into our conversation.
“Are we getting cheese fries or not?”
Milton was standing next to a cell-phone kiosk, tapping his foot. Sophie and I hurried to catch up.
The food court was bustling. We grabbed one of the last available tables, setting down the large plate of cheese fries in the middle so we could all share.
“I wish we didn’t have to go to school on Monday,” Milton said between bites.
“I’m just glad to be starting off the year with friends.” Miranda smiled at us. Below her right eye, a birthmark in the shape of a star stood out against her olive skin. “That’s a first for me.”
“Me too,” Sophie said. “Besides, at least at school I don’t have to be around my dad and that redheaded bimbo.”
Sophie’s dad was the world-famous superhero Captain Justice. And as for the “redheaded bimbo” . . . that was Sophie’s nickname for her dad’s new girlfriend, Scarlett Flame. Ever since their romance went public, hardly a day passed by when I didn’t see photos of the two of them cuddling on the cover of Super Scoop magazine or battling zombies on the evening news.
“You should see them together.” Sophie made a gagging noise. “It’s disgusting. She comes over to watch Dad’s show with him. The only thing Scarlett Lame likes more than my dad is seeing herself on TV.”
Captain Justice’s reality show, Hangin’ with Justice, had become a national sensation. Maybe Sophie didn’t like witnessing the romance between her dad and Scarlett Flame, but apparently the rest of the country did.
I reached for a handful of cheese fries, but the plate was gone.
“You already finished the fries?” I frowned at Milton. “Thanks for leaving some for the rest of us.”
“What do you mean?” Milton stared at the center of the table. All that remained was a glob of cheese where the plate had been. “They were just here a second ago.”
“Guyslook.” Miranda pointed beneath the table. On the floor was our plate of cheese fries.
“How the heck did they get there?” Sophie asked.
“Dunno.” Milton shrugged.
“Well, they couldn’t have just teleported,” I said. “Someone must’ve”
I went silent when something hit my forehead with a wet splat. My hand shot up to wipe away a thick substance that looked like blood. Except it wasn’t blood. It had to be
“Ketchup,” Miranda said. “Why do you have ketchup on your face?”
“Good question.” I spotted a bottle of ketchup behind Sophie. It seemed to be . . . drifting in midair. And suspended in the air beside it was a bottle of mustard.
Another stream of ketchup squirted from the bottle. This time it landed on the table in a looping shape that looked something like a W. The mustard came next, writing out an E beside the other letter.
Sophie gawked at the floating bottles. “Did someone order a magic show without telling me?” she asked in a shaky voice. “Because otherwise, I’m starting to get nervous.”
“Oh, man!” Milton scrambled out of his seat, pointing a trembling finger. “The food court’s possessed!”
I watched as the floating ketchup and mustard squirted out an apostrophe onto the table, followed by an R and an E.
“What’s doing this?” I asked.
“Not what,” Miranda said. “Who. Someone’s controlling the bottles.”
She turned in her seat, her eyes searching. Miranda is a Senser, which is another way of saying she has superpowered intuition. Her Gyft gives her insight into things normal people can only guess about.
“We’re not the only Gyfted kids here.” Her voice was slow and measured. “There are . . . others. Don’t know who, but one of them has the power of telekinesis”
“Tele-ki-what-sis?” Milton asked.
“The ability to control objects with the mind.”
“I’m guessing that includes bottles of ketchup and mustard,” I said.
Miranda nodded. “Whoever these people are . . . they’re sending us a message.”
“Yeah,” Sophie said. “And they’re spelling it out with condiments.”
She pointed at the table. There in gloppy red and yellow letters were four words:
WE’RE COMING FOR YOU
It was right around this time that chaos broke out across the food court.
I’d been so caught up watching the ketchup and mustard practice their spelling that I hadn’t noticed what was going on around the rest of the food court. A group of high school girls squealed when a strawberry smoothie exploded against their table like a pink grenade. Close by, I spotted a family covered in kung pao chicken.
A food fight had broken out in the Sheepsdale Mall. And the food seemed to have a mind of its own.
As if that weren’t bad enough, other objects were getting in on the action. A bunch of DVDs looked like they’d floated over from the electronics store and were now whizzing across the food court like Chinese throwing stars. The pinball machine had escaped from the arcade. I watched with a growing sense of fear as it chased a group of old ladies.
Screams filled the air. Swarms of people were running for the exits.
“Any guesses what this is all about?” Sophie asked. She used a plastic tray as a shield against an incoming slice of pizza.
A look of concentration passed over Miranda’s face. After a moment, she let out an exasperated breath. “There’s too much going on right now. It’s like static. I can’t pick up on any one thing.”
“What about that message?” Milton looked down at the words scrawled on our table in mustard and ketchup. “Who is coming for us?”
“No idea.” Miranda ducked just in time to avoid getting smacked in the face by an airborne phone. “Whoever it is, it looks like they’re driving everyone else out of here.”
She was right. A battalion of plastic dolls had ventured from the toy store and were herding people through the exits. Anyone lagging behind got a kick in the butt from a floating tennis shoe. A mall security guard tried to restore orderuntil a flock of books flew at him, their pages flapping like wings, chasing him toward the open doors.
“That guy’s got the right idea,” Milton said, watching the security guard bolt. “Let’s go!”
I broke into a run. But obstacles kept getting in our way. When we tried to reach the emergency exit, a set of kitchen knives darted into our path, their gleaming points aimed at our chests. Turning around, we were met by a dozen baseball bats from the sporting goods store. They floated in midair, swinging at any of us who got too close.
Whoever was controlling the mall might have been driving the rest of the people out, but they were doing everything to keep us in.
Before long, we were the only ones left.
All at once, the doors slammed shut. And just to make sure they stayed that way, arcade games scooted across the floor, sealing the exits closed. Mountains of TVs, stereo equipment, and computers piled up across the broad corridors that led to other parts of the mall, creating a barrier that trapped us into the food court.
Knives drifted closer. Baseball bats circled.
There was no way out.
A shadow fell across the food court. My eyes were drawn to the ceiling, where the blazing August sunlight poured through a glass roof. Staring down from above was a girl, perched at the edge of the glass. She looked about our age, with a pixie haircut and a smirk on her face, the kind of expression you’d see on a kid sneaking out of detention.
“That’s her!” Miranda said, pointing at the girl.
“The one with tetanus?” Milton asked.
“Telekinesis,” Miranda corrected him. “She’s the one controlling everything!”
The girl held out one hand, fingers outstretched. A flick of her wrist and the glass shattered, sending hundreds of shards crashing down.
Clenching her hand into a fist, the girl yanked her arm back like she was pulling on an invisible string. Suddenly, a TV rose from the messy floor, its cable dangling beneath it like a tail. The TV drifted steadily through the air until it was only a foot below the shattered ceiling.
The girl repeated the same motionclench fist, pull backwith her right hand, then her left. A laptop burst into the air, followed by a plastic serving tray. More objects began drifting toward the ceilinga computer monitor, a DVD player, a coffee-table bookeach coming to a stop a little below the one before it.
She was building a spiral staircase.
The girl stepped through the hole in the ceiling, one foot landing on the flat-screen TV that was levitating beneath her. Her other foot came down on the laptop, then the plastic tray. She descended to our level using the mall’s merchandise as her own personal stairway. Even with the pit of nerves twisting inside me, it was impressive.
As soon as she reached the floor, a movement above distracted me. Someone else was peering down at us through the gaping hole in the ceiling. A guy who looked a couple of years older than usand a whole lot bigger. Square jaw, no neck, muscular arms. And his size wasn’t even the most remarkable thing about him. The dude had skin the color of concrete. I stared up at him with equal parts fear and awe. He was like a boulder in an XXL T-shirt.
Big Boy uncrossed his arms, went into a crouch, and . . .
I staggered backward, too distracted by the sight to give much thought to the knives and baseball bats circling us. The guy plummeted to the ground and landed like a ton of brickswhich is probably about what he weighed. The impact shook the entire food court. The floor cratered beneath him. But Big Boy looked unfazed. As he rose to his full height, his concrete face broke into a crooked grin and he brushed the dust and debris off his supersized clothes.