“Evan Quick, Hero’s Log, May the 25th… and darn it – I just can’t do this. I’m never going to be a Mask. Get over it Evan.”
Evan Quick has spent his whole life dreaming of becoming a hero. Every morning he wakes up and runs through a checklist of test to see if he’s developed powers over night, and every day it is the same thing – nothing. No flying, no super strength, no heat rays or cold beams. No invulnerability – that always hurt to check – no telepathy, no magic. Not even the ability to light a light bulb without flipping a switch. And now, he’s finally ready to give up.
But then, the class field trip to the Mask Museum is interrupted by a super villain attack, and Evan somehow manages to survive a death ray. Even better, Evan’s favorite Mask, Captain Commanding, shows up to save them all -- and when things go very wrong, it’s Evan who finds the strength to come to Captain Commanding’s rescue.
Yet the hero’s reception Evan is expecting never happens. Before he even gets the chance to say hello, Evan is bundled away to The Academy, an institution derisively called The School for Sidekicks by its students. Forced to take classes like Banter Basics and Combat with Dinnerware, while being assigned as an ‘apprentice’ to Foxman – a Mask widely considered a has-been -- Evan starts to worry that he’ll never be able to save the day…
About the Author
KELLY McCULLOUGH is the author of the adult fantasy series Webmage and Assassin’s Blade. School for Sidekicks is his first novel for young readers. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats, all of whom he adores.
Read an Excerpt
School for Sidekicks
By Kelly McCullough
Feiwel and FriendsCopyright © 2015 Kelly McCullough
All rights reserved.
"Call me ... Captain Commanding!" I shouted as I launched myself into the air.
"Whatever, Evan." Glen rolled his eyes, but I pretended not to notice.
"That's just my secret identity," I replied, returning to the ground where Glen was having his wire rig connections double-checked. "It's not the real me."
Well, actually it was. Evan Quick, mild-mannered and utterly ordinary kid, that's me. But not today. Today was my thirteenth birthday, and for the next two hours, with the help of the game room at MaskerAde Pizzeria I was about to become Captain Commanding, the world's greatest hero.
The MaskerAde game technician moved on from Glen to check Jamal's rig, and I jumped into the air again, using the movie-style flying rig to do a double backflip before I landed. On the big curved screen in front of us my Captain Commanding avatar did the same — pretty awesome!
"You're really good at that," said Maria, the fourth member of our little group and my neighbor from across the alley.
I grinned. "I practice a lot. The home rig doesn't let you jump as high, or do more than a single flip, but that one gets you a killer knockout kick in Masks Versus Hoods if you can manage it."
"I wish my parents would buy me the fly rig for my GameDevice," said Jamal. "But we live in an apartment, and they say management won't let them mount it to the rafters. Weak."
The technician finished up with Maria. "You kids are good to go." She looked at me. "Your parents paid for two hours. I'll hit the buzzer and give you a ten-minute warning when your time's almost up. Till then, have fun."
Glen grinned. "Start with Masks Versus Hoods, me and Jamal against you two?"
"Sure." I nodded and stepped back into my quadrant.
Unlike a home GameDevice setup, MaskerAde had a full circle green screen that allowed them to really put you inside the experience. They also had their flight rigs hooked up to pivoting overhead arms that let you move around a lot more than the fixed home version. Add in a fancier version of the regular 3-D goggles and earpiece set and you were pretty much inside the world of the game.
I did a quick run-through of some of the Captain's best moves, and watched my avatar do the same. After that I slammed back a MaskerAde energy drink — MaskerAde was nearly as big a franchise as Captain Commanding. Then, I dropped the can in the hamper. I was ready to rumble. I clenched my fists and bowed to the center of the circle. In response, the avatar moved over and settled around me. For the next two hours, I was going to be Captain Commanding!
Then I heard Jamal whisper, "Why does he get to be Captain Commanding?"
Glen hissed back, "Because it's his birthday party, knucklehead."
That brought me down a little, mostly because it reminded me Jamal wasn't really my friend. I mean, we were on the same track team and all, but I just wasn't one of the jocks. Not in the way Glen and Jamal were. Sure, I worked my butt off in track and with the weights. But that was because I wanted — more than anything in the world — to be a real Mask, with powers and everything — not because I liked working out.
Actually, none of the others were real friends. Glen was the one track jock who went beyond tolerating me into something almost like being friends — when we were at meets or if my parents were buying MaskerAde pizza and the game room, anyway. Jamal was just part of the package if you invited Glen anywhere. And Maria, well, she was my neighbor — just kind of there — and you needed four players to get the most out of renting the game room.
I pushed all that aside. Not having friends wasn't the worst thing in the world. No, that was Spartanicus — the Captain's archenemy. That, and not having my own powers. Well, not normally anyway. But now the game activated, and Glen turned into Spartanicus, and right here, right now, I was going to kick his butt! Beside me, Maria turned into Flareup and we charged Spartanicus and Jamal — who was playing as SteamPunk.
After a couple of bouts of free-for-all, we paused and slammed another round of MaskerAde, then switched to scenario play — my favorite.
We started with the very first appearance of Spartanicus. I was flying over Heropolis alone — Maria would come in later with this one, after I got tagged out. I saw a green flash below as the back wall of the City Mutual Bank exploded outward. I pivoted in the air and blinked left-right-left-left to order the flying rig to let me land.
As I dropped toward the pavement, I tried to really be the Captain, experiencing this scene for the first time, pretending that I hadn't seen the historical vids a hundred times. Of course, in the real world, the Captain had arrived in the Commanding Car, but that wasn't nearly as cool as flying in — and stop thinking so much, Evan! Just enjoy the moment!
"What's happening, citizen?" I asked one of the civilians knocked over by the blast. "Can I help?"
There was another green flash, and my wire rig yanked me sideways to simulate being hit by the beam. I landed hard on my butt, but turned it into a backward roll, jumping high into the air when I got my feet back under me. I got my first look at Spartanicus then. A big man, he had scars on his face and wore a sort of leather gladiator's outfit. He stood in the hole in the bank's wall with a sword in one hand and a small round shield in the other.
I blinked three times and lasers shot from my eyes. Spartanicus moved with impossible speed, interposing his shield and redirecting the beams so they hit my feet. That tipped me forward, and I balled up both fists, flying straight at Spartanicus. The scar in the center of his forehead ripped open, exposing a green jewel and a blast of energy hit me full in the face.
The indicator in the corner of my goggles blinked a red warning to tell me I'd taken a big hit, but I ignored it, just as Captain Commanding had all those years ago. I had to protect the civilians injured by the original blast, whatever the cost. Spartanicus put up his shield again, and I flipped over in the air so that I slammed into it feet first. The game stuttered a bit as I changed what had happened. I actually knocked Glen out of his avatar for a moment. But it caught up a second later as the image blinked over to cover him up again.
He bounced back to his feet a moment later and came at me, but I did the double-backflip-kick move, smashing him into the shattered bank vault door. I pretty much cleaned the floor with him for a little while after that. Which isn't how it went in real life. But, while I'm not much of a jock, I know everything there is to know about the Captain and how to make the best use of his powers in Masks Versus Hoods.
In fact, I was pretty much on my way to rewriting Mask history by taking down Spartanicus for good, when a deadly ninja throwing-gear hit me square in the face, and my rig dragged me backward into the bank teller's desk. The display told me I was KO'd and had a five-second timeout.
I wanted to shout Unfair! SteamPunk hadn't even gotten his powers yet when this fight happened. But it was a four-player game, and they had to bring the others in somehow. Fine. I gritted my teeth and held still while Spartanicus and SteamPunk did a completely out-of-character victory chest bump. They were just turning to come at me again, when a gigantic blast of blue energy tumbled them both sideways.
That was mostly accurate. Foxman had saved Captain Commanding at the bank that day, but Maria insisted on playing the girl version of the Foxman armor, and that messed with my head. The helmet and mask were right, with the classic Foxman grin, and so was the metal tail that still somehow contrived to look fluffy, but the rest was plain wrong. Not that anyone cared much about a has-been like Foxman anymore.
But, I was a giant Mask nerd, and the girl armor made my inner purist itch almost as much as the arrival of SteamPunk with his throwing-gears and aether rays. I'm not sure if it was better or worse that she'd chosen to crossplay Foxman — who at least had been there — than if it would have been if she'd played one of the many girl Masks that hadn't. But then my time-out was done, and I forgot about everything but being Captain Commanding and beating the heck out of Spartanicus.
We took a five-minute break to catch our breaths after that round, and to have another MaskerAde each — the stuff was awesome! Then we moved to another scenario. This one played out at the Colonel Cuddlebear factory where they make all those custom Masked-animal plushies. Of course, Colonel Cuddlebear isn't a real Mask. Sure, she's got some seriously buff powers, but she hardly ever uses them for anything but marketing. She had messed up the Fluffinator pretty good when he tried to animate the Cuddlebear plushies to take over Heropolis, but that hardly counted. It was mostly in defense of her brand. And seriously, "Cuddlebear?" Please.
Jamal played the Fluffinator and Maria switched to Cuddlebear while Glen and I stayed the same. Captain Commanding hadn't really been there, and neither had Spartanicus, but there was something about punching a six-foot stuffed bunny into a cloud of white fluff that made me forget to be grumpy about the inaccuracy.
One fist directly on the button nose, and, POOF! The world's biggest dandelion-down explosion. It was so much fun that we all forgot about hitting each other for a while as we went after the army of plushies. Flip, kick, POOF! Jump, spin, laser eyes, and FIZZ! Flaming, exploding dandelion. Pure, joyous destruction, and we unlocked Cuddlebear for full play, so Maria stayed in that role when we moved back to straight up Masks Versus Hoods for our last couple rounds.
Mom and Dad were waiting for us at the table with the pizza already ordered when we got out.
"And another round of MaskerAde," said my mother, "because I'm a saint and I don't want the sugar crash to hit till you're all home."
There wasn't much to do after that except eat and take everyone home. We didn't really have a lot to talk about outside of the game. I mentioned that none of them were what you'd call real friends, right? Maybe I'd better explain.
I'm smart enough to do well in my classes without busting my butt, but I'm not that into academics, and I don't hang around with the brains and the grinds. The athletes tolerate me because I do bust my butt there, but they're not my natural crowd either. The geeks are probably closest to being my people, because a lot of them are pretty Mask crazy, too. But my — by their standards — wholly unnatural association with the jocks makes me a little too suspect.
It's weird, really. All the books and vids about school paint everyone as being in or out. Either you're popular and everyone loves you even if you're mostly a jerk. Or, you're not popular and you get shoved into lockers. Nobody tells stories about kids like me who slide through school with no real connections and no real enemies. Kids who are just there.
Sometimes it makes me feel like I don't exist, like I'm a ghost. That's how my teachers treat me, too, like furniture. Mom says it's because I don't cause enough trouble for them to worry about me, and I don't brain it up enough to be a pet. Whatever the reason, I'm not really close to any of the other kids, and I'm okay with that.
My alarm went off at nine, like it does every day in summer — my mom doesn't want me to get too out of touch with getting up in the morning. I stared at the little beeping devil and willed it to turn off like I did every day ever. Nothing. So I willed it to blow up, catch fire, fly out my window, and turn into a frog, each in turn.
It just kept beeping.
So, no mental powers. Also, I felt like I'd been run over by a bus. I decided to blame it on drinking most of a case of MaskerAde the day before. I smacked my alarm to make it shut up, and moved on to the next big test — rolling out of bed ... and not catching myself.
It's tougher than you might think.
I hit the floor hard and banged my nose. It hurt.
So, no flight and no invulnerability.
Grabbing the leg of my bed, I lifted. No superstrength either. Also, no laser eyes, no power jewels sliding around under my skin, no hurricane breath, and no stretching my arms and legs like taffy.
All around, a disappointing morning. Oh, and did I mention that I felt like burned toast? Because I really, really did. Still, I had things I was supposed to do, so I dragged myself off to the bathroom for a shower and all the other stupid morning things that people without powers had to do. Maybe my mom would let me go back to bed afterward if I fell asleep in my oatmeal.
Whatever happened next, I was going to have another superboring entry in my hero's log. Superboring appears to be my only real power.
* * *
"Evan Quick, Hero's log, May the 25th, and ... no. I just can't do this. I'm not twelve anymore, and I am never going to be a Mask. Get over yourself, Evan."
With a sigh I flicked off the camera on my phone and reached for the button to trash the video. It was always kind of a stupid dream, and my thirteenth birthday was as good a reason to admit that as any. No one knew what gave people superpowers. Not these days, and there was never going to be another Hero Bomb. I was out of luck.
When my phone offered me the option to "select all" of the videos in my hero's log folder, I stabbed the button with my thumb. It really was time to give up. Past time.
No real Mask could possibly feel as wrecked as I did right then. If a sugar crash could take me out like this, what hope did I really have? I clicked yes and there was a dream dead. Thirteen for twenty-four whole hours and a complete failure already. Nothing to look forward to except high school, a boring degree in college, and years of drudgery afterward. I might as well plan on majoring in accounting like my dad and get it over with.
I fell back on the bed and stared at the poster of Captain Commanding on the wall above. It was life-size. The big man wore a red, white, and blue uniform and had one arm out like it was resting on your shoulders. I'd always done my hero's log sitting in front of it so it would look like we were friends or something. Kind of pathetic, no?
"Evan, honey, are you ready?" My mother called up the stairs. "We need to leave for Camp Commanding soon."
"I'll be down in a minute, Mom."
Awkward. Here I was giving up my Mask dream on the same day Mom took me to get a season pass to Camp Commanding — the promised land for Mask nerds. This was the first year I was going to be allowed to go by myself. I should probably have told her to forget it, since all I really wanted to do was go back to sleep, but I didn't want to let her down.
She and my dad had been indulging my Mask fantasies for ages. I'd never exhibited the tiniest sign of any kind of powers, but they were always willing to drive me to see the latest hero movies in megamax 3-D, or buy me tickets to Camp Commanding, or pick up a fresh box of Commanding Grahams for breakfast. Whatever, they were supersupportive — always telling me I could grow up to be anything I wanted, no matter how ridiculous.
Seriously? Both of them had supersupportive parents, too, and look where they ended up. Dad's an actuary, kind of the nerd king of accountants. Mom's a professor at a big university where she teaches and does mathematical modeling of adhesives. That's what they wanted to be when they grew up? I don't think so.
Not when my grandparents include Dad's moms, the ballerina-turned-choreographer and her wife, the painter. My other grandmother is a chef, and her husband writes comics. They met when their parents' communes had a joint event. With that much cool in the generation before my parents, what happened? Some kind of zombie math ray? Or maybe every generation of my family was less awesome than the last. If so, I was utterly doomed.
"Honey, we need to go now!"
"Be right there!" I sat up, flipped my worn old Captain Commanding bedspread into a rough semblance of a made bed and stumbled down the stairs. I was totally beat. Maybe I could catch a nap on one of the slower rides.
* * *
The parking lot had already soaked up a ton of sunlight, and opening the car door felt like opening an oven. Instant sweat monster. I paused before getting out, staring up at the fifty-foot fiberglass statue of the Captain that towered over the entrance to Camp Commanding. Today, he looked like he was judging me for giving up on my Mask dream ...
My mom poked me in the arm and said, "That's it, no more MaskerAde for you, kiddo. You crash too hard the next day."
I sighed and rolled my eyes, but she might have a point. I was tired and I felt weird.
"Honey, are you all right?" My mother was giving me the strangest look, and I realized I still hadn't gotten out of the car.
Excerpted from School for Sidekicks by Kelly McCullough. Copyright © 2015 Kelly McCullough. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
2. Camp Commanding,
3. Breaking News,
5. Enter the Captain,
6. Rise and Shine,
8. End Transmission,
9. Hero High?,
10. Out of This World,
11. Be Careful What You Wish For,
12. Foxman Jr.,
13. The Den,
14. Don't Tell Anyone Official,
15. School Daze,
16. The Foxman Theme,
17. Heroing Without a License,
18. Lasagna at Ten Paces,
19. In Deep Water,
20. Fire, Aim, Ready,
21. Safecrackers Inc.,
25. Scenes From a Recovery,
About the Author,