Changes. Life's full of them. In nature, the most famous example of change is the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. One minute, there's this slow moving, gross-looking hairy worm inching its way across a tree branch, and the next-PRESTO! You've got this airy, delicate butterfly which gets out of its cocoon, takes one look at it's old branch, and flies off, never to return.
While people don't change in that big a way, they go through a lot of big changes too. Like the first day of school. Or meeting your first friend. Even going to the dentist by yourself for the first time can be a big change. One of the biggest changes in anybody's life, though, is the day they first leave home for college. The safety of the warm, comfy, family cocoon is cast off, left behind for the wide, wide world of whatever's out there. It's a weird, scary change.
Like butterflies, some people never come back after that, choosing to stay out there, somewhere in the world, for the rest of their life. But a lotta people do come back, even if just to visit.
And sometimes, coming home can be way weirder than leaving in the first place. It makes you look at old, familiar things in new, unexpected ways. And it makes you realize that no matter how much you've changed, the people you used to know have changed too. Sometimes, you have to get to know them all over again.
And that can be the scariest change of all.
July 14th, 1995 9:00 AM
Silverware clicking against cheap china. Soft slurps of coffee. Idle murmurs of conversation. Breakfast was a quiet, calm affair as usual at Evanston, Illinois' only MacDrekky's fast food restaurant, punctuated only by the odd ring of a payphone in the rear of the eatery. The few cashiers on duty mindlessly stared at cracks in the aging diner's tiled ceiling as patrons meticulously chewed their cud.
No one noticed the two teenagers as they entered.
They were definitely a mismatched couple. He, a tall brawny, muscular sort, dressed in leather and denim, she, a slim, petite girl in hideously mismatched clothes that somehow managed to exude an underlying sense of elegant style. Nobody could have ever predicted that their relationship would have taken off as quickly as it had, or that it would have lasted as long as it did. But it was love, all right. Anyone could see that.
"Buy me a Big Drek, or I'll beat your head in."
"Yes, dear," Clifford Spleenhurfer complied meekly, shrinking from the acid gaze of his girlfriend as he sat down beside her at a booth.
Presently, however, his eyes began to wander back to her face. He studied her features intently-- which for him was more like having his eyes pointed at her while his mind wandered off into space. Even in that state, however, he could see it, plain as day.
"What is it?" the girl asked, annoyed at his dull, uncomprehending stare.
Clifford gulped and said nothing. He hated it when she got like this. It scared him. Fright had a way of dampening his appetite.
"Well?!" the girl asked irately. "What's the 411?!"
"Umm--" Clifford began slowly, his voice trembling in fear.
"Spit it out!" she snapped, her oddly shaped earrings jangling back and forth as she moved her head, "A piece of me is dying every few seconds, you know. Blood cells only last 90 days. My fingernails and hair are already dead. By the time you finish your sentence, I'll probably be nothin' but a pile of dust in this chair!"
"Umm," Clifford continued, pointing at her face with a trembling finger, "your eye fell out again."
"Ugh," the girl muttered. "It's always doing that. Now I have to pull out the other one." Raising a hand to her head, she briefly paused to brush aside her dirty-blonde bangs, plucking at her one blue eye until she was able to peel off a thin layer of colored plastic from its surface.
With a flick of her thumb, the girl tossed the plastic lens into Clifford's Sani-Shake.
"Why do you even wear those, Eve?" Clifford asked tiredly. Her eyesight was perfect.
Eve Biderberg, the most popular girl at Thomas Tupper Senior High School, Editor-in-Chief of the school paper, and inherently better half of Clifford Spleenhurfer, scowled at the sheer idiocy of her boyfriend's question.
"Because," Eve replied slowly, a hint of anger in her voice. "It's a requirement. You can't be a blonde with brown eyes. That would be gross." She frowned and donned some sunglasses.
"But your hair isn't even really blonde-" Clifford blurted, unthinkingly.
"Yes it is!" Eve hissed. "It's always been blonde!" She smacked him on the side of the head. "Understand! ?" she demanded, her voice dripping menace. "And don't call me `Eve' in public! Got it?"
"Hi, Claire, Hi, Clifford!" a pack of girls chirped, passing by the table.
Eve smiled to them. "Hey, guys! What's the four-one-one?"
"We were just thinking," one of the girls chittered rapidly, detaching from the pack, "there's this new fad at school. Everybody's wearing their clothes inside out. We were gonna do it too."
"Now," Eve counseled in a friendly, yet strangely commanding voice, "always remember to be yourself. Live your own life. Don't just blindly imitate other people."
The Metafictional irony could have crushed a bus.
"You're right!" the flighty girl chirped, returning to the fold. "She's so cool!" the other girls whispered to each other, giggling and moving off.
Clifford sighed. "I remember when she would get that reaction," he trailed off, staring into Eve's face. For a moment, the girl's features seemed to shift slightly, and someone else, looking similar, but different, stared back at him.
"Ugh," Eve snorted. "Thinking about her again, are you?"
"I love *you*" Clifford spat reflexively, suddenly slightly afraid for his life. "I love the way you smile, the way you look...
He coughed, clearing his throat. "You are so beautiful--" he droned, starting to break into song.
"--but I look just like her," Eve interjected brusqely. "So when you say you love my appearance, you mean you love her appearance, yes?"
"Yeah... uhh. no." Clifford replied, confused, eyes almost crossing.
"Don't think, dear," Eve whispered soothingly, reaching out a hand to stroke his arm lightly, her mood swinging completely. Any man other than Clifford would have been instantly suspicious. As it was, Clifford was too busy contemplating the subtle intricacies of Pie.
"That's never been your strong suit," Eve continued. "Your other talents more than make up for your lack of brain cells."
"Yup," Clifford replied proudly, beaming, his expression turning to a frown after a moment as he regarded her once more. "But I'm not doin' that stuff with you anymore. It's too gross and disgusting. Every time, it makes me sick."
"Eh?" Shocked, Eve sat bolt upright in her chair, offended. "How can you say that? Every time we did it, you swore it was the most wonderful thing you'd ever experienced!"
Clifford shrugged, expression neutral. "That was just in the heat of the moment, babe."
Eve growled, shoving his arm lightly. "I go out of my way to satisfy your hideous appetites, and you have the gall to trivialize it? I gave you everything! I showed you things-- techniques-- I'd never shared with anyone else!"
"Don't care," Clifford mumbled, stuffing his face with a glazed MacDrekky's Dairy Doughnut O' Doom. He liked Dairy Doughnuts o' Doom. They were soft and squidgy, and melted on his tongue. Sugar gave him strength. Strength made him strong.
"I'm not doin' it with you anymore," he continued defiantly. "No more dumpin' roaches into dinner plates just to scam free meals from restaurants."
"Gah!" On the verge of apoplexy, Eve clenched her hands into fists, her knuckles going pale. Looking around to make sure none of the staff was paying attention, she leaned forward, speaking in a rapid, raspy whisper. "You're the best I've ever seen at the dead roach scam! Nobody does it better than you! The look of cluelessness when you sit down to order, pretending to mangle the French meal names--"
"--well, that's just your normal ignorance. But then the look of righteous shock and indignation-"
Clifford nodded and glared at Eve angrily. "Is that a palmetto bug in my souffle?" he asked with mock gravity.
Eve cooed in delight. "Precisely. And you're so big and strong, those pasty-faced waiters don't dare question you. You're perfect! You can't quit! I've grown used to fine cuisine!"
Clifford frowned, shaking his head. "No way. I've changed. I got ethics now. I'm goin' straight."
Eve's eyes narrowed, and she leaned forward in a fluid, serpentine motion. "There was a time when you were all too willing to forget your ethics."She held out a sandwich, waving it slowly in front of her vassal-err, boyfriend's nose.
Clifford shook his head, but his eyes betrayed him, following the sandwich automatically. He shuddered, and a huge drop of sweat trickled down the back of his head. As he spoke, he desperately tried to ignore the sandwich. "Yeah, well, the days of me forgettin' are over, and the days of me rememberin' have just begun. I'm Clifford Spleenhurfer, Thomas Tupper High's first Super Super Super Senior, not some insane human eating machine!"
Clifford closed his eyes and turned his head away from the sandwich, nose in the air. "My stomach's not the boss of me! Not anymore!"
Eve snickered, still holding up the sandwich. "When you go on like this, you know what you sound like?"
Clifford shrugged, eyes still closed. "What? What do I sound like?"
"You sound like a freshman. Whine, Whine Whine Whine Whine. Not like the manly super senior that I fell in love with. The Clifford who stood up for his rights! Who didn't even let the ex-girl of his dreams get in his way!"
Clifford shuddered. He flashed back to an incident that had happened some five months ago, just before Clarissa had gone off to college. Boy, he recalled. That architect had sure liked his fridge.
The day had been a particularly hot one. Chicago had been caught in the grip of a particularly vicious heat wave, with the mercury hovering above 102 for the sixth day in a row. The Darling family had responded by retreating into the cool, air conditioned sanctuary of their comfortable two-story home, basking in cool processed air. For two days, life had been perfect. Then, on the third day, the air conditioner had simply decided to stop. The house was transformed into a hot box that would have sent Southern prison wardens packing in terror.
Each member of the family had adapted in their own unique way. The kids had retreated to their rooms and ceased hostilities, finding heat more oppressive than the presence of any sibling. Janet had taken up hydroponic gardening, ostensibly to facilitate the growth of pure organic foods, but in reality to generate an excuse for piping large quantities of cooling water into the house's basement, where she had set up a pool. And as foer her husband Marshall... well...
Marshall Darling simply went mad.
Marshall was never very good at being cooped up. True, he spent most of his time in his study, or sitting on the couch watching TV, but those were activities he enjoyed by choice. Sitting around in the house all day because of the heat wave somehow made these common activities seem like a prison sentence imposed by an all-powerful captor. So, he did the only thing a child of the sixties could under the circumstances. He rebelled-- rebelled against the hideous hand of boredom. His weapon of choice? Home repair. He chose to upgrade all the appliances in the house. Again. And he had decided, quite logically, to start in the kitchen. It had always been far too insecure.
"What's that for, dad?" Clarissa asked, pushing her sweat- soaked bangs from the front of her face. She watched incredulously as her father leaned in front of the refrigerator, trying desperately to stick some kind of funky computer lock on the thing's front.
"Well, Sport," Marshall replied happily, standing upright and looking at his daughter, eyes full of enthusiasm, "That kid you're always hanging out with-"
"-his name is Clifford, dad." Clarissa intoned reflexively.
"-whatever. Well, as you know, he's always coming over and eating food. Our food. MY food." Marshall winced. "The food that I need to keep myself going. To keep my brain in prime shape, so that I can design new and innovative architectural plans- to boldly imagine buildings no architect has imagined before."
Marshall's eyes glazed over. "Why, I remember the time I made the first model for a building. The `Gerkins a go-go'. Do you remember, sport? I always thought the thing was groovy. So groovy, in fact, that I even thought it would get sold at auction. Why, I think I saw it on eBay...."
Clarissa sighed. Her dad's 8-track mind was slowly beginning to take a one-track cruise down memory lane, and pretty soon the engine would be stalling out. She had to detour him ASAP.
"Dad!" she snapped, getting no reply.
"Dad!" she insisted.
"What, Sport?" Marshall asked, snapped out of his reverie.
"The thing on the fridge?" Clarissa waved at the contraption on the refrigerator, which was studded with an array of blinking lights and flashing LEDs. If the year was 1966, it would have looked right at home on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.
"Oh," Marshall replied after a long moment. "I saw plans for this thing in an issue of Popular Home Gadgets. It's a `Magnetomatic 9000. '" He smiled in satisfaction.
"What does that mean?" Clarissa pressed. Sometimes talking to her father was like trying to converse with a dyslexic mime.
"Oh," Marshall replied absently. "It keeps people out of the fridge."
"No way," Clarissa exclaimed incredulously. She walked over to the fridge and tugged at the handle. She was confident her dad's natural knack for mangling hardware would result in a quick victory against the Megalomaniac 9000, or whatever it was called.
"WARNING," the Magnetomatic chirped. "UNAUTHORIZED SNACKER DETECTED. HANDPRINT REQUIRED."
Clarissa frowned. "Get real." She tugged at the handle harder. A small electric shock jolted her, and she reflexively let go. Pavlov would have been proud, she thought.
"Dad," she spluttered, stunned. "You've made a fridge lock that shocks your family?" Her respect for him grew a notch.
"No," Marshall replied. "Not the family. I'll add your palm prints to the database. It's here to shock just one person."
"Clifford," Clarissa realized slowly. This could get interesting.
"That kid," Marshall confirmed.
Clarissa shrugged. It was true that Clifford tended to eat the Darlings out of house and home. Of all the people she'd want to be locked in a bomb shelter with, Clifford was the last. His stomach was like a transcendentally dimensional black hole. He could make a two-year food supply last five minutes-if he bothered to chew. Her dad's new gimmick was understandable, if underpowered for the task.
"So what are you trying to protect?" Clarissa asked. The irony of his trying to preserve the sludge mom called "health food" was not lost on her.
"A Carvel Ice Cream Cake," Marshall exclaimed happily.
"No WAY!" Clarissa half-shrieked in delight. "Those are the BEST! I thought the stores were sold outta that stuff days ago!"
"Yup," Marshall agreed. "But I bought one before the rush hit."
"I woulda noticed it," Clarissa replied. If Ferguson's eaten it, she thought angrily, I'll strangulate him.
"Nope," Marshall replied, placing his hand on the palm scanner embedded in the Magnetotron.
"IDENTITY CONFIRMED," it boomed, and the fridge door opened with a hiss. Marshall stuck his hand into the freezer and pulled out a box marked "Tofu Kudzu Celery Balls".
"Ick!" Clarissa yelped in revulsion, pulling back. "That stuff's gross! Not even Mom'll eat that... that... gelatinated goop!"
Marshall looked at her askance, raising an eyebrow. Then, with a dramatic flick of his wrist, the box snapped back, revealing an immaculate ice cream cake hidden inside.
"Coooool," Clarissa gushed in awe.
"Yup," grunted someone with a slightly husky voice, as a huge gloved fist smashed into the cake, splashing bits of ice cream all over Clarissa's face and Marshall's glasses. "Mmph, Taftes gmfd."
The voice of Clifford Spleenhurfer was unmistakable.
"That kid!" Marshall exclaimed venomously, trying to wipe the ice cream from his glasses, but succeeding only in smearing it all over the lenses. Taking them off, he saw a huge blur heading for his fridge. "It's like he's got a radar system built into his stomach or something."
Marshall smiled. His new lock would teach that kid what for. His smile faded as he realized he had left the fridge door open while showing Clarissa the cake. It had all been for nothing. For Nothing.
"Quit it!" Marshall hissed, trying to keep Clifford from discovering the other tasty treats he had stashed in the back of the cooler. If Janet saw those candied snacks, his life would be a story of misery for the next few weeks! Stalin would show more remorse.
"Can't talk," Clifford mumbled. "Eating." He shoved Marshall sideways and pressed himself into the fridge. His whole body seemed to plug up the entrance to the massive icebox as the muffled sounds of his gluttonous destruction filled the room.
"Hey!" Ferguson yelled as he walked into the kitchen. "That's our food! Dad, stop him!"
Clarissa leaned over to Ferguson and whispered in his ear. "Shut up, Ferg-Wad! Clifford'll eat the tofu for us."
"Yes, and the bacteria on the shelves, but he eats everything else too!" Ferguson protested. "He eats whatever he sees! Or is this just a fashion statement?!" He frantically pointed to a half- chewed, ice-cream cone shaped earring on Clarissa's left ear. The teethmarks were definitely not a fashion statement.
Clarissa sulked as Marshall, who was feeling hot, hungry, angry that his security system had been breached, and mad that his beautiful ice cream cake-the one he had bought for his family, and HIS stomach-had been defiled, finally snapped. He shoved himself in between Clifford and the fridge.
"If you want this food," Marshall declared defiantly, "You'll have to go through me. "
"Dad!" Clarissa scolded. Bizarre images of a Pay- Per-View wrestling/boxing/food fight match entered her mind, with Clifford and her dad as participants.
"Okay," Clifford replied casually, matter-of-factly cracking his knuckles.
"Clifford!" Clarissa admonished.
"It calls to me," Clifford intoned, entranced. "The food is my master. It calls, and I must obey. I hunger." The heat had put him into survival mode, deprived of whatever little reason he usually possessed.
"Clifford, don't do this," Clarissa began dangerously. She'd seen this coming for quite some time. Her imminent graduation and departure had been depressing Clifford, who, despite his collegiate age, was still trapped in the final year of high school with no escape. As a result, the boy had been retreating further and further into the arms of his first love- a good meal.
"Must. Eat." Clifford moved forward, a towering colossus of gastronomic proportions.
Clarissa imagined two western style gunfighters, hands poised at their hips, each gazing at the other with a calm, steely-eyed look that belied their nervousness. Clifford and Marshall, fighting for the honor of the Darling fridge.
Tension. The camera switches between the faces of the two combatants. Somewhere, a clock strikes high noon. Then, someone blinks, and the men explode into action.
Clarissa covered her eyes to avoid the raucous scene. She imagined a nice, pleasant field of green grass and pretty flowers, totally devoid of any shrieking, yelling, or fisticuffs.
After a few minutes, she took a peek.
"And stay out!" Marshall yelled, wincing a bit, hurling a small apple at the vanishing sight of Clifford's posterior. He nursed his arm and turned back to his dented fridge, looking at the remains of his shattered Magnetotron. Then he looked at his kids, and at his wife, who had just entered the room.
Clifford, for his part, watched everyone through the window for a while before leaving. Spying on Darling family life was like watching a good TV show.
"Marshall?" Janet enquired in her customary surprised/shocked/accusatory tone, raising a solitary eyebrow. Amazing, the range of emotions the woman could pack into one word.
"The terror is finally over," Marshall muttered slowly, sinking down in front of the fridge. HIS fridge. "The war... is won. The Darling fridge... is secure."
"That's nice, dear," Janet acknowledged in her trademark disenchanted/ bored/dismissive tone, completely deflating the awe and wonder of the moment for all concerned.
"Oh, look." She spied something in the fridge. "Clifford left something behind."
All eyes turned to the only "food" item left in the fridge, an orange-green loaf of some kind that was emitting a fetid stink. "No wonder," Ferguson muttered under his breath. Clarissa nodded in agreement.
The loaf was totally gross. It looked like a B-Movie monster had come alive in the hideous depths of the Darling refrigerator.
Janet's eyes lit up as she extracted the loaf from its icy tomb. Holding it close to her as a mother would her child, she took a spoon and scooped up a bit of it. Smiling, she proffered the spoonful of goop to her husband.
"I don't think so, honey," Marshall demurred tactfully. "I'm not very hungry right now."
Janet sighed and turned towards the fridge. Marshall sighed in relief, but panicked as his gaze zoomed in on a microscopic particle of ice cream cake on the fridge door. Anyone else would miss it, but Janet had sensors for that kind of thing. If she saw it--!
"Honey!" Marshall interjected, quickly stepping between her and the fridge. "On second thought, I'd love some." He deftly removed the particle from the fridge by brushing his hand against it.
"You won't regret this," Janet sweetly said in a sing-song as the children looked on in horror.
"I can't believe he's gonna eat it," Clarissa muttered in shock.
"Believe it," Ferguson replied with almost Klingon stoicism.
Let's just get this thing over with, Marshall thought to himself.
"Oh, Marshall," Janet gushed. "It's one of my favorites-- Bolger loaf."
"Whoa," Marshall exhaled as he took a bite of the loaf. "I think these fumes are starting to get to me." His eyes lost focus. "Captain America and Billy," he muttered, a psychedelic 60's beat pounding in his brain, "thumbin' their noses at society and its roles, takin' off on their choppers in a cloud of dust and experiencing whatever lay in front of them."
"Dad!" Clarissa yelled. There was no effect. It was like he was fashing back to a flashback of a daydream.
"DAD!" She insisted. Marshall barely responded with a twitch.
"DAD!" Ferguson vainly attempted.
"Dad?" Clarissa asked with concern in her voice. Something was very wrong.
Deprived of his meal ticket and feeling betrayed, Clifford had stayed away, seeking food and friendship elsewhere. Clarissa had gone off to college a week later, and Janet, discovering Marshall's snack reserve in the shattered remains of the refrigerator, had cracked.
In the heat of what she saw as culinary betrayal, she had decided it was time for the whole town to get healthy.
If her family wouldn't get the message, others would, and then Marshall and Ferguson would learn by example. Yes, they would learn. EVERYONE would learn. They would all die... et.
Marshall, for his part, had never quite recovered from the Bolger Loaf.
Clifford snapped back to his present surroundings. "But that Ice Cream cake sure tasted good."
Eve nodded, imagining the scene. "It was your moment of greatest triumph. You didn't let anything stop you, not even that aggravating Clarissa."
"Right," Clifford exhaled slowly, seeing the contours of Clarissa's face in Eve's again. She was so much like Clarissa. Much of that, of course, was by design. She was very much like Clarissa. In fact, he mused, she was Clarissa. Just without the capacity to tell good from evil. He liked and feared this Clarissa. She was more like him than he was. Wow. That was a heavy thought. Brain need food now. Eat.
"But now you just sit in front of me and whine," Eve continued as Clifford shoved a MacDrekky's Anti-Hero sandwich in his mouth. "What's the matter with you?"
Clifford scowled. "Nothing," he whined. "You'll never hear me whine again, because since I'm never gonna do it again, you're never gonna hafta hear me whine about how I'm never gonna do it again!" Clifford guzzled a pitcher of Coca-Cola, relishing the benzene aftertaste.
"After today," Eve smoothly hissed.
Clifford looked at Eve incredulously, but the last of his reserve crumbled as she waved her sandwich right under his nose. Grabbing it with his mouth, he devoured it. "Right."
Eve smiled dangerously. "But not the roach plan. I have a better idea." She started to speak, then stopped as a waitress came by.
"Can I get anybody anything?" the waitress asked.
Eve smiled and unceremoniously dumped and poured a ton of cream and sugar into her drink as the waitress left. "See this coffee?" she asked after a moment.
"I heard about this lady who walked into a McDonald's, bought a 45 cent cup of coffee, gulped it down, burnt her mouth, and said 'You didn't tell me this coffee was hot! Now I've hurt myself, and I want 28 million dollars. ' Twenty-Eight Million. She sued."
Clifford's eyes lit up. "That's a lotta ding-dongs! Did it work?"
Eve grinned. "Of course it worked! Think about it! A lady walks into a McDonald's with pocket change, not a fake rat, not a dead roach, but a few dimes, then cleans the place out, and they don't lift a finger. Well, except to put a sign on their counters that says "Warning: Coffee is hot" to keep enterprising entrepreneurs like us from pulling the same stunt."
Clifford grinned. "So you want us to do that here?"
Eve frowned, pointing to a drool-covered sign, which was located under the chin of a spaced out MacDrekky's employee. A short, comically drawn gnome in whiteface grinned at the reader, and the speech bubble near his mouth read: "Dexter MacDrexter says `Warning: Coffee is hot. ' Now that you've read this, you can't sue us any more. Ha Ha."
"Nuts," Clifford muttered.
"Yeah," Eve confirmed. "Literacy. Ruining another perfect plan. Sometimes I think we're too smart for our own good. But it doesn't matter. I wasn't planning that. Merely illustrating that if we did do it, it would be easier than what we've been doing so far."
Clifford frowned. "No more roaches in food, then?"
Eve shook her head. "No."
"And no more Pizza Delivery bug scares?"
"Remember what happened last time you tried that?"
Clifford nodded. "Yeah, It ain't the giggle it used ta be. Too many college kids work for Pizza Delivery services. Big College kids. They just can't relate to the threat of high-school bully violence. You act tough, try to scare `em, and they don't know what it means. They fight back. Not like the Freshmen at school. They make it too personal. We keep messin' with them, one of `em's gonna put me in traction."
"And we can't have that, my precious Chunky Monkey. But since Marshall Darling was your only meal ticket, and you've lost that gold mine, we've got to support your inhuman appetite somehow."
"This place." Eve nodded to the surroundings.
"Here?" Cflifford raised an eyebrow.
"Yup," Eve agreed quickly. "Just like McDonald's, these places are insured. The managers don't care, they're just trying to get you out the door before you start trying to sue them. Waitresses, forget it, they aren't taking a lawsuit for the man. Customers are sitting there with food in their mouths, not knowing what's going on. One minute they're having a Denver omelette, the next somebody's had a slip and fall right in front of their face."
"Slip and Fall," Clifford echoed, liking the cadence. Eve scanned the restaurant, looking at the calmly eating patrons, who were all lost in conversation. She smirked as she saw the tired waitress, who was mechanically taking orders like some worn-down robot. She would never be like that. No, Eve Biderberg was destined for bigger and better things. A smile broke out across her face. She turned to Clifford.
"Remember, same as before, you're crowd control, I handle the employees."
"Got it." Clifford nodded.
Eve picked up her coffee and saluted Clifford with it. "I love you, Chunky Monkey."
"I love you, Money Honey," Clifford replied, a grin slowly spreading on his face as Eve slowly poured her coffee onto the floor, listening to the tinkling sound it made. Her eyes darted to the growing tan pool of liquid on the green-and-gold tiled floor.
Clifford slowly got up and made as if to walk to a counter. He then stepped squarely into the spilled coffee. Eve stuck out her foot and causally tripped him. As he hit the ground with a massive thud, he yelled to the crowd, "Everybody be cool! I'm A- OK!" Then he winced and groaned in exaggerated pain.
Eve jumped up and yelled to the dazed employees, holding up her notepad. "Don't any of you wage slaves move! I'm gonna get statements from every last one of ya!"
Sam Anders could barely keep his lunch down. Jerked from one side to the other, bounced up and down, and subjected to G-Forces more powerful than those faced by jet fighter pilots, he felt like his insides were desperately trying to become his outsides. It was all he could do to avoid re- upholstering the tacky white seats of his reconditioned '74 Chevy Nova a chunky acid green.
"Clarissa!" he yelped in sheer terror. "Will you slow down?! "
"Huh?" she yelled, the wind ripping through her hair as she glared at the road in front of her, hands clamped around a steering wheel, jerking them left or right as the situation demanded. Teeth gritted, she was singularly focused, in a Zen- like state of oneness with Sam's car. She felt herself moving over the road, slicing through the wind, weaving through traffic at a pedestrian 85 miles per hour. Now if only that Porsche would get out of the way...!
"SLOW DOWN!" Sam yelled. "I dunno why I let you drive! You're like a maniac every time you get behind the wheel! I swear, you should race at Long Beach or something!"
Clarissa frowned and lifted her foot from the accelerator, an action which felt incorrect somehow. The car slowed to an acceptable pace.
Sam exhaled, feeling his heart pound against the side of his ribcage with incredible force. "Thank you," he wheezed. "I don't get it. If you wanted to speed so bad, why didn't you take your car?"
"Because mine is too conspicuous for this job," she replied flatly.
"Yeah," Sam replied sarcastically. "Look, Clarissa. The speed limit is 35. 35. Thirty-Five. Which is about how old I feel, considering the years you just knocked off my life!"
"I think it's torture," Clarissa retorted. "Look at your speedometer. What's that number?" She pointed to the number at the far right of the gauge.
"150," Sam replied tiredly. "What's your point?"
"Well, that's your car's maximum speed, right? It's total potential?"
"Yes," Sam replied weakly, knowing she was just leading him into a logic trap of some kind, like a lamb to the slaughterhouse of reason.
"And shouldn't we all strive to achieve our full potential, Sam? Isn't it wrong of me to limit your car by blindly obeying some bureaucrat's narrow-minded perception of what it's full potential should be?"
"It's a car, Clarissa, not a monk. It doesn't need to maximize its potential."
"But the rules were written by guys who sit behind desks. Now desks, Sam, they move slowly. Real slowly. Desk jockeys don't understand the need for speed like I do."Clarissa gazed into the middle distance for a moment, enthralled.
"Nobody understands your need for speed," Sam exhaled.
"I mean, you know why they do it, don't you?" Clarissa pressed. "They make speed limits so bad drivers can look just as good as terrific ones. If everyone's going the same speed, no one can stand out. And by the same token, no one can look stupid. It's enforced mediocrity, supported by middle-aged slowpokes who are afraid to look bad next to fast-moving teenagers."
"So the speed limit's a plot by the Republican Party," Sam exhaled tiredly. "Just don't speed, okay? I have enough to worry about right now."
"Fine," Clarissa groused, sulking for a moment. "So anyway," she continued finally, "tell me about the Jolt. "
"You mean the jolt I got when you did 100 on the exit ramp?" Sam asked sarcastically.
"No, Sam," Clarissa shot back, giving him a nasty look. "The Jolt. Come on, I wanna hear all about it."
Sam frowned. "So whaddya want to know, Clarissa?"
Clarissa barely afforded him a sidelong glance. "Well, Jolt is legal at Bibbington, right?"
Sam nodded. "Yeah, it's legal, but it isn't a hundred percent legal. I mean you can't walk into class, pull out a can, and start guzzling. You're only supposed to drink it in your home or certain designated places."
As the car pulled up to a stoplight, Clarissa turned to look at her friend. College hadn't changed him much, but there were bags under his eyes, and he seemed a bit weaker then when last they had met. Of course that could just be because of her speeding. "Designated being anywhere other than in class?"
Sam nodded. "Yeah, it breaks down like this: it's legal to buy it, it's legal to own it and, if you're the proprietor of a convenience store, it's legal to sell it. It's legal to carry it, which doesn't really matter 'cause -- get a load of this -- if the teacher stops you, it's illegal for them to search you.
Searching you is a right that the faculty at Bibbington College doesn't have."
Clarissa grinned as well, elated at the happy news.
Jolt, as you may or may not know, is one of the four basic food groups for computer programmers and other college kids who live on the edge. Pizza, Ramen, and certain other beverages round out the other three groups.
Jolt is full of caffiene, so it keeps you awake, which is why computer geeks worldwide love it. It lets them stay up for days on end just perfecting that latest bit of computer code. Unfortunately, it's not terribly good for you. And so, like every other sweet thing in my hometown, it was illegal.
Ever since mom had become a Community Councilwoman, every kind of junk food imaginable had become contraband. In the sixteen weeks since I'd gone off to college for the winter, Evanston had gone from an obscure Chicago suburb known only for its Perceptual Robotics webcam to the "healthiest town in the USA."
The town was famous, and so was mom. She was so famous, in fact, that she had almost absolute power over all the goings-on in city hall. And absolute power, as Jackie Gleason said so eloquently (or was it Napoleon?), does nothing so well as corrupt absolutely. Let's face it-- old Janet Darling had turned into a fanatic.
"That does it, Sam -- I'm going there, that's all there is to it." Clarissa declared with determination. "Being a Journalism major in College means a lot of all-night study sessions, and I need Jolt to help me stay up late. Heck, I just need the caffeine."
Sam frowned. "What about Vivarin? Or Caffiene pills? I hear those are the in things now."
Clarissa looked at him askance. "Are you nuts, Sam? That stuff's bad for you." She pondered for a moment before continuing. "I just want the king of all caffinated sodas. Is that so much to ask for? It's like nobody in this town sells the stuff."
Sam smiled slowly. "As far as I can tell, nobody does anymore. It's your fault for choosing a two year city college near home instead of finishing out that internship in New York with the Daily Post."
Clarissa bristled at the mention of her abruptly terminated internship. "Hey! CC is just a stepping stone to the university, Sam. As for the internship, I already told you- it just didn't work out, that's all."
"That's all?" Sam asked, a smile playing across his face as Clarissa started driving again.
"That's all," Clarissa replied firmly. "Doesn't matter. I already got one lined up for next summer."
"Uhh, that was your roommate's." Sam corrected.
"She broke her legs in a freak snowboarding accident, Sam," Clarissa replied a bit sharply. "She said I could go in her place."
"Yeah. as long as you call yourself Mary Stuartson," Sam replied sarcastically.
Clarissa bristled. "I'll just treat it like my first assignment in undercover journalism."
"And when your cover gets blown?"
Clarissa laughed. "Bah. I've already hired actors who are gonna play my `family' while I'm in town. Trust me, Sam, it's airtight."
Sam nodded, impressed. "But what if--?"
"--They'll admire my ingenuity, Sam." Clarissa insisted, almost fanatically. "They'll want to make a movie of the week about it on NBC!"
"This would have been a lot easier if you'd stayed in New York," Sam pressed.
"Will you stop talking about New York?!" Clarissa snapped, wanting to change the subject rather badly at this point.
"You were there for no time at all!" Sam pushed. " It seemed like only half an hour! You never gave it a chance!"
Clarissa fumed for a moment, bristling at the assertion. "Hey, I was the one who wasn't given a chance. And that's all I'll say about that. I swear, sometimes I think the universe is run by network executives. Either that or bad fan fiction writers. But anyhow, I think I'll have to go check out your campus."
"You'll dig it. But you know what the funniest thing about Bibbington's campus is?"
"The little differences. A lotta the same stuff we got here, they got there, but there they're a little different."
Clarissa raised an eyebrow. She'd always been curious about what an all-girls campus would be like. She figured it would have to be different than a coed school, at least in some ways. It would be interesting to get a boy's perspective on it. "Example," she replied.
"Take Pizza. Here in Evanston, we have a large pizza. They have a large pizza. But here, our large Pizza is 18 inches around. There, the large pizza is only 12 inches around."
Clarissa shook her head in disbelief. "That's nuts! That's the size of a medium pizza."
Sam nodded in confirmation. "Exactly."
"But then why don't they call it a medium?"
"Because then their medium would have to be called a small and a small would have to be called something else completely."
"Yeah," Clarissa muttered. "Invisible."
"So what do they call our large?" Clarissa enquired.
"I dunno, I've never seen one that big. But you know what they do with their pizzas out there that's even weirder?"
"They eat them with forks and knives."
"What the--!" Clarissa spluttered and had to avoid swerving the car into the oncoming lane. If there was anything city dwellers knew, it was that pizza was a delicacy eaten with the hands.
"Yeah!" Sam exclaimed, a tone of amazement in his voice. "I've seen 'em do it. And I don't mean a few people. They ALL do it!"
Clarissa made a displeased face. "Heathens! It's like they're not human or something!"
"I think they do it to be classy," Sam offered by way of explanation.
"That's the quickest way to ruin something, Sam." Clarissa noted. "Making something classy just means you have to act stuck- up in order to enjoy it. And then it's no fun anymore."
"Yeah," Sam agreed. "You have to take special classes to learn how to act stuck up enough. And by the time you've got that down, nobody wants to be around you because you're acting so stuffy, and you end up hating what you set out to like in the first place."
Clarissa was about to reply when she noticed a ratty old apartment complex to her left. "We're here, Sam," she declared, jerking the car to the left abruptly.
Within a few moments, Sam's Chevy pulled up in front of a run-down, Hawaiian Village-themed apartment complex. Creaking to a slow stop, the car groaned as it finally came to rest.
Clarissa and Sam got out, Sam being careful to aim his remote control alarm trigger at the rusting, ancient vehicle.
As he was rewarded by two chirps from the alarm system, Sam watched as Clarissa opened up the trunk of the car. He had to admit, she looked kind of odd wearing a "traditional" black suit and white blouse. The only splash of non-conformity in her wardrobe was a garish green checkered tie, a stark contrast to the thin black one Sam wore with his suit.
Neither of the teenagers liked being saddled in monkey suits, but it was the "request" of their employer that they project the proper image while on the job. And with an employer like theirs, it was unwise to step out of line. Very unwise.
"It's so humiliating to have to take these stupid summer jobs to pay for our tuition," Clarissa muttered, rooting through the trunk and pulling out some rather small water guns.
Sam nodded. "And what's worse is who we're working for."
Clarissa scowled as she looked at the water guns disapprovingly. "Yeah. Who knew he could create an elaborate financial empire in just sixteen weeks? Without me at home to stop his megalomania, that microbrain Ferguson's become the biggest player in town."
Sam looked around nervously. "Don't you mean `Fergus'?"
Clarissa sighed at the mention of the name. "Yes. Microbrain Fergus. I can't believe I'm working for him. And wearing this." She gestured to her suit. "Corporate image my foot. He just made me dress this way because he knows I hate it. What a jerk."
Sam shook his head. "Hey, be fair. He's gotten a lot nicer now that he has a constant money supply. And besides, he pays real well. And you do owe him. That car of yours didn't come free, you know."
Clarissa frowned as she and Sam filled their water guns with black ink. She placed one gun in a shoulder holster and another in the waistband of her slacks. "Yeah, yeah. I would've gotten out of it, but I do want this particular assignment." She looked at Sam quizzically. "I know why I want this job, but why do you? And why are you so nice to Fergface all the time?"
Sam shrugged, running his hand through his hair and shuffling his feet. "So," he finally asked, breaking the silence, "How many up there?"
Clarissa followed his gaze up to the second floor of the ratty old apartment complex.
"Three or four," she replied slowly, remembering Ferguson's `briefing' earlier in the day.
"Counting our guy?" Sam asked in response.
"I'm not sure," Clarissa replied.
"So there could be five guys up there?"
"Wow! You can add!" Clarissa snapped sarcastically, exasperated. "It's possible."
"Geez," Sam muttered, looking over his water pistol. "We should have super soakers for this kinda deal."
Marching in lock-step, the duo marched through the courtyard of the dilapidated village, trying their best to look nonchalant in their "Men in Black" style suits, passing through the throng of normally dressed teens staring at them.
"So", Sam asked. "You've been back in town longer than I have. What's her name?"
"Who?" Clarissa asked, with a half smile.
"You know," Sam pressed.
"Elsie," Clarissa replied, with a grin, knowing the reaction that name would elicit. Ever since she'd let it drop that Ferguson had fallen in love with someone, Sam had pestered her for details.
Sam's face froze in shock . "As in Soaperstien?" he squeaked. "Her! ?"
"The same," Clarissa confirmed. "But hey, they're perfect for one another."
"But she's the spawn of Satan! She tied him up and tortured him!" Sam flailed, refusing to comprehend this new information.
"As I said, they're perfect for one another." Clarissa kept her gaze leveled at the apartment building, moving forwards steadily.
"But..." Sam protested, trying to wrap his head around the concept. "But Fergus hated her after the babysitting deal! How did they hook up?"
"I dunno," Clarissa slowly exhaled, clearly trying not to dwell on the subject. "However people hook up. I think she became a minor league child actress, and he met her on the set of her TV show. He was star struck. There were dollar signs in his eyes."
"She ever do anything I woulda saw?"
Clarissa shrugged. "I think her biggest deal was she starred in a pilot."
"What's a pilot?"
Clarissa sighed. "Well, you know the shows on TV?"
"I don't watch TV," Sam replied. "Not anymore."
"What?" Clarissa asked dubiously, turning to look at him again. "No way."
"I go to an all girls school, remember?" Sam replied tiredly.
"I see," Clarissa replied flatly, giving him a dim look.
"They won't let me have a minute to myself!" Sam cried out in anguish, raw, visceral pain leaking into his voice. "Always following me around, checking me out, making comments about me behind my back!"
"Sam!" Clarissa exclaimed, chastened, feeling guilty for what she had just imagined.
"I'm their token Y chromosome!" Sam blurted out. "The subject of gossip and innuendo. It's horrible! It's like I'm on display for the whole world and I hate it! I hate having to make myself look cool every morning just so I can walk outside and not be mocked! I want to be treated just like everyone else, darn it! I don't want to be treated any differently just because I'm a guy! "
Sam exhaled, spent.
"I had no idea," Clarissa sympathetically responded. "If you want to talk about it-"
"Uhh, no." Sam replied, suddenly embarrassed, running a hand through his hair. "You were telling me what a pilot was."
"Yeah," Clarissa began again. "You're aware that there's an invention called television, and on that invention they show shows?"
"Unh-huh," Sam replied dryly.
Clarissa continued as pedantically as she could. "Well, the way they pick the shows on TV is they make one show, and that show's called a pilot. And they show that one show to the people who pick the shows, and on the strength of that one show, they decide if they want to make more shows. Some get accepted and become TV programs, and some don't, and become nothing. She starred in one of the ones that became nothing."
Sam nodded in understanding, imagining poor Elsie's plight. "I wouldn't know what to do if my pilot went nowhere. Or, worse, if I made one pilot and had a show that was really cool, like a mega hit."
Clarissa raised an eyebrow. "Uhh, that's a good thing, Sam."
Sam nodded. "Yeah, for a while. But then, what if I tried to make a second pilot, like a sequel to the first one, and it bombed. It would be like I'd been rejected by the entire world. Like I was a flash in the pan or something."
A cloud came over Clarissa's features. Quietly, she muttered, "Shut up, Sam."
Before Sam could ask why he'd suddenly hit a nerve, Clarissa stopped him. They had reached the outside elevator doors. Checking and holstering their ink-filled water pistols, the duo waited for the next elevator going up.
"You remember Wally Butterman?" Clarissa asked quickly, a thought striking her.
"Yeah, maybe," Sam answered uncertainly, scratching his head.
Clarissa shot him a surprised look. "Sam! He mauled you on the football field! The flying elbow block to the face? Your head had a dent in it for weeks?" She looked at him expectantly.
"That's why I maybe remember him. Fat, right?"
"I wouldn't go so far as to call the boy fat. He's got a case of OMS."
Sam winced. "Do you have to make acronyms for everything?"
Clarissa looked at him as if he was uttering blasphemy. "What? You have a problem with acronyms or something?"
"Well, no. When they're established, I guess. But you keep making them up. A new acronym for every situation."
"Like when?" Clarissa demanded.
"Remember when you said you had EPS?"
"Empty Pockets Syndrome." She nodded.
"Yeah. Why couldn't you just say `I don't have money' like everybody else does?" Sam gesticulated wildly.
"Because that's boring," Clarissa replied, tossing her hair indignantly. "Think about it. A syndrome says that there's something serious going on. A plague, a disaster, something that you've just gotta fix. If I went on the street right now, and I said to a guy, `I have no money', d'you know what he'd say?"
"No," Sam replied slowly, knowing he was being baited. "What would he say?"
"That I was a lazy bum who doesn't wanna work. But if I said I had a syndrome-"
"It makes you an object of pity," Sam concluded. "It makes people feel sorry for you, and want to hel--" He paused, realizing something.
"Waitasec." He paused again, thinking, to make sure he had his idea properly sorted out. "All these years." He paused yet again, lost in thought, pressing a finger to his forehead. "You know, at college, there's these guys who hang out at a cafe off campus. It's the last stop before downtown. They even have a cool website."
"What's your point, Sam?" Clarissa asked, irked. Sometimes she wished he'd just get to the point already.
"Well they have this theory, called Situationism."
"Is this like one of my acronyms?" Clarissa smirked.
"Y'know," Sam spat back, " I have a bad case of IASDOYAAC!"
"IASDOYAC? " Clarissa looked at his curiously. "Sounds bad, Sam. What is it?"
Sam flailed more. "I Am Sick to Death Of Your Annoying Acronyms, Clarissa!"
Clarissa frowned. "Heretic."
"Anyway," Sam continued, "According to this theory, people set up situations specifically to manipulate others into doing what they want."
Clarissa processed this. "Sorta like a fan fiction writer who places other people's characters in odd settings just to see what their reactions would be like, huh?" She looked towards a distant wall for some reason.
"Uhh... no," Sam corrected. "They treat real life like a play, and by setting the scene they exert control over how events play out."
"What are you sayin', Sam?" Clarissa asked dangerously. "That I, uhh, someone, has been manipulating people around me, err, them, for my, uhh, their benefit?"
Sam tilted hie head to the side and exhaled, remembering. "Well, there was the time you made me climb onto your roof to set up a mini satellite dish. Then there was the time you tried to trick your Aunt Mafalda into thinking her husband Owen had come back from the dead, or when you pretended to be terminally depressed in order to get to a carnival, or when you tried to make your own holiday at school, or--"
"--Enough!" Clarissa snapped angrily. "You make me sound like Ferguson! "
"Have you ever considered that it might be a hereditary trait?" Sam pressed, beginning to smile. "That manipulation runs in the Darling line?"
"College is filling your head with crazy ideas," Clarissa muttered.
"We were talking about OMS," Clarissa continued hurriedly, suddenly desperate to change topics.
"OMS," Sam echoed with a smile. He knew he'd finally managed to unnerve the usually unflappable Clarissa. It hadn't taken him long- just eight years.
"Yes," Clarissa muttered, all the enthusiasm she'd had for the topic drained from her. "Overly Muscled Syndrome," she intoned flatly. "He can't help being massive. What's the guy gonna do? He's a jock. it's all muscle, not fat."
"So what about Wally Butterman?" Sam asked, playing along as he noted the elevator light finally coming on.
"Well," Clarissa started, suddenly worried about what she was about to say, "Ferguson messed him up."
Could I ever do that? she asked herself. "And word around the campfire says it was because of Elsie," she continued.
With a ding, the doors to the elevator opened, and they stepped inside.
"What'd Wally do?" Sam asked. "Tackle her by accident?"
Clarissa shook her head as the elevator doors closed, and with a ding started to move upwards. "No no no no, nothing like that."
"Well, what then?"
"He gave her flowers."
"Flowers?" Sam's tone was incredulous.
"Yes," Clarissa answered matter-of-factly.
"So What did Fergus do to him?" Sam asked. "Yell at him or something?"
Clarissa shooke her head. "Sent a couple of guys over to his place. They took him out on the patio of his apartment, stole his clothes, and covered him in manure."
She leaned in conspiratorially. "Then they say Ferg pushed him off the balcony."
"No way!" Sam exclaimed. "Ferguson, your kid brother, did that?"
Clarissa took ina deep breath. "I wasn't there, mind you. But that's what everyone says."
"Do you believe it?" Sam asked, still in shock. "I mean, you know him best."
"No I don't,"Clarissa protested rapidly. "We're nothing alike."
"I never said that," Sam responded, wondering if he'd hit a nerve.
"I wouldn't put it past the little toad," Clarissa spat. "He's got a mean streak in him."
"I don't think he could do it. He hasn't got the guts," Sam stated after a few moments. "He isn't that tough."
"Then how come you work for him?" Clarissa shot back. "I know I owe him for the car and because I've got a personal stake in this job, but I still don't know why you're doing this."
"I don't wanna talk about it," Sam countered, running his hand though his hair nervously. "But I bet you ten bucks Ferguson didn't do it."
"Fine," Clarissa replied flatly. "That'll cover the ten I-"
"Made me lend you last year?" Sam asked with a hint of a mischevious smile in his voice.
"I didn't make you lend it to me," Clarissa protested. "I asked. You could have said no."
Sam shook his head. "What kind of best friend would I be if I told you no?"
"The kind of best friend who wouldn't be out ten dollars today," Clarissa concluded profoundly. "Anyhow, how are we supposed to find out if Ferguson did it?"
Sam smiled. "I'll figure something out. So, what happened to Wally?"
"Wally fell into the pool. He wasn't seriously hurt... physically."
"But?" Sam knew there had to be a but somewhere in all this. There always was when Ferguson W. Darling was involved.
"He's apparently so psychologically scarred from the event that he's sworn off violence forever. Now he works at a kintergarden."
There was another ding as the elevator came to a stop, doors opening.
Clarissa and Sam stepped out of the elevator and simultaneously straightened their ties.
Sam smiled at the thought of a pacifist Wally Butterman getting pasted by small schoolchildren. "That's a damn shame," he muttered happily, rubbing the top of his head where Wally had elbow tackled him so long ago.
As they walked down the hall, Clarissa heard him mutter, "Play with matches, you get burned."
"Whaddya mean by that?" she asked.
"You don't mess with a Darling," Sam declared, anticipating Clarissa's response and already formulating his own.
Clarissa shuddered. "You don't think Ferguson overreacted? That it was a little extreme?"
Sam shruged slightly. "Wally probably didn't expect Fergus to react like he did, but he had to expect a reaction. I mean, it's only natural to want revenge when you've been wronged, right?"
"I can dig it," Clarissa admitted, flashing back to her plan to launch Ferguson into space in retaliation for a particularly humiliating insult. Then she blushed, realizing that that was what Sam had wanted her to think about. Great, she thought. Another example of Darling siblings thinking more alike than different.
"Now who's a manipulator," she muttered sardonically.
Smiling, Sam hung back a bit, watching Clarissa fume as she headed for the apartment Ferguson had described to them.
"This is the door," Clarissa remarked after a moment. "They're in here. What time is it?"
Sam checked his watch. "Seven twenty nine".
"OBKB," she declared. "Let's get into character."
Both Sam and Clarissa narrowed their eyes, pulled out their water pistols, and hardened their features. They were tough, mean and imposing. Ready for anything.
"So Elsie is Fergus' girl?" Sam asked, totally ruining the moment.
"Yeah!" Clarissa snapped, upset that the effect had been ruined. "Ddin't I just get through saying that?" She looked Sam in the eyes and grinned. "Why are you so interested in Fergwad's girlfriend, anyway?" She smiled wryly. "Don't tell me you like Elsie, too."
Sam paled visibly and tugged at his collar. "No! Fergus is going outta town for the night, and while he's gone, he wants me to take care of Elsie."
Clarissa's jaw dropped. She'd heard stories about how tough Ferguson had become in the months since her departure, but she'd chalked it all up to his incredible Public Relations / Spin machine. But now she was faced with the unpleasant fact that her best friend Sam had been somehow coerced into helping--
"--Take care of her?" Clarissa echoed, making a gun to the head gesture with her fingers. She had no idea Ferguson had gotten so ruthless!
"Not that!" Sam exclaimed quickly, following it up with a little laugh. "Take her out. Show her a good time. Don't let her get lonely."
Clarissa facefaulted again. "You're gonna take Elsie "I'm the spawn of Satan" Soaperstein out on a date? Sam, last time you two met, she tied you up!" She frowned. "Actually, she did the same thing to Fergwad. I sense a trend here, and I'm not liking it."
Sam's already pale features got even whiter. "It isn't a date! I'm just doing the boss a favor, that's all!"
At hearing her brother referred to as "The Boss", Clarissa blanched as well, staring daggers at her best friend.
"Sorry," Sam apologized, realizing the impact of what he'd said. "I can't just tell him no. Ever since you left for college, nobody says no to Fergus Darling."
Clarissa continued to stare at him, her expression slowly becoming one of anger. Anger at her brother for taking her best friend and turning him into some kind of puppy-dog lackey.
Sam, of course, thought she was mad at him. He gulped, and began to speak rapidly, voice rapidly descending into some kind of whine. "It's not my fault you were the only thing holding him back! Now he owns me! He owns me! "
Clarissa shook her head slowly and under her breath muttered, "Elsie kills more people than time itself. You're like a lamb being led to slaughter. And while licking Ferguson's boots, no less." The disdain in her voice was quiet, but definitely there.
Sam frowned. "What was that?"
Clarissa looked at the oversized watch which had been tucked under her immaculately pressed jacket sleeve. They were wasting precious time, and as much as she hated doing Ferguson's dirty work, she wanted to get into the apartment just as badly as her brother wanted her to get in there.
"Nothin'," she spat tersely. "Now, Let's get into character."
"What'd you say?" Sam demanded. He was getting tired of Clarissa always acting like she was better than him for having stood up to Ferguson in the past. If she only knew the hideous truth-
"Nothin'!" Clarissa reiterated sternly. "Let's go to work."
"No!" Sam insisted, now becoming livid. "You said somethin', now what was it?"
Clarissa growled. "Do you wanna do this job, or not?"
Sam, for once, was oblivious to his duty to Ferguson, looking Clarissa in the eyes and firmly demanding "I want you to repeat what you said."
Clarissa evaded his gaze. "That door's gonna open in about thirty seconds, so get yourself together-"
"-- my self is together --" Sam retorted.
"--yeah, right," Clarissa dismissively replied. "Stop acting like a schmoe and get yourself together like a qualified pro."
Inside apartment 42, three boys sat at a table, nervously looking at one another. At one time they had fancied themselves masters of the web, kings of their own electronic domain. They had made websites loved the world over, and visited by all. Between all the members of their hyper-l337 crew, they had seen half the internet stop at their digital door. But their reign of power was about to come to an end. All because of the devil's deal with Fergus W. Darling.
"You better get the door," one of them hesitantly said, a rather tall fellow wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt with the state of Texas emblazoned on it.
"Hell no. You get the door," replied the boy next to him, who was wearing slacks and a shirt with the picture of a wolf on it.
"Say, you think Fergus sent his sister to help out on this job?" The third boy asked slowly, slowly slurping a can of sugary sweet soda. Some of the soda dripped down onto his tacky white question mark covered T-shirt.
"You better hope not!" snapped the first boy, who was also leader of the group. "If Clarissa Darling shows up, you are gonna be one extinct Southern Trucker."
"And why is that?" the boy retorted. "I just wrote what was on my mind."
"What mind?" the leader retorted. "And we're all gonna pay. Guilt by association. You better hope she doesn't show up!"
"You're her friend," the third boy ventured slowly. "You can talk her out of it."
"Talkin's not what she'll have on her mind, son." The leader drew a hand across his throat.
"She wants to get me, but not you, is that it?" Mister Question questioned.
"Yup. And do you know why that is?" the leader retorted, "because I don't write junk about her on my website!"
"I don't have a website," Question Boy retorted.
"Because you're too much of a coward to put your name on what you wrote," the second boy interjected. "But I suspect she knows who you are by now. And I wouldn't want to be you when she gets here."
"She ain't comin," Question boy declared smugly. "I'm sure of that."
With a loud crack, the front door of the apartment swung open.
"Hi, kids," Clarissa introduced herself, her words dripping with menace, her eyes taking in every square inch of the room. Sam moved past her, and towards a table in the back of the room, where some documents were strewn on a table next to an Intel Celeron 400 computer.
Clarissa's eyes narrowed as she saw the boy in the question mark T-shirt. Ferguson had told her his name and location in exchange for her help in putting the fear of Ferg into these boys' minds. It had been a heavy price to pay, but she was willing.
"How're you boys doing today?" she asked levelly, her gaze never leaving the smug, arrogant face of the soda-slurping question mark kid.
There was no answer from the group, just a gasp as the Celeron computer crackled and hissed, its live circuit boards shorting out under an assault from Sam's water gun. The incredibility expensive machine burst into flames for a moment, and then began to melt into slag. All the boys shuddered in horror, but non dared protest. Not against them. Not against the agents of Fergus W. Darling.
Clarissa narrowed her eyes, and uttered her next words slowly, with as much menace as she could. "I just asked you a question."
"We're doin' okay," answered the boy in the wolf T-shirt.
"Do you know who we are?" Clarissa asked slowly.
The boy nodded. "We all know who you two are. Clarissa Darling and Sam Anders. Everyone in town heard of you after the Woolcott Industries protest. And of course, you're also famous as the daughter of Janet--"
Clarissa held up a hand imperiously, cutting him off. "Yeah, yeah. Well, right now, you just need to see us as associates of your business partner Fergus Darling. You do remember your business partner, dont'ya?"
The boy gulped, and said nothing.
"Now I'm gonna take a wild guess here: you're called "Deff", right?"
Deff nodded slowly.
"I thought so. Well, you remember your business partner Fergus Darling, dont'ya Deff?"
"I remember him," Deff answered slowly, voice cracking slightly, his whole body beginning to shake.
"Good for you," Clarissa replied, now looking at him with a friendly expression. "Looks like Sam and I caught you at breakfast; sorry 'bout that. What'cha eatin'?"
Deff gulped, his throat dry. "Hamburgers. From MacDrekky's. Big Dreks."
"Cool." Clarissa winked at Deff, putting him visibly at ease.
Sam coughed, and Clarissa looked at him. Contorting his face ridiculously, he made it quite obvious he wanted a word with her in private.
Clarissa walked over to him, frowning. "What is it, Sam?" She whispered hotly.
Sam frowned. "Clarissa, we have a job to do! We can't do it if you're being nice to our victims!"
Clarissa looked at him like he was nuts. "Can you hear yourself, Sam? Since when do we have victims? I don't like this. I don't care if I owe my brand new car to Ferguson. Going around shorting out computers and blacking out people's source code with ink-filled water pistols isn't my thing! And it isn't yours either, Sam."
"It is now," Sam stated slowly. "Look. He owns me! I can't do this on my own. I need your help."
"We can stop him Sam," Clarissa stated firmly.
"Look, Sam snapped. "Stop trying to manipulate me into another showdown with your brother."
Clarissa froze. There was that word again. Sam continued without missing a beat. "I owe the man a debt, I have to repay it. Now I've helped you out a lot over the past few years. And now I need your help. Besides," he added slowly, "that USENET writer guy you were looking for is here."
Clarissa frowned. "That's the only reason I'm in on this deal."
Sam nodded. "You used Ferguson's contacts to get what you wanted, now help me do my job."
Clarissa stared at him aghast. "Will you quit this `Clarissa as master manipulator' kick you seem to be on today? It's not funny anymore, Sam!"
"Ahem," began Mr. Question, the soda slurping boy. "You can manipulate me any time, Master." He laughed pathetically.
A low growl escaped Clarissa's throat, and she turned around, walking over to Soda Boy, and grabbing him by the collar.
"Fiesty," Soda boy stated breathlessly, gazing into her eyes.
"You," Clarissa hissed. "You, USENET Boy. You know why I'm here, don't you."
"But of course," he replied in a suave tone. "To fulfil my every wish."
"What?" Clarissa asked incredulously. "What do I look like to you? A Genie? A Magic Lamp? A teenage witch or something?"
"Yes. Bewitch me," he breathlessly begged.
Clarissa pulled out a sheaf of paper from her jacket pocket. It was heavily censored, with black marker covering most of its surface. "You mean like in this `story' here, huh?"
"Umm, no." the boy replied quickly, confronted with his master work, his magnum opus. Stuff that would have made Boccacio blush. For some reason having it shoved in his face by its unwilling subject robbed it of its magnificence.
"This," Clarissa began slowly, "is the most inflammatory, defamatory, libellous, scandalous, insane, lame-brain piece of garbage I have ever seen! At first I thought Ferguson had been lying when he said he'd found it on the `net. But one look at this," she waved it angrily, "told me it wasn't his creation. Well, that and the puke on his CRT. It's a thing too sick for even his twisted little mind to handle."
"Are you angry?" the boy asked, shivering, hoping for an affirmative response.
Clarissa abruptly turned from him, and growled "Tell Sam where you've got the stuff hidden."
The leader, who had a nametag on that said "Hi my name is DEAL" chose this moment to chime in. "It's under the be -"
Clarissa wheeled and turned to face him, clearly holding in her anger. "I don't remember askin' you anything, "Deal". You and Deff here are on my good side. Don't do anything to change that."
The boy, "Deal", nodded and sat down.
Clarissa returned her attention to the kid she called USENET boy. "You were saying?"
"It's under the bed," he snickered as Clarissa just rolled her eyes.
Sam moved to the bed, and reached underneath it, pulling out a black briefcase.
"Got it," he stated slowly. Flipping the two locks on the briefcase, (which had a combination of 666, he noted dimly), he opened the case, his whole upper body bathed by the glow of radiant light emanating from within.
"We happy?" Clarissa asked the now transfixed Sam, who did not reply.
"Sam!" Clarissa snapped.
He looked at her with a beatific expression on his face, like he had found something he'd thought lost a long time ago. He seemed fulfilled, somehow.
"We happy! ?" Clarissa insisted, snapping him out of his trance.
"We're happy," Sam replied in a wistful voice as he closed the case, feeling hollow once again. "Happy."
Clarissa nodded, not really noticing Sam's strange reaction, focused as she was on USENET boy, glaring at him and trying to decide what to do next.Her concentration was broken as Deff spoke, trying to defuse the tension.
"Look, I have to ask."
"Ask what," Clarissa replied slowly, not really listening.
"There's a malicious rumor going around," he began slowly.
"What kind of rumor?" Clarissa inquired, paying a bit more attention to him.
"That you don't like wolves. Do you have something against them?"
Clarissa wheeled to face him, snapping "Nothing!" Grumbling under her breath, she added " that a few flame throwers wouldn't cure. Stop trying to distract me." She returned her gaze to the soda slurping USENET boy.
"That was random," Sam interjected.
Deff sighed, desperate to smooth things over. "I just want you to know how sorry we are about how messed up things got between us and Mr. Fergus. When we entered into this thing, we only had the best intentions - but then he showed up-" Deff motioned to USENET boy, "--and then we all got delayed... trying to figure out how to torture him. To avenge your honor!"
His tone was less than convincing.
Clarissa looked Deff square in the eye and nodded, suddenly pulling a different water gun from her waistband. She aimed and fired at USENET boy all without looking at him.
"AUGGH!" USENET boy screamed, looking down to see a smoking hole in the chair next to his head, that for all the world looked like it was caused by a nasty acid burn.
Deff's eyes widened as he looked at Clarissa with an expression of pure dread.
Sam quickly walked over to Clarissa. "Hey, that's supposed to be a water pistol! Filled with ink-or preferably, water!"
Clarissa shrugged and smiled brightly. "H20, H2SO4, what's the difference?" She winked at USENET Boy. In reality, the gun was using a homebrew mismosh of dry ice and stage tricks to make it look like it put out an acid burn, but it wouldn't really cause any harm. But USENET boy didn't need to know that.
She turned to Deff.
"I'm sorry. Did I break your concentration?I didn't mean to do that. Please, continue. I believe you were saying something about "best intentions," and `avenging my honor'?"
Deff looked at her, frightened and mute, his fate totally in her hands.
Clarissa shrugged "That's cool. I can see that. G'wan, get outta here." She reholstered her gun in her waistband.
As Deff nodded quickly and left, Sam began to freak.
"Hey! If Fergus finds out--"
Clarissa frowned. "Hey, Deff does actually post useful stuff about me on his website to counter Ferg-face's electronic propaganda. I have no idea why, but it's appreciated."
Sam growled. "Why is it that you get all the internet attention? What about me? What about my needs? What about Sam?" He broadly gestured to himself. What about Sam! ?"
"I wrote about you," USENET boy interjected hopefully.
"Don't remind me," Sam muttered, turning away for a moment to free his lunch at the recollection.
"Before I begin," Clarissa addressed her target dangerously, "it would be helpful to know the name they'll be putting on your tombstone." She withdrew the water pistol holstered in her jacket and leveled it at him.
USENET boy began to speak. "They call me El--"
"It doesn't matter what your name is!" Clarissa snapped. "You ever watch the WWF, USENET Boy?"
"I thought you hated wrestling," Sam interjected. "What did you call it, a `bunch of sweaty guys in their underwear doing battle?'"
"I've changed my mind, Sam," Clarissa replied, smiling. "It's really pretty funny nowadays. Like a Soap Opera, but for guys."
"I'm rather uncomfortable with that description," Sam protested weakly, realizing he needed to find out if Hulk Hogan had indeed been driving the hummer than ran over Kevin Nash.
"Anyway," Clarissa continued, turning to USENET boy again, "There's a passage I just made up which seems appropriate for this situation: It's inspired by a wrestler called `the Rock'. I've just adapted it for my purposes." She paused, and aimed the acid gun straight between USENET Boy's eyes before beginning.
"From the Book of Clarissa, verse 3:16: `The style of the righteous girl is cramped on all sides by the schemes of the selfish and the stupidity of evil siblings. Blessed is she who, in the name of coolness and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of deception, for she is truly her brother's better and the finder of stolen diary pages. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger you who are scummier than even my brother. You will shut your mouth and know your role-- and you will know my name is Clarissa when I lay the smackdown on ya! '"
Clarissa pulled the trigger on her water gun, sending a powerful stream of black ink all over USENET boy's face. Freaking, the boy shuddered and fainted.
"Hey," Sam exhaled. "He didn't melt! It was just plain ink!"
"C'mon, Sam!" Clarissa protested, demonstrating that she had switched water pistols during her soliloquy. "The other one was just filled with dry ice. Makes a lot of noise and smoke, but that's it. D'you think I'd really hurt somebody like that?" She stared at the now concious, but gibbering boy. "I don't think he'll be writing any garbage about me for a long time."
"Heheheheh," muttered Deal, who was still in the room, and looking a bit shaken up. "...hahahaha..." he muttered. ".... . that was messed up...damn, that was cold-blooded..."
"Yeah," Sam agreed. "way to manipulate him, Clarissa."
"Shut up, Sam," Clarissa grumbled in response.
Sam waved a water pistol in his direction. "Friend of yours?"
"Yeah," Clarissa nodded. "He's cool. Deal-Sam-Sam-Deal."
As Sam began to say hello, the door to the apartment's bathroom burst open, and another boy charged out, his hands clad in very high-tech looking red gloves.
"High Energy Final Attack! DIE, YOU FIENDS!"
A roar of energy lanced out from the gloves, enveloping both Sam and Clarissa in a corona of white-hot energy.
Uttering a maniacal battle cry, the boy continued to discharge energy from his combat gloves, stopping only when the power cells ran dry. Then, his expression of vengeance turned to one of blank shock.
Clarissa and Sam looked at each other, and at the scorchmarks on the wall behind them. They should have been incinerated by the attack.
"I don't understand -" the boy began.
Sam and Clarissa did not wait for an explanation. Nodding at each other, they cut loose with the full power of their water guns, knocking the boy back and out of sight.
Sam Anders sat stiffly in front of Fergus' Darling's desk, absently playing with a gold chain while he waited. He hated being called before the little runt, and he liked taking orders from the criminal carrot top even less. But he'd done all the things Fergus had asked of him over the week since returning home from College, and Sam was sure that soon his obligation to Evanston's equivalent of Lex Luthor would be over.
Time had certainly changed Ferguson W. Darling. Gone were the faux trappings of his yuppie-esqe wardrobe from years gone by. Now he wore an expensive grey sharkskin suit, a gleaming white silk shirt and a blood-red silken tie. His gold cufflinks glinted in the dim light of the juice bar which was now his corporate headquarters.
Ferguson's hair had also been immaculately combed in high executive style, and his eyes were always narrow and focused, with an intensity behind them that was intimidating to say the least. Sam couldn't help but be entranced by the sight.
"I think," Ferguson declared in his trademark snobbish, aristocratic tone, "you're going to find -- when all this is over - I think you're going to find yourself a very happy man, Sam. The thing is, right now you have ability. And I paid you well for the use of that ability."
Yeah, Sam thought to himself sarcastically. Too bad I only get to keep half of it.
"But painful as it may be," Ferguson continued, "ability doesn't last. It's a hard fact of life, but one you'll just have to be realistic about. You're in college now-- almost geriatric. This one last favor--"
Sam leaned forward. One last favor? Could this be his ticket out of Fergitude?
"--will set you up for a whole semester."
Sam winced mentally. How long was Fergus going to keep him on the hook like this?
Ferguson laid an envelope stuffed to the brim with notes on the table in front of him.
Ferguson smiled. They all take the money. Oh, they all protest at first. They cite their ethics, their principles, their high-sounding ideals. It makes for a good show, but when it comes right down to it, it's all hollow. Even do-gooders like Sam Anders come to heel when faced with the inevitable fact that their world is a wheel which revolves around money, and I, Fergus Darling, am the only grease for that wheel.
"Now the night of the date," he continued, relishing the broken look in Sam's face. "You may feel a slight sting. That's pain. Believe me, I know that feeling."
Ferguson's hand automatically went to a lump on the top of his head, which was still tender. Realizing what he was doing, he pulled it back and adopted a stern gaze. "Fight it. 'Cause a few weeks from now, when you're impressing the campus babes with your wad of green, you're gonna say, "Fergus Darling was right."
Sam sighed. "I got no problem with that."
Ferguson nodded. "You're going to be nice to Elsie," he insisted firmly.
Sam nodded, fidgeting with a small rollerblade pendant which he was holding in his hand.
"Say it!" Ferguson insisted with such venomous desperation that Sam dropped the charm on the desk before him.
"I'll be nice to Elsie," Sam affirmed.
Racing through traffic at ludicrous speed in her cherry-red Chevy Malibu convertible, Clarissa smiled as the wind blew through her hair. It was a good summers' afternoon, even if she was stuck wearing a dumb "Death to Klingons" T-Shirt. Weird Al's "Something Weird in the Fridge" was playing over the car radio, USENET boy had gotten his comeuppance, and Fergus had finally got his stupid black briefcase back, ending his need for her services.
Yeah, she thought. It was a good day. It was a shame about Deal, she reflected, but she tried not to dwell on that too much.
Nuts. She realized she had just passed her turn.
Pulling on the emergency brake and twisting the steering wheel hard, she sent the car into a rapid spin, after which she released the brake and slammed down on the accelerator, taking her car diagonally across three lanes of traffic and into the parking lot of Ferguson's juice bar, where she stopped. Some onlookers clapped at the sight of the dizzying action-movie style maneuver.
"And Dad says I drive like a maniac," Clarissa said to herself, bowing to the public ovation in her head.
Getting out of the car, she walked over to the garish pink- and yellow building Ferguson had chosen for the head of his underground financial empire. Going to a side door, she knocked quickly. It embarrassed her to be seen anywhere near her scumwad brother, and embarrassment was her least favorite emotion.
"What's the password?" demanded a voice from the inside.
"Just let me in!" Clarissa yelled angrily.
"Oh. Hello Clarissa," the voice intoned tiredly. The sound of a bolt being pulled could be heard, as well as the clicking of several locks. Finally, with a groan, the door swung open.
"Eliot," Clarissa acknowledged dismissively, trying to ignore the portly little rich kid who served as Ferguson's second in command. He'd really let himself go after coming to work for her brother. She followed him to the juice bar and took a seat.
"Where's Fergwad?" she inquired in spite of herself.
"He's over there, finishing up some business." The boy pointed to the rear of the bar.
Clarissa looked in the direction he was pointing, and winced as she saw Sam, still dressed in that ridiculous M. C. Hammer outfit, shaking hands with Ferguson. It was too disgusting to contemplate. She started as Eliot turned on the TV and a hideous sound filled the room.
On the screen, there were some western folk dressed in 1890's gear sitting out on a porch, amusing themselves and their children by playing fiddles and singing. They were happy and obnoxious. VERY obnoxious. And the quality of the fiddle playing was akin to fingernails being run across a chalkboard.
"Eliot Fundsworth!" Clarissa yelled, "turn that off!"
"But-" Eliot protested. "-Why?"
"See," she explained, "Back in the 1800's, when there was no such thing as mass entertainment, families would make special trips to listen to this stuff. It wasn't because it was particularly good, mind you-- life was just so boring that this was better than staring at the wall, and it was the only way fiddle playin' Cletus, Billy Bob and Bubba could afford to eat for the winter.
But today, we have TV's in our homes so we can go inside and keep ourselves from having to listen to this any more. But now, you're using the TV to beam the stuff back inside. You're defeating the whole purpose!"
Irately, Clarissa leaned over and turned off the television.
As she did so, Sam walked up to her and sat down.
"So that was the payoff, I'm guessing," Clarissa remarked disappointingly, noting the envelope of money in Sam's baggy pants pocket. "You're definitely taking Elsie out tonight, then. Elsie." She let the last word linger like a curse.
"It's just a few hours," Sam weakly protested.
"Say cheese," Ferguson interjected, walking by, the flash of his camera going off right in Sam's face.
"Oh great," Sam squinted. "I love seeing blue dots everywhere I look."
"Thanks," Ferguson replied, a merry lilt to his voice, walking off. "I needed a before picture."
Sam looked at Clarissa helplessly.
"Your funeral," Clarissa stated dryly. .
"Look," Sam protested firmly. "I'm not a idiot. I'm gonna sit across a table, chew my food with my mouth closed, laugh at her jokes and stay on her good side. That's all I'm gonna do."
Clarissa shook her head, accepting a slushie from Eliot and slurping from it slowly, while staring intensely at her friend.
Sam frowned. "Why are you staring at me?"
Clarissa shrugged. "No reason. They'll just need someone to help identify the body, that's all. Open your mouth so I can check your teeth. I may need to look at dental records."
Sam went pale. "There's nothing I can do."
Clarissa leaned in closer. "You remember what she did to us last time. I'm tellin' you, Sam, that girl's messed up. You take her out by yourself, you'll regret--"
Clarissa was cut off as Ferguson's voice boomed across the bar.
"Sam, get over here!"
"There's something else, Clarissa," Sam admitted slowly. "I need a favor."
"Anything, Sam." Clarissa replied sincerely. If it was even remotely possible that Sam was right-that all these years she'd been unconsciously using the people around her to get what she wanted, well, then she was going to make it right. Starting now. There's no way she'd turn into a Ferguson. Not in this lifetime. "Name it."
"I need to borrow your car for the date tonight."
Clarissa's heart stopped, turned to lead and dropped like a rock into the pit of her stomach. She loved that car. Even if it was a `gift' (read: trap) from the Ferginator, it was still a sweet automobile- the first she had ever owned. It was like a child, or a beloved pet. Not something to be placed into other people's hands at the drop of a hat. Not even Sam's hands.
"Sam," she protested. "That's my car. You know how I feel about my car."
"Hey," Sam blurted, offended by the insinuation. "I'll take good care of it!"
"Why can't you use your car?" Clarissa countered.
"Umm," Sam replied uncomfortably. "You know why, remember?"
"Oh yeah," Clarissa muttered. She'd been trying to block that memory out. "Uhh. well," she stalled, but had no words, no plots, no schemes that would let her walk back on her promise. "Come on, Sam!" she finally protested in dark desperation.
"I see," Sam replied at length, hanging his head. "I understand." He adopted the air of a magnificently, unreasonably cute puppy readying itself for the mightiest kick.
Clarissa's resolve withered at his betrayed, weak expression. He looked like a crushed man, whose only reason to live had been taken away.
"Sam-" she began slowly, trying to think of any way to turn this around.
"It's OK," Sam replied, voice choking. "Really. It's not a problem." His sadness meter was now fully turned up to 11.
"Here ya go," Clarissa tiredly exhaled, , dangling her car keys-- her most precious possessions-- in front of Sam's dejected face.
"Thanks, Clarissa!" Sam exclaimed, his face lighting up instantly like a string of Christmas lights. Grabbing the keys, he ran off to see what Ferguson had wanted.
Watching Sam go, Clarissa sighed, turned and faced Eliot, saluting him with her slushie. "And they call me a manipulator," she mumbled, musing about the futility of it all.
LATER THAT NIGHT
Sam nervously stood before the grime-covered wooden door, unsure, but fairly certain of what he might find on the other side. His whole body shook with anticipation, and his stomach felt queasy. He adjusted the lapels on his sharp new suit jacket and shuffled his feet nervously.
"Samuel, you can come in now," a muffled voice from behind the door said.
Sam pushed the door forwards, wincing as a splinter embedded itself in his hand. Moving into the dark bedroom beyond, he narrowed his eyes, focusing on the silhouette of the person standing between him and the only light source, a flickering amber lamp.
The light snapped on, revealing a young man wearing a red flannel shirt over a faded "Doctor Who" T-Shirt.
"Big K!" Sam exclaimed happily, shaking the man's hand.
"Samuel, my boy!" Big K replied in kind. "Long time no see! You come for the stuff, College Man?"
"Yeah, dude!" Sam grinned. Both he and Big K stood at the foot of a huge bed. Upon its surface, a wide array of confections, candies and condiments awaited their inspection.
"Okay," Big K began, waving his arm at the merchandise. "these are Jelly Babies, from Britain. Very good stuff. These, as you know, are Gummi Bears. They're American, less salty, but equally good. And these are genuine Pop Rocks from The Wonka himself. Now the first two are the same price, forty-five bucks an ounce -- those are friend prices-- but this one..."
Big K pointed to the Pop Rocks, which were packed in containers that looked like Pixie Stix tubes, "--this one's a little more expensive. It's fifty-five. But when you taste it, you'll know where that extra money went. Nothing wrong with the first two snacks. They're real, real, real, good stuff. Sugar coated. But this junk's just insane. "
Sam snickered and shook his head in disbelief. "Gimme a break, man! Remember, I just got back from campus. Snack Machines as far as the eye can see! 8 ounces of Soda Pop a day. This is minor league stuff, bud. Besides, you've got them packaged up like Pixie Stix. That's weak."
Big K shook his head. "Shut your mouth and know your role, boy. You may have been Big Man on Campus, but this here's Evanston, Illinois. Thanks to that goddess, Councilwoman Janet Darling, unhealthy snack foods have been banned by order of the city government."
"Goddess?" Sam asked curiously, raising an eyebrow.
"She who has made me the controller of my fellow men, yes," Big K replied almost reverently. "Without her knowledge, of course. Because of the need she created-"
"You and Fergus got rich running a black market in underground candies and comestibles." Sam nodded, impressed.
"Bingo." Big K grinned. "We got almost all the politicians in Cook County in our pocket. They work for us. Face it, I am the Source of All Things around here. You either get your stuff from me, or you can take your partially gelatinated Tofu soy shakes from Jansy Darling and like it."
Sam shuddered as Big K continued.
"I'm the only sign of civilisation in this barren wasteland, and you know it. You're in the desert, and I'm Mr. Oasis, baby."
"That's a bold statement."
"Well, I'm a bold man," Big K replied. "This ain't college, Samuel. The cola wars are over. This is a seller's market. Coke is as flippin' dead as disco. Pepsi lost out to RC. You can't get Jolt to save your life. Pixie Stix are the only sugar rush left for 100 miles in this town. And these," Big K declared, gesturing to the Pop Rocks masquerading as Pixie Stix, "are definitely not Pixie Stix."
Sam reached into his back pocket and extracted a wad of bills. "Give me three hundred worth of the rocks. If it's as good as you say, I'll be back for a thousand."
Big K smiled and handed him a package of the super sugar snacks.
"You mind if I eat some here?" Sam asked.
"Me casa es su casa." Big K gestured broadly to the big blue house around him.
Putting most of the candy in his coat pocket, Sam put a tube of pop rocks to his mouth and sucked some in. Immediately, the sugar rush slammed into his system. It was all he could do to avoid becoming hyperactive right there on the spot. "That's the stuff," he muttered, his eyes glazing over. "Oh, yeah."
EVEN LATER THAT NIGHT (ALMOST EIGHT O'CLOCK, EVEN)
Sam stood in front of Ferguson's house, nervously fiddling with his tie. He didn't want to be here. He knew what Elsie was like. The note that was hanging on the door did little to improve his morale:
Sam, I'm getting dressed. The door's open. Get inside and wait for me. NOW. What are you waiting for? Stop reading this and GET INSIDE! - Elsie
Sucking in his breath, and still fueled with sugary goodness, he steeled himself for the inevitable and walked inside the house.
Ferguson's house was an unbelievable monument to the boy's ego. It was more like a museum than a place of domicile.
Treasured relics from every phase of the teenager's short life were carefully mounted on shelves or in frames, and illuminated from every possible angle with soft, subtle spotlights.
Prominently featured in the center of the room was a small, spit- stained blue blankie, which seemingly hovered in midair.
"Gross," Sam muttered under his breath, his ears barely catching the whirr and click of multiple hidden cameras.
"Hello?" he asked apprehensively, "Elsie?"
A door opened in the distance. Sam turned in its direction, then jerked back quickly, a nosebleed forming as he realized Elsie was behind the door, still dressing.
"Sam Anders," Elsie Soaperstein intoned darkly, her voice smooth and low, like a smoky night at the amusement park. "Long time no see."
"Not long enough," Sam muttered almost inaudibly.
"What did you say?" Elsie snapped quickly, her voice momentarily becoming a sharp, icy lance that stabbed through the air.
"Nothing, Elsie!" Sam hastily replied, hoping he'd sounded sincere.
"Good," Elsie purred, her voice back to its low, dangerously slinky self. "I wouldn't like to think that you'd insulted me. I don't like being insulted. It makes me cranky. And what makes me cranky makes Fergie angry." She drew the last word out, letting it sink heavily into Sam's mind.
"I'll be out in a few minutes," Elsie promised, heading into her room, voice sweetly dripping menace.
"Take your time," Sam replied, a little too enthusiastically. He turned his attention to a huge portrait of Elsie that had been done by a painter who had obviously taken too many artistic liberties with his work.
In her dressing room, Elsie quickly swallowed the contents of a whole pixie stick, giggling all the while.
Sam sat down on one of the soft, comfortable couches that ringed the livingroom.
"Be honored," boomed a clearly pre-recorded voice. "You are sitting in the same seat, and breathing the same air, as his high holiness, the Fergus does, every day."
"Oh, brother," Sam exhaled, rolling his eyes.
"Smile!" Elsie exclaimed suddenly. Sam jerked his head towards the source of the sound, and saw a camera with Elsie's body staring back at him. "You're on the Elsie cam!"
Sam shuddered nervously. "Uhh, ready to go?"
"Not yet," Elsie replied with a coy grin. "I have to film you first."
"Why?" Sam croaked, throat dry with dread.
"Before shots," Elsie stated authoritatively.
"Before?" Sam asked, confused.
"Yeah. As in `Before' and `After'." Elsie grinned. "It helps when they need to identify the body." She cackled mischievously.
"Swell," Sam muttered.
Elsie nodded, and began speaking to the camera in a clinical tone. "Subject is in good health, no visible lacerations or physical deformities, all teeth present, no sign of concussion." She stopped and grinned. "Excellent. It's so good to be dealing with a man who's still healthy."
Sam coughed, not knowing whether to be flattered or terrified. "Excuse me?"
"Most of the goons Fergie has me go out with are already so scuzzy that you can hardly tell the difference after the date's over from what they looked like before."
Sam was not liking the direction this conversation was taking. But, like a driver slowing down to view the aftermath of a train wreck, he had to know more. "Umm. do they all come back looking different or something?"
"That's just it!" Elsie spat angrily. "Most of them are so messed up already it's hard to tell. An artist likes to see the results of her work."
A small "eep" noise escaped Sam's throat.
Elsie's grin broadened. "You'll do fine." She happily taped his frantic facial reaction, finally getting her cinematic fill. "Cut. Print. Let's go eat."
Waffle Hut. Prime Competitor to MacDrekky's in the fast food battle royale that is the quest to satisfy America's burgeoning appetites and equally expanding waistlines. A tacky mecca of blatant consumerism dressed in yellow-and-black tiles and faux wood paneling. A new gimmick each week is their motto- and this week, retro movies and TV are it.
Sam stalled in the entrance to the Waffle Hut, watching in disbelief as a group of Keystone Cops mercilessly bludgeoned one of the Three Stooges as punishment for the crime of being different.
Elsie pushed him forward, and into the carnival-like atmosphere of the restaurant.
Godzilla and King Kong were fighting on a huge stage in the center of the restaurant, crushing model buildings and getting zapped by electrified ring ropes as excited onlookers both in the eatery and across the world via pay-per-view expressed their desire for the two creatures to mutually exterminate one another.
Godzilla was winning, having brained King Kong with a clearly illegal boulder, but Rodan and Ghidorah swooped into the ring, their fly-in stopping the count at two. A wicked skyscraper shot by Kong evened the odds once again as Godzilla staggered back from the force of the blow.
At a pause in the fighting, a young Shirley Temple walked through the ring, sucking on a lollipop and holding up a placard that read: "Round 28,403".
Sam and Elsie took their seats in what appeared to be the carved out hull of a small flying saucer from the late 40's. Elsie casually pulled a severed alien arm out of her area and tossed it out of sight before Sam could see it. A small, emaciated man in a octagonal machine-seat glided over to their table.
"I AM DAVROS!" he screamed. RULER OF THE DALEKS! MASTER OF SKARO! WHAT CAN I GET YOU TO EAT THIS EVENING?"
Sam shrugged. "I'll have a cheeseburger."
"EXCELLENT!" Davros continued to scream. "THE SHATTERED REMAINS OF ANOTHER INFERIOR LIFE FORM WILL BE PROCESSED FOR YOUR CONSUMPTION! WOULD YOU LIKE ANYTHING TO DRINK WITH THAT?"
"I'll have a Coca-Cola," Sam replied, smiling.
"AND WOULD YOU LIKE FRIES WITH THAT." Davros asked flatly.
"No," Sam replied authoritatively.
"YOU WOULD LIKE FRIES WITH THAT," Davros stated, his tone dangerous now.
"No," Sam insisted.
"YOU WILL LIKE FRIES WITH THAT!" Davros exclaimed, one good arm shaking with apoplectic rage as agitation seeped into his half-mechanized voice, "OR YOU WILL BE EX-TERM-IN-ATED!"
"Aren't they taking this TV thing too far?" Sam asked Elsie, panic starting to rise a bit. .
Davros fired an energy beam from his hand which singed Sam's hair. "YOU WILL ORDER FRIES!" Davros screamed maniacally. "OR-DER!" "OR-DER!"
"Yeah! Okay!" Sam yelled, totally freaking out now. "Fries! Fries! Gimme Fries! Lotsa fries! Good? Happy?"
"HEHEHEH." Davros laughed to himself in dark triumph as he glided away. These days it was all about the smaller victories.
"I like that Davros," Elsie remarked, smiling in approval. "My kind of megalomaniacal madman." After a moment, her smile gave way to a frown as she realized something.
"Hey! I didn't get to order!" she exclaimed.
"Vat'll it beah?" asked a new waiter, Arnold Schwartzenegger.
"I'll have the large fries, ultra deluxe mega burger with everything including onions, and the HyperSlushie 2000."
At the mention of the `slushie, everyone in the restaurant became quiet and looked towards the table. While Waffle Hut was one of the few places in town still allowed to serve sugary treats, this was pushing the boundaries of legality-not to mention sanity and common sense.
"Uhh," Arnold began. "Da Hyperslushie 2000 is 72 fluid ounces of raw syrup und cherry flavoring. According to dis chart-" He held out a crude chart, "--your body mass is too low to handle da raw influx of sugah. You'd go crazie in no time flaat."
"Like she isn't already," Sam muttered.
"Listen, little man," Elsie yelled, jumping onto the top of the table and reaching up to grab Arnold's collar, "I'm Fergus Darling's best girl, and-"
"Okayh! Okayh! ," Arnold capitulated in a panic. "I don't vant Fergus coming aftah me! My heart is still veak from dah last time!"
Elsie growled, pulling Arnold's face down to hers. "You don't have ta worry about him coming after you. You just have to worry about ME! "
"I'll get dah drink," Arnold spluttered. Then a look of fear crossed his face as he realized she wasn't going to like what he was going to say next. "Uhh, you know it costs five dollahs, yes?" At her expression, he quickly added, "But for you, on dah house!"
"No," Elsie replied firmly, looking him in the eyes.
"No?" Sam and Arnold asked simultaneously.
"No. I insist that you charge for the drink. It wouldn't be fair otherwise." Elsie smiled diplomatically.
Arnold smiled in surprise. "Vhy, dat's very decent of you, miss."
"No sweat," Elsie replied, smiling brightly. "After all, Sammy here's footin' the bill!"
"Joy," Sam muttered in disgust-a little too loudly. Arnold shook his head as he left, commiserating with Sam.
"What was that you just said?!" Elsie screeched.
A huge drop of sweat formed on the back of Sam's head as he nervously thought of a good cover. "Erm," he began slowly, "It's a... joy buying things for you, Elsie."
"Why Samuel," Elsie cooed, her gaze softening, "I didn't know you cared." She moved closer to him in the UFO.
Oh no, Sam thought to himself.
"Sammy, honey," Elsie began, "Let's dance."
Sam gulped hard. "Umm, don't you thing Fergus would mind?"
"He's too stupid to mind," Elsie replied matter-of-factly.
"What?" Sam asked, his curiosity for the moment winning out over his mortal fear of being near Elsie.
"Come on, Sammy," Elsie replied nonchalantly, "Fergus may have the raw financial skill and the cunning, treacherous, manipulative mind of a master criminal," she began, voice all honey and sweetness, quickly turning hard and cold as she concluded "but he's a weak-kneed wimp when it comes to matters of action."
"Perhaps," Sam half-agreed carefully, wondering if he was being set up. An awkward moment of silence sprang up.
"Who do you think keeps all his workers in line, Sammy?" Elsie finally blurted out.
Sam shuddered. "Uhm. you?" he guessed.
Elsie smiled the saccharine sweet smile of death. "Uh-huh. I'm the iron fist in a stainless steel glove." She lightly touched Sam's shoulder affectionately, but in Sam's hyper agitated state, it felt more like a lead weight had fallen on his shoulder blade. He pulled under and away from her grip.
"Let's dance." Elsie cooed. "...loverboy."
"Uhh!" Sam exclaimed, now in a full blown panic. "uhh. we uhh. should be getting back. Back. Now."
Elsie was oblivious to his protests. "Fergus said you just got back from College. You must be a man of the world-"
"--That's nothing," Sam interjected, thinking quickly. "I heard you did a pilot."
"That was my thirty minutes of fame," Elsie reflected sadly.
"What was it about?" Sam asked, genuinely curious ever since Clarissa had mentioned it.
"A typical teenager who takes a trip to the big city to become a crack reporter." Elsie spat out the sentence.
Sam pressed a finger to his forehead. "Sounds familiar somehow," he mused. "Have I seen it?"
"I don't think so," Elsie replied. "The meatheads at the network canned it after just one episode. The fools!" Her expression darkened and she growled. "They were just afraid of what a big success I would become."
"Yeah," Sam agreed, playing along.
"Yeah! No show would have been complete without at least one glimpse of the incredibly talented Elsie Soaperstein! I would have been a media GODDESS!" Elsie was beginning to shake with barely concealed fury.
"Well," Sam offered, "you never know, you might always get another job."
"They offered me some two-bit role as a witch who talks to her cat. I told them exactly where to put that stupid idea. I mean, come on! Who would watch?"
Sam shrugged. "Sounds cool to me."
"No," Elsie despondently continued, "This is my life now. Half of the most powerful criminal enterprise in Suburban Chicago."
"Well, we all have to do something with our spare time, I suppose," Sam observed consolingly.
"Right!" Elsie chirped, having another sudden mood swing. "And right now I want to dance. What makes me happy makes Fergus happy."
Sam sighed, realizing there was noway out of this. "And what makes Fergus happy makes me happy, I guess." He sighed again and made to stand.
Elsie paused in her moment of triumph and looked at Sam critically. An uncharacteristic sensation floated through her body. Her mind struggled to identify it. Presently, she realized it was something called pity. She tilted her head and indulged her curiosity.
"What did Fergie do to get his hooks in you so bad?"
Sam frowned, and almost decided to change the subject. But, he reasoned, this was Fergus' more malevolent half. She'd find out one way or another. Might as well fess up.
Takeing a deep breath, he began. "Well, a few years ago, I had really messed up hair. It was the most poofy thing you ever saw. Like an afro, but without the cool."
Elsie leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table, her chin resting on her folded hands watching him like a hawk. She gazed into Sam's eyes. "Fascinating."
"Yeah," Sam continued, "Ferguson was running a two-bit cosmetics scam at the time, trying to sell Mary Kay Oriental face cleanser and beauty products to everyone he met. He sold me some ultra-deluxe Nambian Hair-Taming gel."
"Lemme guess," Elsie remarked pensively, "It was defective. Turned your hair orange, or something."
"No!" Sam interjected rapidly. "It worked perfectly!" He ran a hand through his hair. "Ever since then, I've had perfect hair control."
"I'm failing to see the problem here." Elsie replied flatly, subconsciously twirling a lock of her hair around a finger. She didn't even have perfect hair control. How could she control the world when she couldn't even control her hair?
"The gel was a little more expensive than I'd bargained for. Fergus had been having rotten luck selling the rest of the beauty aids, so he tricked me into signing an invoice that granted him title to my dad's house and car if I didn't pay him off-with interest, compounded daily."
"Devious!" Elsie exclaimed in admiration, then adopted a neutral expression as she saw the pained look on Sam's face in response.
Sam took in a deep breath, pausing a moment before continuing. "Luckily, Clarissa found the invoice and hid it in her room. He couldn't collect-- until last summer, after she left for New York."
"What happened then?" Elsie chewed on a thumbnail. She had to know it all. Every last detail.
Sam half shrugged. "Well, my understanding is, that before she left, Ferguson swore to her that he wouldn't touch her room when she was gone. Pinky swore, even."
"Whoa," Elsie exhaled. "A pinky swear. Deep."
Sam nodded. "So naturally, the minute she left, he ran through the place like a freak tornado. He found the invoice under one of the hubcaps in her hubcap collection, and took me to court right before it was my turn to leave for Bibbington."
"And you lost," Elsie concluded.
"No. My dad made me settle out of court. The legal fees were just too much for us to put up a fight otherwise. Fergus, unknown to everyone, had been saving up for some kind of mass litigation all these years and so was more than able to get good legal representation."
Elsie nodded. That was her man all right. "What were the settlement terms?"
Sam withered. "I have to work for Ferguson every summer until my debt to him is paid. I have to do whatever he wants."
"How much longer does this go?" Elsie asked, concerned, biting her nails even more.
"Not too long," Sam replied, smiling weakly. "just through the summer of 2010." Inside, he wept. He'd be almost middle-aged by then. Almost dead.
Elsie smiled and put Sam's hand in hers. "Well, Sammy, honey- if you dance with me, I'll whisper a word or two into Fergie- Wergie's little ear, and you'll be off the hook."
Sam started. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. But he so badly wanted to. "For real?" he croaked.
"I swear," Elsie replied, nodding her head. "Cross my heart and hope to die."
Sam said nothing, stunned.
"You didn't know I had one," Elsie remarked, looking a bit hurt.
"Had what?" Sam asked, not following, but feeling badly at her expression. .
"A heart." For a moment, Elsie looked small and frail and vulnerable.
Sam blinked, then smiled. Still holding her hand, he stood up, grinning "Let's cut a rug!"
"Stupid homing devices," Clarissa muttered, thwacking the side of her modified walkman for the umpteenth time that night. It had taken all her skill to keep up with the weak signal which was coming from the pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror of her convertible, but she had tracked it all the way to the Waffle Hut.
Standing back, she barely dodged a Mummy which was busy fleeing from Edward Scissorhands. Looking at her elegant evening gown, she realized that she'd miscalculated when she'd figured Sam would have taken Elsie to a fancy gourmet restaurant. Still, it was just as well. College students didn't make enough to eat at those places anyway.
Surveying the surroundings, her heart leapt into her throat when she saw Sam leading Elsie up onto a roped-off dance floor which seemed to be covered in giant monster bits.
Oh brother, she thought. If Ferguson sees Sam dancing with Elsie, he'll kill him! And I don't think even I could stop him! She paused, asking herself "Why would Sam want to dance with Elsie anyway?" under her breath. "He must be being coerced," she concluded.
Looking at Sam's radiant face, she frowned. "Yeah. Coerced," she muttered sarcastically. Cupping her hands in front of her mouth, she yelled towards Sam, calling his name.
Elsie and Sam, mere seconds from taking the dance floor, looked back to find the source of the yell, and saw Clarissa heading towards them at top speed.
"Huh?" Sam asked both himself and Clarissa. "Clarissa? What're you doin' here?"
"I need to talk to you!" Clarissa exhaled breathlessly.
Sam looked at Elsie, as if to get permission. Elsie frowned. "I tell you what, I'll go to the bathroom and powder my nose. But when I get back, you better be ready to swing, or the deal's off! GOT IT, HONEY?!"
Clarissa watched Elsie stalk off. "Honey? Sam-"
In the roach-ridden flea trap of a cargo crate that was the Waffle Hut's bathroom, Elsie quickly produced a box of movie- theatre style Goobers candy, tossing a handful of the sweets into her mouth and swallowing them all at once.
"Holy Sucrose, Batman!" she exclaimed to herself. "That's the stuff!"
Back in the eating area, Sam was sitting in his UFO, staring at Clarissa, who had gone off to a corner. Their discussion had not gone well. He looked down at the food before him. A sea of French fries dominated the table, along with his burger and Elsie's meal.
"Don't you love it when you go to the bathroom and you come back to find your food waiting for you?" Elsie asked, her voice shocking Sam out of his brooding.
"Yeah." he replied glumly, "Your very expensive food."
"You get what you pay for... Where's the wench?"
In her corner, Clarissa scowled, but otherwise gave no indication that she had heard the remark.
Sam sighed. "Clarissa's not going to get in the way of ourwonderful evening." He uttered the adjective with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
Elsie sighed, took a tiny sip of her expensive slushie, and tossed the rest of it over her shoulder, much to Sam's chagrin. "Let's dance."
"Wait," Sam declared, seeming to delay for what seemed like the hundredth time that night. "There's one thing I have to ask you first."
"Make it fast, Sammy," Elsie replied tiredly. "The dance floor's a -callin'."
"It's about something I heard the other day." Sam looked at her seriously.
"Go on," Elsie insisted impatiently, drumming her fingers on the table.
"It's about Wally Butterman."
Clarissa turned her head, suddenly interested in their conversation.
Elsie's expression darkened, and she frowned. "He fell off a balcony. Everyone knows that."
"That's one way to say it," Sam began. "Another way is, he was pushed off. Another way is, he was pushed off by Fergus. And even another way is, he was pushed by Fergus-- because of Wally giving you flowers."
Elsie's eyes grew wide, and a hacking, spitting sound came out of her wide-open mouth. For a moment, Sam thought the girl was choking. Then he realized she was laughing. Hard.
"What?" Sam asked, aghast. "What's so funny?"
"First of all," Elsie replied, in between guffaws, "Wally didn't give me flowers. He gave me some weeds that he'd found along the side of the football field. Weeds. And secondly, Fergus didn't push him off the balcony. What kind of a guy do you think he is?"
"I didn't think so!" Sam looked happily at Clarissa, who nodded in defeat and slapped a ten dollar bill in his hand. He was ten dollars richer, and he'd beaten Clarissa for the second time that day.
"I pushed him," Elsie stated nonchalantly.
Sam nearly choked on his cheeseburger. "You what?"
At that moment, a happening dance song from 1953 blasted from the restaurant's speakers. Elsie grinned demonically. "I wanna dance. NOW."
"Okay," Sam agreed weakly, the blood leaving his brain as Elsie the Defenestrator led him to his feet. No, wait Defenestration needed a window. What did you call someone who shoved someone else off a balcony.
"And don't step on my feet," Elsie chastened. "Wally Butterman stepped on my feet once."
A huge drop of sweat rolled down the back of Sam's head. Dangerous. That's what you call someone like that. Dangerous.
Clarissa watched dimly as Sam led Elsie up to the stage. She hoped Sam knew what he was doing. It just seemed so wrong of him to be caving in to Ferguson's every demand like he was. Gritting her teeth, she decided that she was going to get Sam off the hook any way she could.
In the midst of her swelling determination, Clarissa's heart stopped for a moment as she saw Elsie pulling out what appeared to be a small switch blade from a pocket in her dress. Time seemed to slow.
"You can't stop me," Elsie seemed to say to Clarissa as she danced closer to Sam, looking directly at the older girl in her mind's eye. "You can never stop me! I've gotten away with murder, and I'll keep getting away with it."
"I better go help Sam," Clarissa said to herself quickly, snapping out of her reverie. Getting up, she dashed into the middle of the dancing crowd, where she was intercepted by Shirley Temple, who grabbed onto her leg. .
"Will you let go of me!" Clarissa yelled, as the cutest little girl in the world shook her head no.
"What do you want?" Clarissa snapped. "I have to go save my friend!"
"Dance," Temple demanded sweetly looking up at her with saucer-wide, innocent little eyes that would not, could not ever be denied. .
"Ugh." Clarissa began to dance with Temple, at first stumbling with the moves, but quickly picking up the beat. As the awestruck patrons looked on, she subtly began leading Temple towards Elsie and Sam, who were in the middle of some kind of Saturday Night Fever routine. Purposefully missing a step, she fell in front of Sam, putting herself between him and Elsie.
"Clarissa," Sam hissed, "what the heck are you doing?"
"She's got a knife!" Clarissa hissed back. "You gotta get outta here, Sam!"
Before Sam could react, Clarissa snatched the closed switchblade from Elsie's hand, pausing to share a bow with Shirley Temple as the crowd gave them a standing ovation.
"Hey! Give that back!" Elsie growled, unceremoniously shoving Shirley straight off the stage in her attempt to get to Clarissa.
"You were gonna stab Sam!" Clarissa protested as Elsie futilely treied to wrench the knifre out of her hand.
"It's just a comb!" Elsie half-screamed in frustration.
Clarissa fumbled with the "weapon", and sure enough, a comb flipped out. A novelty switchblade comb. Swell.
"Oops," Clarissa muttered, feeling a bit embarrassed. She was beginning to positively hate that emotion.
"Oops is right," Elsie snarled. "When Fergus hears about this, that car of yours is going to the scrap heap!"
"Waitasec!" Clarissa protested, waving her arms in a panic. "You can't-"
"--Elsie, forget about it," Sam interjected, giving Soaperstein a warm smile. "Let's dance."
As Elsie melted into a puddle of compliant goo, Sam leaned over to Clarissa and whispered "you owe me big time" into her ear.
Clarissa sighed and sat down offstage, watching Sam go to insane lengths in order to avoid stepping on Elsie's feet. She realized, watching the sad spectacle, that her leaving town had had more consequences than she could have ever imagined. Ferguson, unchecked, had become a financially secure criminal mastermind who now held her best friend in thrall. Her mother, Janet, freed from having to worry about her children's welfare, had channeled her energies into making the city a healthier place to eat, and dad--
Clarissa sighed again. The unfortunate man.
"This is just a small setback," she muttered. "I can turn this thing around. I know I can. I just have to figure out a way to-"
To manipulate everyone, she thought glumly. Manipulate everyone like I always do to get what I want. Like Ferguson does. She shuddered.
What if Ferguson, as a tiny and impressionable infant, had learned his wicked ways from me? After all, I'd been there first, and that little brat was bound to have picked something up from me during the years when he'd been too tiny to get into fights. Nah. No way. I'm nice and he's not. I have good social skills, he doesn't. I have dress sense,he lacks it. So if he got none of those things from me-
I did it, didn't I? Created the evil Ferginator. He'd copied my techniques during his terrible twos or something, and in his own evil way, refined them into a science. And, fettered as I am by notions of ethics and fair play, there's no way I can stop this amoral creature without becoming just like him! I've brought doom to the land!
A dark cloud descended over Clarissa's features as Sam and Elsie danced through the night, two people at one with the new World order.
LUDICROUSLY LATER THAT NIGHT - FERGUSON DARLING'S PAD
The front door to Fergus Darling's house flung open, admitting Sam and Elsie, who were dancing tango style, laughing and enjoying one another's company. After a few moments they stopped.
Sam looked at Elsie, smiling. After the initial scare tactics, it turned out that Elsie had behaved herself like a perfect lady. He no longer feared death by her hand.
"Well, I hope you had a nice night." he stated sincerely.
"There's only one thing left that would make it perfect," Elsie exhaled breathily, drawing close to him and puckering her lips.
Sam's fears suddenly returned en masse. "Uhh." he began nervously, "I uhh, gotta go."
"One little kiss, Sammy," Elsie protested, getting between Sam and the door. "One smooch to make the night complete."
"Erk," Sam grunted as he moved aside, avoiding Elsie, who had lunged at him, latching onto his coat. Pulling out of the coat, Sam decided to put some distance between himself and the girl. He pulled away as Elsie grabbed his coat. "I gotta, uhh. go to the bathroom."
"But you don't know where it is," Elsie protested as Sam ran off.
"I'll find it!" Sam exclaimed distantly from somewhere within the house.
Elsie smirked, holding onto Sam's soft overcoat. "That big buffoon'll kiss me all right. He'll do anything to make me tell Fergie to let him off the hook. And when he does..."
Elsie walked up to a small hidden camera and fiddled with it. "I'll have it on tape. Perfect blackmail material. Then I'll have Sammy all for myself, cuz' he wouldn't want `Fergus' knowing he'd kissed his girl. Heheheheheh."
Moving to her CD player, Elsie turned on a heavy metal piece and began dancing to it, using Sam's coat as an air guitar. Her hand found its way into one of the coat pockets.
"Hmm?" she said to herself. Pulling out the contents of the pocket, she found a set of Pixie Stix.
"Boy Howdy! Pixie Stix! Sammy, ya little cola nut, you've been holdin' out on me." She grinned.
In "The Lavatory of Fergus W. Darling", Sam stood before a full length mirror, the top of which was labeled, "You handsome devil, you."
Looking at the mirror, Sam sighed. He had a horrific decision to make. Either way, he stood to suffer incredibly.
"It's just a kiss, right?" he asked his reflection. "One tiny peck on the cheek and I'll be outta her life and the Ferginator's forever."
He shuddered. "But it's so gross! I mean that kid's almost ten years younger than me. Ten years-- that's a whole entire decade!"
Sam straightened himself up, standing like a soldier preparing to march to his death. "But I've gotta do it. If it means being free from Ferguson, I'll do it. One grade-school kiss and leave. Yeah."
Sam's mind began to construct the hypothetical situation.
Elsie looks up into his face, her expression one of total bliss. A kiss. She swoons, overcome by his raw machismo. She's out cold. He drops her like a hot potato and heads for the door at fast forward times ten. In the car. Outta town. Yeah. That's the ticket.
Sam snapped out of his trance. "What could possibly go wrong?" he asked his reflection.
In the living room, Elsie had been busy sorting out Sam's pixie stix. Swallowing three whole tubes, she wondered why they felt livelier than pixie stix should. Dismissing the notion, she washed down the mixture with a healthy dollop of Hyper-Carbonated Surge from Fergus' private stock.
Elsie suddenly felt something akin to a small explosion in her stomach. Her ears, nose and throat filled with a crackling, popping noise. She could smell the candy she had just swallowed, and it sounded like a hundred buzzing bees inside her cranium all at once. Something was wrong.
Then the sugar rush hit her like a freight train on warp drive.
"No," she spluttered, the fizz going up her nose like an inhaled choclate milk shake. "Those," she shuddered, "weren't Pixie Stix!" She gasped for air as her tummy began to vibrate with the force of thousands of mini-explosions. "They were... Pop Rocks!"
Elsie looked over at her empty bottle of Surge, and realized that she had made a horrible, terrible, dreadful, incredible error. Dropping to the floor, she began to vibrate faster and faster, now on the king of all sugar rushes. It was more than her young form was used to. No kid had ever taken this much sugar before. It had never been done. And with good reason. Quivering, her facial features began to contort.
Still in the bathroom, Sam continued to rationalize his decision, shrugging and adjusting his collar, puckering up experimentally. "It won't be so bad. I mean she is a semi-famous actress and all."
His body shuddered violently in response. "But it's Elsie Soaperstein!" he spat out. "I gotta have my principles. I already did more than any guy can be expected to. I'm a man, dammit, not a Ken doll! Deal or no deal, I won't sacrifice my dignity!"
In the living room, Elsie was back on her feet, moving at three times the normal speed of any human, knocking over anything that wasn't nailed to the floor. Babbling, she began doing jumping jacks, only to go green in the face. Doubling over, she hurled fizzing purple spew all over the immaculate white carpet.
"So I'm gonna go out there," Sam said to himself in the mirror, "shake her hand, say `Goodnight, I've had a very lovely evening', go home, and try to forget this night ever happened. And take the consequences like a man."
Sam wept as he saw images of Fergus kicking his Dad out into the street, himself living under a bridge, begging for change and having Fergus slipping him a wooden nickel flash before his eyes.
"Aww, heck," he exhaled. "One kiss won't matter anything." Sam took a deep breath and walked back out into the house.
Sam froze momentarily as he saw Elsie lying on the floor like a rag doll. Twisted on her back, she was jumping and fidgeting like a fish out of water. And babbling.
"...andthenwhensammysallmineillditchthatpeskyfergusandmakemyselfthe queenofEvanstonandtheresnothingthelittlereadheadedsnotcandoabout itandthenillgetrevengeonhissisterforthattimesheactaullyhadthegut stooutthinkmeandthenimgonnamakeafictionaltvshowaboutherlifeithi nkillcallitclarissaexplainsitallandillmakepeoplereallylikehertot hepointofobsessionandthenwhenshesgotsuchahugethrongofragingfanst hatshedoesntknowwhattodowithshellhavetoretreatintoisolationlike GretaGarboandillpublicizeheraddressandshellgopermanentlyinsane andiwillruletheworld..."
Sam stopped listening and pulled himself out of his stupor.
"My god!" he exclaimed. Moving as fast as he could, Sam bent down over her and grabbed her by the shoulders, trying to hold her down as she jerked, spasmed and twitched.
"Elsie!" he yelled, panic filling his voice. "Elsie! What the heck happened to you?"
Elsie looked up at him, her pupils nothing more than quivering dots.
Looking to one side, Sam noted the empty Pixie Stix tube. To himself, he muttered, "No. Not the pop rocks."
Desperately, he shook Elsie. "Elsie! Elsie! Did you take anything else with these? Answer me kid, what did you take?"
Elsie grinned broadly and cackled.
Sam dropped her drooling and babbling form back down onto the carpet, noting the empty Surge bottle on the table.
"No, no, NO!" he yelled to no one in particular. "how could she be so dumb! Nobody mixes Pop Rocks and Soda!" He returned his gaze to the hyperactive girl on the floor. "Okay kid, we're getting you on your feet."
Picking her up in his arms, he began talking to her, more to calm himself down than for her benefit.
"Darn kid. Don't you know too much candy's bad for you? I can't believe I just said that. We're on our feet now, and now we're gonna walk out to Clarissa's car. Here we go!"
The red needle on the speedometer in Clarissa's car hovered over the number "100" effortlessly. The quivering needle jumped a little higher, revealing an brighter, unbleached portion of the speedometer gauge underneath, its nigh-constant presence at 100 having protected it from the harsh rays of the sun over time.
Sam was driving crazier than Clarissa ever had, speeding the car into turns and racing up hills like they were minor inclines. But even in the pit of his fear, he still had the capacity to admire the car's handling.
This car's doing over at a hundred, and it feels like it's barely doing fifty! Clarissa's really got this thing tuned up.
Elsie's mad babbling snapped Sam out of his daze.
"...killclarissasammakehersufferkillkillKILL!" Elsie shrieked from the backseat, her outstretched arms, pinpoint pupils, pale complexion, and windblown hair making her look more like a Banshee than a girl suffering from a super sugar rush. She cackled hysterically.
"Faster," Sam muttered to himself, "Must go faster." Keeping one hand on the wheel, his eyes darted back and forth with incredible speed, scanning the road, and his other hand was working the gearshift like a pro racer.
Finally, he got to a steep hill, released the gearshift, and pulled out his portable phone. Hitting the speed dial, he pressed the device to his ear while the car began roaring down the hill at an ever-increasing rate.
"Come on, Clarissa," he desperately prayed. "Pick up! Answer!"
The phone was busy.
"Damn!" Sam hit another number.
Sunk deep into his big comfy couch, Big K was watching TV and enjoying a small post-midnight snack with his stuffed bear.
"Ahh," Big K said, to no one in particular. "nothing beats watching Army of Darkness at One AM in the morning."
On TV, Ash, the main character, was holding a group of mediaeval peasants at bay with a sawed off shotgun.
"Shop Smart! ," Ash yelled to the terrified peasants. "Shop S-Mart! You got that?!"
As Big K laughed, the phone rang.
Scowling, he muted the TV and picked up the phone. "Do you know how late it is? You're not supposed to be callin' me this late!"
In the convertible, Sam pressed the phone closer to his ear. "Big K, this is Sam. I'm in big trouble, man! I'm on my way to your place."
Big K frowned. "Hold your horses, Anders. What's the problem?"
"You still got the flavored coffee? The stuff you drink if you're an insomniac? The stuff that calms you down?!"
Big K began to suspect what was going on, and he didn't like it one bit. "Maybe. That stuff's hard to get, man. You don't know what it's like dealing with the flavored coffee guy."
"I need it man, I got this girl with me, and she's hyper! "
Big K growled. He didn't need this. "Don't bring her here! I'm not jokin' with you, man! Don't you bring some messed up girl on a sugar kick to my house!"
"Hey!" Sam retorted. "Customer Support, man! You sell, you service!"
"She's really hyper?" K asked flatly, more as a formality than anything else.
"Yeah. She's goin' nuts. Her blood sugar's so high, I think she might go diabetic."
K shook his head vigorously. "No way, man. That's personal liability right there. Prime litigation material. Bite the bullet, take her to a hospital and call a lawyer! I'm sure Councilwoman Darling will go easy on you, considering she knows you so well." He laughed, his voice becoming a fairly good approximation of Mrs. Darling's. "Samuel, did you feed this girl an unauthorized sugary treat?" Sam couldn't see it over the phone, but he imagined Big K's eyebrow raising as he said that.
Sam's voice was calmly frantic, if such a thing was possible. "Negative. We all know Janet Darling favors jail time for the snack addicted. Besides--"
"--Look!" Big K snapped. "This girl of yours ain't my flippin' problem! You messed her up, you deal with it--"
Big K paused as he heard a truck's horn in the background and realized Sam was talking to him from a moving vehicle.
" Oh god, are you talkin' to me on a cellular phone?!"
Sam sighed. He knew how paranoid Big K was these days. "Sorry."
"I don't know you," Big K blubbered in a panic. "Who is this? I film music videos on my el cheapo vintage camera, don't have anything to do with snacks! NO! don't come here, I'm hangin' up, whoever you are."
"Too late," Sam stated definitively. "I'm already here."
Big K bit back his reply as he heard the unmistakable sound of a car roaring down the hill outside his house. The screech of brakes being pressed to their limit. Brake pads grinding into dust. Two tires blowing out. A skid out on some gravel. The sick crack of a mailbox going down. The death shriek of his garage door and the sound of metal crashing on wood. Then nothing. A car door opening, and falling off. Footfalls. A knock on the door.
Big K opened his door, livid. "Have you lost your mind?!" he yelled. "You crashed your car into the side of my house!"
"Actually," Sam corrected, "I crashed Clarissa's car into the side of your house."
"OH MY GOD!" K yelped. "You know how much that girl loves her car! She'll kill us both! No. no, that's too easy. She'll come up with some machiavellian plot to humiliate us and get her revenge! Dammit, Samuel, you've doomed us both! "
Sam sighed, shook his head and nodded to the girl in his arms. "Right now we've got a bigger problem on our hands! If you're through havin' your fit, this kid's goin' hyper! Get the coffee and get it now! "
"Are you deaf?" Big K asked, blocking the way into the house. "You're not bringin' that hyper kid in my house!"
Sam's eyes narrowed. "FYI, this hyper kid is Fergus Darling's girl. Now if he sees her in the middle of the biggest sugar rush since the Everlasting Gobstopper, I'm a grease spot. But before he takes me out, I'm gonna be forced to tell him about how you coulda calmed her down, but instead let her flip out on your front lawn."
"Get in," K muttered tersely, ushering Sam in, and locking the front door tight, triple-bolting it.
The next few minutes saw a madhouse of frantic activity. Anyone in the house could have mistaken it for the set of a low- budget medical documentary filmed on a shaky handlheld camera, with the only differences being the lack of sterile conditions and actual medical skill on display. There was a lot of running and yelling, with little else.
"Sam, kitchen, black box with the flavored coffee in it, stat!"
"Fast, like now! Yesterday!"
"That's the only coffee in the world that makes you sleepy. The flavoring acts like negative caffeine, making you go to sleep, as if you're reading the world's longest spam e-mail. But you gotta find the right one. If we use the wrong one, we'll make her more hyper than she already is. Then she'd be liable to explode."
"Yup. So get the coffee, and I'll get the recipe book!"
"What do you need a recipe book for?!"
"To tell me how to mix it. I've never made flavored coffee before?!"
"You mean you've had that box for six years and you never used it?!"
"I never had to use it! All my customers can take their sugar! Of course, most of them are programmers or webhead computer geeks!"
"Well then get the book!"
"I will, if you'll let me!"
"I'm not stoppin' you! You're talking to me!"
"Stop talkin' to me about talkin' to me, get the coffee an' start talkin' to her!"
"Hurry up man! I think she's going permanently insane!"
"I'm looking as fast as I can!"
"If the book's so important, why don't you keep it with the coffee?!"
"I don't know! Stop bothering me!"
"Get your butt in here, forget the book! !"
"Mix the coffee! !"
"While I'm doing this, try to get her to stop babbling. She can't drink the coffee if she's talkin'!"
"Does she have to be totally quiet?!"
"Heck, yeah! You ever tried drinking water and talkin' at the same time? What's the matter with you, you gone stupid?!"
"Sorry, bud. She's startin' to freak me out!"
"Coffee's almost ready, I'll tell you what to do. Quiet her down!"
"You quiet her down!"
"YOU quiet her down!"
"She SCARES me!"
"Tough! You brought 'er here, you deal with her. The day I bring a messed up sugar-filled girl to your place, then I'll quiet her down!"
"Fine. After we give her coffee, what happens after that?"
"...I'm curious about that myself."
"This ain't a joke man! !"
"She's supposed to doze off. Now QUIET HER DOWN!"
Finally, a semblance of calm descended over the room as Sam and Big K took deep breaths and hovered over the quivering form of Elsie Soaperstein.
"She's still talkin," Big K noted.
"...nowisthetimeofthegatheringtherecanbeonlyone." Elsie prattled.
"Elsie, shh," Sam whispered in his calmest tone of voice, which was quite a feat considering his agitated state. "Calm down, kid. C'mon, be quiet."
"Elsie!" Sam desperately hissed, unsure of how to get her to stop talking long enough to avoid choking on the coffee.
"Shut her up, kid! ," Big K growled. "If you don't shut her up now, we'll lose her!"
Desperate for ideas, Sam looked around the room, his eyes locking onto the TV, where "Army of Darkness" was still playing. On screen, Ash, the hero, was about to woo the fair maiden Sheila.
"Gimme some sugar, baby," Ash commanded as he took the girl into his arms and kissed her.
Sam raised an eyebrow and looked down at the rapidly moving mouth of Elsie. Without another moment's thought, he leaned down and kissed her for what seemed an eternity. When he pulled back, she was silent, mouth still wide open, lips puckering for another smooch.
"Now!" Sam barked. "Quick!"
Taking a funnel and sticking it in Elsie's mouth, Big K grinned and poured the flavored coffee down it. Then, pulling out the funnel, he and Sam looked at Elsie's momentarily tranquil form, searching her features for any sign of reaction.
Without warning, Elsie's eyes popped open, and she screamed out a hellish cry of tortured agony. Sitting bolt upright, she continued to scream like an enraged banshee.
Sam and Big K looked at each other in horror.
"Gotcha," Elsie declared with a smile, before dropping back to the ground, now peacefully asleep.
"Whew." Sam exhaled.
Big K sighed with relief. "She'll be out for hours. Might have some weird dreams, though. Should be fine in the morning."
"Thanks, man," Sam gratefully acknowledged. He and Big K collapsed for a moment on the floor, the stress of the night finally taking its toll on them.
Big K looked up at the ceiling, coming down from the adrenaline rush. For all the mayhem, he was actually feeling pretty darn good. "Hey, man," he sad to Sam, "You want some more of those Pop Rocks?"
Sam sat upright and looked down at Big K like he was nuts.
Big K grinned.
Clarissa's convertible, pulling to the right every few seconds, and dragging a muffler or two across the ground, slowly accelerated to a whopping 30 miles per hour as Sam began the agonizing drive back to Fergus Darling's house. While he worried about Clarissa's reaction to the state of her car, he was more worried about meeting an enraged Fergus Darling out on the front lawn.
Staring at the peaceful expression of Elsie, who was leaning on his shoulder fast asleep, he could only help but reflect on what Clarissa had said to him earlier in the day. She had been right, of course, but he'd had no choice in the matter. Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Turning the wheel, Sam heard another hubcap go flying off as he turned into the driveway of Fergus' house. The car lurched to a stop, its front bumper clattering to the ground and continuing for a few more feet before stopping. He groaned.
"C'mon, Elsie," Sam whispered slowly. "Time to get up."
"Uhh?" Elsie asked groggily, pulling herself up and stepping out of the car. Shakily, she bobbed and weaved towards the front door.
"Elsie!" Sam called out to her, getting out of the car and walking up to her.
Elsie turned around, her mind a dizzy fog. She regarded him quizzically.
"How're we gonna handle this?" he asked, ready to spring forward if she should start falling down.
"Whut's yur ideah?" Elsie slowly mumbled, regaining her composure a bit at a time.
"I think Fergus can live his whole life and never ever hear about this incident," Sam stated flatly, looking at her intently.
"Dun't wurry," Elsie slurred slightly, "If Fergus ever herd of dis-this-- I'd be in as much trubble --trouble-- as you."
"I seriously doubt that." Sam replied more to himself than to her.
"If you can keep a secret, so can I," Elsie stated, a bit more in control of herself.
"Let's shake on it," Sam uttered slowly.
The two of them walked towards each other, passing a piece of statuary. They shook hands firmly and sincerely.
"Mum's the word," Sam reminded her.
"Of course," Elsie agreed, kissing Sam lightly on the cheek.
"Loverboy." She walked to her front door and turned to face him again.
Sam suppressed a shudder, which was surprisingly light in any case.
"You saved me," Elsie declared. "So I'll save you. As of tomorrow, you'll be free from Ferguson forever."
Sam smiled broadly for the first time in what seemed like forever. "Gee, thanks, Elsie. Now, if you'll excuse me, I gotta go home and have a heart attack."
Giggling, Elsie watched Sam turn and head for the crumpled mass of dented red metal which was Clarissa Darling's prize red Malibu convertible. "See ya 'round, Sammy," she whispered under her breath as the Malibu backfired once, its engine wheezing for a solid ten seconds, finally spluttering to life. She smiled weakly as it drove off into the night.
Holding his sword up to the sky, his eyes a narrow mask of raw determination, Thundercat leader Lion-O summoned all of his strength and called out to the heavens, "Thundercats! Thundercats! Thundercats HO!"
"What, Dad?" Eight year old Sam Anders asked, annoyed. This was the best part of the whole show, right here. It was just like his dad to cut in at the best part.
That's weird. His dad hadn't repeated himself as was his usual habit. And he sounded pretty sad, too.
Turning away from the TV, Sam looked up and saw his dad standing in the doorway leading out of the living room and into the kitchen. He also saw his mom standing there, dressed in a cool looking outfit that looked like the ones rollerbladers wore on TV.
"Sam," his dad began slowly, "stop watching TV a second. Your mother has something she wants to tell you."
"Uh-huh," Sam replied slowly, subconsciously sensing something wrong.
"You know I told you that your Mother and I were thinking of. getting divorced?" Arnie Anders coughed nervously. "Well, today we went to the courthouse, and uhh. made it official."
"No." Sam felt events turning around him as if he was in a dream. Dimly, he noted his mom walking towards him.
Dropping down to one knee, Debbie Anders brought her self down to eye level with her son, reaching out and putting one gloved hand on his shoulder.
"Hello, little man. Boy, I sure wish I knew what to say right now."
Sam felt his mouth go dry. "Mom, why are you dressed like that?"
"Son, you know I joined the roller derby a few weeks ago."
"And that's what you wear?" He looked over at her outfit. "You look kinda like a super hero."
"They call me "Dangerous Debbie" now, his mom said with a smile.
"I like it." The little boy smiled weakly.
His mom nodded. "I finally feel like I found a place where I belong, y'know?"
"Just not here with me," Sam uttered bitterly.
"No, son," Debbie exaled soothingly. "There's nothing I'd
like more than to be with you. But your dad and I, well, we don't get along all that well."
"I always thought you guys'd work it out." Sam whispered to himself.
"Maybe one day," Debbie stated firmly. "But right now, I need some time to myself."
"That seems to be all I have these days," Sam muttered.
"I know it's rough on you, Sam." Debbie replied, nodding. "No kid should have this happen to him. But sometimes grownups fight, and when they do-"
"--They quit on each other and one of them runs off!" Sam half-yelled angrily.
"--I know it hurts-"
"--Forget it. You don't care!"
Hearing that, Sam's dad cut in. "Sam, don't say that about your mother. Of course she cares!"
Sam looked at his dad askance. "I don't get it. You divorce her, but you're still sticking up for her? Don't you hate her?"
Arnie Anders sighed, and shared a meaningful glance with Debbie. "Sam, people don't always get divorced because they hate one another. Sometimes they just can't get along. Like you and that girl next door."
"Huh?" Sam asked. "Oh, Clarissa? She's a tomboy, that's all. A stubborn, uncute tomboy."
Debbie shrugged. "But she likes the same things you do. Cars, video games, pizza."
"That's not the point!" Sam protested. "She's a girl! She can't be my friend. that would be weird!"
"But suppose you didn't know she was a girl, like on those sitcoms on TV," Debbie hypothesized, "and you became friends. What would happen later, when you did find out? Would you still be friends?"
Sam thought about it for a moment. "I guess, but I don't think we'd hang out after that. It would just be too messed up."
Debbie nodded. "Well, your father and I sort of are in the same situation."
Sam narrowed his eyes and looked at his mom curiously. "He didn't know you were a girl?"
Arnie slapped his forehead. "Deb, you're confusing the boy."
Debbie turned to look at her husband. "Shut up, Arnold."
She turned back to her son. "Sam, what I mean is, when your father and I met, we thought things would work out one way. but they didn't. So we have to go our own ways for now. Or things would just get worse."
"I think I understand," Sam replied uncertainly.
"You will, someday," Debbie predicted. She smiled warmly. "I got somethin' for ya." She pulled out a small chain with a golden rollerblade charm attached to it. It glinted in the light.
"This chain I got here was a `welcome to the pack' gift from Maggie the Mauler, baddest and best of all female Roller Derby champions ever. She got it when she permanently crippled her teacher, Brenda Backbreaker, who got it when she decapitated her teacher, Cynthia Spinecracker."
Debbie said the last name with an air of awe. "It's my good luck charm. After I got it, I won my first competition."
"You won a Roller Derby?" Sam asked, impressed. "Wow!"
"Oh," Arnie interjected, "she's had a lot of practice knocking people out of her way and pushing for what she wants." He smirked.
"Heh," Debbie exhaled. "Well, son, this Roller blade here has a lotta history behind it. And now, I want you to have it. As a guarantee on a promise."
"A promise?" Sam asked quizzically.
"That one day, when I hang up the skates for good, I'll come back for ya." Debbie held out the chain.
Slowly, Sam reached out and wrapped his hand around the chain, feeling the charm's cool metallic shape in his warm palm.
"I'll keep it forever," Sam whispered quietly.
Releasing the chain, Debbie stood up. Looking down at her son with a sad smile, she turned and brushed past her ex-husband, leaving her house for what was quite possibly the last time.
Sam sat on his front porch, watching his mom's car drive off into the distance. Holding up the chain, he watched it reflect the light of the afternoon sun. Mentally, he made note of every tiny pit, every scratch, every sign of wear on the rollerblade charm. He could feel the palpable sense of history behind it, even if he was a little too young to fully understand what he was sensing. And in its reflective surface he saw a promise. A promise that he knew would someday come true.
"Neat chain," said a voice from his right, snapping Sam out of his reverie.
"Huh?" Sam asked, momentarily confused. Turning, he saw the girl from next door, Clarissa, clad as usual in wildly mismatching clothes which somehow still managed to seem coordinated in a bizarre sort of way.
"Oh. Thanks," he slowly replied, not really meaning it. For once, he wanted the tranquility of the moment to be restored.
Conversation just seemed wrong, somehow.
"You look kinda down," Clarissa observed. Her tone of voice indicated that the words were coming with effort.
"Yeah, well, so what?" Sam retorted a bit more sharply than he had intended. He went back to gazing at his chain.
"Nothing," Clarissa replied quickly, sounding simultaneously embarrassed and offended. She realized that she didn't like the feeling.
Sam was too wrapped up in his misery to notice her looking across the yard to her parents, who were staring at her, nodding, and making exaggerated gestures.
Clarissa sighed. This was difficult enough, but they were gonna blow the whole thing if he saw them acting like hyperactive chimpanzees. She shot them a warning glance, and they calmed down slightly.
Clarissa didn't have anything against the kid, and yeah, what they'd told her about what just happened between his folks was rough, but she didn't need anyone telling her to make friends with someone else. It felt too much like a chore. Besides, she doubted this boy could have anything interesting to say for himself.
Boys, she observed, were generally too busy beating each other up or attacking small animals to actually do things of value. Still, they got to play with cars, and video games, and toy monsters and chemistry sets. That was much better than playing with some dinky old Barbie or Cynthia doll. At the very least, she speculated, he might have some cool toys she could play with. And he did look pretty sad. Not to mention lonely, which had to be rough.
"Uhm. ," she started, trying to choose her next words carefully, "I just got this new video game for my 2600, and was wondering if you'd like to come play it with me. It's one of those two-player things."
"Don't you have a brother?" Sam asked disinterestedly. "Fredrickson, or something?"
Clarissa frowned. "Ferguson's too busy playing with his stupid coin collection to care about Donkey Kong Jr."
Sam's face lit up for a moment, and for an instant, he stopped looking at the rollerblade charm. "Donkey Kong Junior? Wow! That's the best game out there!"
He likes Donkey Kong, Clarissa thought. Not too shabby.
"Well, if you wanna play-" she offered, a bit more enthusiastically.
"Maybe later," Sam spat out almost guiltily, as he returned his gaze to the rollerblade.
"OBKB," Clarissa replied rapidly, her voice sounding more than a tad hurt. She turned around and quickly walked back to her house, brusquely bypassing her questioning parents and going inside.
Later that night, Sam still sat quietly on his porch, watching the reflection of moonlight against the rollerblade charm. His dad had come out a few times to see if he was OK, but had finally decided just to leave the boy alone.
Looking up and to the side of the Darling house next door, Sam noticed the silhouette of a girl in the second story window. She was hunched over, obviously trying to play some video game. But the lazy way in which she held the joystick told Sam immediately that her heart wasn't really in it.
Sam sighed. It might be fun to play a video game. Heck, it might be fun to have a friend, even if it was a girl. Clarissa didn't seem as prissy or, well, girly as the other girls. She actually liked stuff that was important, like video games, monster movies, cars, planes and sloppy ten-topping pizza, not worthless stuff like jumping rope or jacks, or Cynthia dolls.
If he had to be friends with a girl,Sam noted with a shudder, might as well be friends with her. There just weren't any other kids around who were willing to talk with him without beating him up and taking his lunch money first. And even then it was only to tell him to bring more money the next day.
Walking over to the front of the Darling house, Sam paused, hearing loud words through the front door. Peering through the front window, Sam saw Clarissa's parents lecturing the short red- headed kid he recognized as her brother Fowlerman, waving some really old-looking coins around and sounding cross.
Sam walked away from the door, figuring this was a bad time to just show up. But he really did want to play that video game.
Tripping on a garden hose, Sam pushed himself up off the ground, and spied a long, aluminum ladder down along the side of the house.
Looking up, he gauged the height of Clarissa's window. The ladder could get up there. And this way he wouldn't bother her parents.
Lifting up the ladder with some effort, Sam staggered back for a moment as it threatened to crash backwards and carry him with it. Gaining control, he pushed it forwards, setting it against the side of the house.
Climbing slowly, Sam wondered how he would introduce himself. It's just like climbing up to your treehouse, Sam convinced himself. Except this time, it's someone else's treehouse.
In her room, Clarissa jumped as she heard a knock at her window. On her TV screen, Mario had just been slammed in the face by a rolling barrel, a victim of Clarissa's distraction.
"Nuts," she remarked to herself, then noticed the source of the knocking at the window.
"Holy cow," she said to no one in particular. "It's that kid! What's he doing out there?"
Going over to her window, Clarissa opened it. "Hi," Sam introduced himself with uncertainty. "I uhh, was wondering if you were still up for that game."
"I suppose," Clarissa replied non-committally. "You're name's Sam, right?"
"Yup," Sam confirmed. "Sam Anders."
"Heck of an entrance, Sam," Clarissa acknowledged, looking at the ladder and nodding to herself. "Kinda cool."
"Really?" Sam asked in shock. Grinning, he recovered. "Uhh, yeah. It's the only way to enter a room."
Clarissa helped Sam step in the window, and within a few minutes, they were busily playing Donkey Kong Junior. A new friendship was born.
Waking up with a start, Sam wiped the sweat off his brow and tried to remember where he was. Looking around, he saw the battered interior of Clarissa's convertible. Eyes fixing on an old picture of himself and Clarissa as kids which had been taped to the dash, he exhaled slowly, wiping some debris from the shoulder of his black suit jacket. Amazed that he hadn't crashed into anything, he continued the long drive home.
In one of the dark recesses of Ferguson's juice bar, Eliot Fundsworth sat, a small videotape in hand, nervously fidgeting with his suit and tie. In yet another dark recess, Clarissa Darling stood, quietly observing the boy. Her bug on Ferguson's phone had paid off big time. Something was going on, and it involved Sam somehow. The conversation, as usual, had been in some kind of wacked out code, but it involved some kind of Kiss of Death, as far as she could figure.
Well, Clarissa wasn't about to let her brother put the kiss of death on anyone, let alone her best friend Sam.
Now Elsie Soaperstein is walking in, she noted. I knew that girl was trouble. Whoa. She looks like a truck ran over her.
Fergus walked in as well, giving Elsie a strange look. He turned to Eliot. "You have it?"
"Proof absolute, Mr. Fergus, sir."
Proof of what? Clarissa mused. "The camera in the statuary caught the whole thing," Eliot continued.
Caught what? Clarissa's mind yelled.
Elsie Soaperstein swallowed. She hadn't thought Ferguson would have been this devious.
On a small TV screen, a grainy black and green night vision scene played out.
SAM: Mum's the word.
ELSIE: Of course. (she kisses him lightly on the cheek) Loverboy.
ELSIE: You saved me. So I'll save you. As of tommorrow, you'll be free from Ferguson forever.
Irately, Ferguson shut off the television. "So, he takes out my girl and then turns her against me. Now he pays."
Sam, Clarissa thought in horror. What the heck have you gotten yourself into? What the hell were you thinking?
Snapping his fingers, Ferguson was immediately surrounded by a host of toadying sycophants, one of whom began to instinctively lick his boots.
When Ferguson spoke, it was with an aura of anger and raw determination Clarissa had never seen in him before. He actually seemed hurt by what he had seen on the tape. Not just on a professional "I've been betrayed" level, but on a personal "I've been betrayed" level.
"Boys," he began, "I'm prepared to scour the earth for that scumsucker. If Sam goes to Indo China, I want an thug hidin' in a bowl of rice, waitin' to cap his sorry--"
"--assure yourself that I will take care of it," Eliot interrupted quickly.
"Fergie," Elsie began bravely, "if you do this, I'll leave you! You won't have anyone to run your gang!"
Ferguson laughed darkly and looked his girl in the eye. "Really, my dear. How stupid do you think I am?"
Very, Clarissa and Elsie thought simultaneously. "I was just using your ability to instil fear in my minions to give me the necessary capital to fund adequate legal representation for my burgeoning criminal enterprise. Now that I can afford both Johnny Cochrane and Bruce Cotler-"
"The men who got off OJ and John Gotti?" Elsie asked in fear.
"Exactly," Ferguson exclaimed proudly. "With them in my corner, I'm untouchable! Invincible! I can do anything I want!"
"No!" Elsie shrieked in horror.
"Yes!" Ferguson countered, his eyes lighting up. "I AM THE ONE!" He cackled maniacally. "And you, my dear, are quite unnecessary."
"You," Elsie spluttered in disbelief, "you used me-used me!"
"Exactly," Ferguson laughed, watching as Elsie's fists shook in impotent rage.
"What a man," Elsie exhaled, smitten again with the love of her life. Rising, she hugged Ferguson tightly.
"Exactly," Ferguson commanded suavely, grinning and pulling away slowly. "Stay here, my sweet. I shall get us lunch from MacDrekky's."
Smiling, Ferguson twirled a little golden chain in his hand as he walked off, also carrying his black briefcase.
"I'll be waiting for you," Elsie breathily replied.
Clarissa suppressed her natural urge to barf and bolted as quickly as she could. She had to reach Sam before Ferguson or his goons did.
"Oh, that noise?" Sam yelled into his portable phone as one of the convertible's fenders broke off and clattered down the road, "that's nothing, Clarissa."
"I dunno," she insisted on the other side of the line. "I have this bad feeling you're not telling me something."
"Uhh, we'll talk about that later," Sam replied hastily.
"Thanks for the heads up. I'm already in a car, so I'll head outta town for a few days. He won't find me. Don't worry."
Sam paused as he heard some loud yelling through the phone.
"You'll get the car back! More or less," he muttered.
"What? I didn't mean anything by it! Look-" Sam began shaking the phone, and holding it alternately closer and further away from his mouth, "I'm getting interference. I'll have to call you back." He snapped the phone shut.
Ramming his foot on the accelerator, Sam jumped as the rear suspension on the car failed, causing it to drag on the ground.
"Marvelous," Sam muttered in disgust. His eyes drifted back to the picture of him and Clarissa on the dash. Around his neck, he spied the little golden rollerblade charm.
Reaching for it unconsciously, Sam realized with a start that it wasn't there.
"Damn!" he exclaimed, realizing that he'd left it at Ferguson's Juice Bar earlier in the day.
Pulling the emergency brake and jerking the car to the right, Sam pulled a tight U-turn, noticing only dimly as the front radiator grill of the car ejected into oncoming traffic. Releasing the brake, he floored the accelerator, heading for the bar at 25 screaming miles per hour.
As he drove, a little voice in the back of his head started squawking.
"What am I doin'?," Sam asked himself. "Have I taken one too many hits to the head?That's gotta be it. Brain damage is the only excuse for this dumb a move. Stop the car, Sam."
Ignoring his own advice, Sam kept driving.
"Stop the car, Sam."
"Sam, I'm talkin' to you. Put-your-foot-on-the-brake!" Sam slammed the brake as hard as he can, jerking the convertible to a rapid stop. The rear fenders dropped off in protest.
Oblivious to the traffic, Sam continued to mutter to himself. "I ain't gonna do this. Mom would understand. If she was here right now, she'd say, "Sam, get a grip. It's a chain, son. You lose one, ya get another. This is your life you're messin with, which you shouldn't be doin', 'cause you only got one."
Sam frowned. "No. This is my war. This chain isn't just a dinky little keepsake from a gumball machine. It's a symbol. It's a symbol of my mom, and her faith in me. And when I took Ferguson's hair gel, I started a war. A war for my dignity and self-respect. This is my World War Two. Fergus' bar... that's Normandy, and this is D-Day. And using that perspective, going back for it isn't stupid. It may be dangerous, but it's not stupid. Because there are certain things in this world that are worth going back for."
Flooring the accelerator, Sam rammed the car back into traffic, leaving only the exhaust pipe behind.
A few minutes later, Sam found himself across the street from the juice bar. Everything seemed normal, with more or less the right number of cars in the street outside. None of the parked cars looked out of place, or like they could have had couple of goons sitting inside. Just normal early morning activity.
Idling the struggling motor, Sam waited nervously at a stoplight. His plan was to park about a block down and infiltrate the bar on foot. Glancing sideways, he noted the Green-and-Gold MacDrekky's restaurant just across from him. Geez, Sam thought. He was hungry. Just like that short redheaded guy crossing in front of the car carrying a ton of burgers, shakes and fries. That short redheaded guy who just happened to be Fergus W. Darling!
"Keep movin'" Sam muttered under his breath. "Don't look my way, Fergus."
What a piece o' crap car, Ferguson thought to himself. Looks like the one I gave sis, but like it went through a thermonuclear war or something.
Suddenly, Ferguson realized that was the car he'd given his sister. And she hadn't paid it off yet! In this condition, his planned repossession would be worthless! Stopping and looking up to chastise Clarissa, Ferguson saw instead--
"Mother--" he spluttered in venomous rage.
"-For cryin' out loud!" Sam exclaimed, in a full panic. Instinctively, his foot hit the gas pedal, and the car lurched forward at its new top speed of fifteen miles an hour. Ferguson, his food, briefcase and drinks all hit the pavement.
Sam didn't have time to celebrate his triumph, however. By hitting Ferguson, he'd moved into the oncoming lane, and his car was right in the sights of a shiny Camaro Z-28, which promptly broadsided him, mangling the undamaged side of the convertible and sending it crashing onto the sidewalk.
Dazed, Sam managed to crawl out of the car just before it exploded in a firey supernova of gasoline, shine protectant and caranuba wax.
"Clarissa's gonna kill me," Sam muttered, collapsing onto the pavement.
Elsewhere in the street, other pedestrians were gathering around Ferguson's still body.
"He's dead!" one of them yelled. "He's dead! "
Ferguson moved slowly, awakened by the noise.
"He's alive!" the same guy yelled. "He's alive! "
"If you need a witness in court, I'll be glad to help. He was a drunken maniac. He hit you and crashed into that car," another person offered helpfully.
"Who?" Ferguson asked incoherently, struggling to focus.
"Him!" The pedestrian replied, pointing to Sam's inert form.
"YOU!" Ferguson yelled in anger, staggering to his feet, rage sharpening his senses.
"You tried to steal my girl!"
"Eh?" Sam muttered, seeing three dazed Fergusons coming right for him, stopping for only a second to pick up their three black briefcases. "Oh, man," he burbled. "He's got clones now."
Clarissa, who had heard the commotion from her position outside of the juice bar, ran up to Sam and checked his pulse. It was weak, but steady.
"What happened, Sam?" she asked, a note of panic in her voice. Looking at the firey remains of her car, her heart stopped. "Sam? What happened here! ?"
Hearing some incoherent screams, she turned to see Ferguson running/limping towards her, proclaiming bloody murder. She gritted her teeth. "Ferguson did this to you, didn't he? Blew up the car and left you for dead-- didn't he?!"
"Fergus," Sam corrected reflexively before passing out.
Sometimes there comes a battle so vicious and so terrible that you have to use every weapon imaginable. Some would say that describes the relationship Ferguson and I have had for the past fourteen years.
In the old days, when I used to fight Ferguson, it was just to teach him a lesson. After all, if as his older sister I can't set him straight, imagine the incredible damage he could do.
That's what I used to think. But now he's gone totally over the edge. He wants to hurt Sam! I can't just sit back and watch it happen!
This time, I can't just fight Fergwad-- I have to stop him. For good. After all, if I don't, who will? It's a dirty, thankless job, but someone's got to do it-- right?
Rolling up her sleeve, Clarissa got ready for the fight of her life. "That's it," she declared to herself. "This kingpin thing's gone too far! A little blackmail here and there is understandable, but he tried to kill Sam! My best friend! And for that, Ferguson Darling DIES!"
Running forward, she tackled Ferguson, and they went down in a heap, rolling back and forth as they fought, the briefcase flying out of her brother's hand and tumbling to a stop near the closed door of a food store.
"This has nothing to do with you!" Ferguson hissed angrily. "You can't stop me! Na Na!" He stuck out his tongue.
"O Brother," Clarissa scowled. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"This is what `Na Na' Means!" Ferguson yelled, hurling his fist forward. "I am the stronger! When I'm through with you, the city government's gonna be Wishing for Rain, because they'll need it to wash your blood off the streets!"
Clarissa dodged the fist. "Oh yeah?" She grabbed a piece of sharp debris from the street and slashed at her brother.
"Whoa!" Ferguson yelled. "PEACE!"
As Clarissa lowered her guard slightly, Ferguson kicked her in the stomach.
Watching her crumple, he smiled, raising one foot off the ground. The steel tip of his black leather shoe glinted in the early morning light. "Of all the things I want," he began, "I Want a Car, right now. so I can RUN YOU OVER WITH IT!"
Clarissa spun out of the way as Ferguson brought his foot down hard, barely missing her face.
"You'd better get used to walkin'", Clarissa chirped, springing to her feet, "because after I'm through with you, "you'll be Walkin' in the Cemetery!"
"Au contraire, sis," Ferguson countered coolly. "You, not I, will be pushing up a Dandelion when this encounter is concluded."
"I've had it with you messing with my friends!" Clarissa yelled. "You've gone too far! I made you, and I'm gonna un-make you!" She lunged at him.
"You made me?" Ferguson asked incredulously. "HAH! Even in my youth I was your intellectual better! You know for a fact my IQ is a good twenty points higher than yours!" He dodged and used his foot to kick backwards, pushing his sister down onto the ground.
"There's what you think you know, and then what you know," Clarissa shot back with a wicked mulekick that sent Ferguson staggering.
"I'm sick of you thinking you're better than me!" Ferguson wheezed, limping out of range. "That you know what's right and what's wrong! You left! Abdicated! I'm in charge now, as is my birthright!"
Turning around to face his sister again, Ferguson scowled. Her audacity was insufferable. To not only meddle in his business, but to claim that she made him?! That was the last straw. Ferguson Darling was a SELF MADE MAN!
Clarissa looked at her brother in shock. In the old days, he would have given up-turned tail and run. But there he was, huffing and puffing, battered and bruised, and coming back for more. He had changed.
"You're an obnoxious twerp," she spat out, "who's too big for his britches and needs to be put back into his place! If I hadn't set a bad example for you-
"Example?" Ferguson spat on the ground. "You set no example! I spent my life trying to get away from you! You, who had everything easy in life! Everyone liked you, gave you things! You made friends just by showing up somewhere! You got all the breaks!"
"So?" Clarissa protested, countering "You spent all your time cheating people! That's no way to get liked! And it's my fault, `cuz I showed you how to manipulate others!" She squinted. "And now I have to fix that mistake once and for all." She began advancing towards her brother.
Ferguson nodded grimly. "I see the cause of your confusion, sis. You think you taught me to manipulate? HAH! Every kid on the planet knows how to do that. It's as natural as breathing."
Clarissa paused for a moment. What the toad was saying made sense.
"But like any trait, people have it to a lesser, or as in my case," Ferguson continued, "greater degree. Everyone can sit down at a piano, but few can play. And I am a virtuoso."
"What're you saying, Ferg-Wad?" Clarissa asked dangerously.
"What you did for convenience, I did for survival. No one noticed me unless I was using them in some way. And every time you ratted me out, shot me down, kept me down, held me down, you made me all the more desperate, all the more eager to refine my technique, so I could win the next time. And your leaving left the Wolf in charge of the lambs."
Ferguson sighed. "So I guess you did make me-but not in the way you thought." He smiled. "Who knows what I could have been without your oppressive influence?"
"I don't know," Clarissa declared, cracking her knuckles. "But what you are is sick, twisted, evil, and about to be put on ice. permanently."
And so the fight resumed, an echo of the ones the two siblings had had in the past, but with an air of grim finality to it all. One Way or Another, it was going to end today.
Rolling on the ground, the two rose up just long enough to smash through a glass door, pushing the briefcase in with them and landing on the floor of a health food store called "Darling's Dietary Delectables".
By now, a local news crew had arrived on scene to film the car wreck, also managing to catch a group of men in white coats picking up Sam, and placing him into the back of their truck.
"He's definitely nuts," one of the doctors chimed in. "He keeps insisting that he goes to an all-girls' college. We need to get him off the street and into a nice, safe, comfy hospital bed."
"Wait!" Sam yelled futilely. "Come on, I'm telling you, it's true! I go to Bibbington! BIBBINGTON!"
As the truck drove away, the last thing the news camera picked up was a soft "I shoulda quit while I was ahead."
The interior of the health food store was a shattered mess. Broken glass, shards of wooden table legs and cracked dishes lined the savage arena that was the last battlefield of the Darling siblings.
On the ground, Ferguson was trapped, legs pinned by a fallen table. He spat as his sister hovered over him, a chair in her hands. The look on her face was one of pure contempt, and her arms were quivering as she prepared to bring down the final blow in their life-long battle.
"I shoulda done this a long time ago," she huffed, ehausted.
"Do it!" Ferguson yelled. "Put me out of my misery! Anything's better than having to play second fiddle to you for the rest of my natural life!"
Clarissa paused mentally, pity for her brother's situation finally registering through the fog of war. But her instincts were still on full attack mode, and before she realized it, her hands were bringing the chair down at full speed-
"CLARISSA MARIE DARLING! FERGUSON WILLIAMSON DARLING! STOP RIGHT THIS INSTANT!"
Clarissa felt the chair stop in midfall, arrested by the iron grip of none other than a livid Janet Darling.
"Oh no," Ferguson exhaled weakly. "We just trashed Mom's store."
Clarissa meekly helped her brother up, both kids withering under their mother's gaze.
Frowning, Janet grabbed them by their ears and pulled them into the back of the store.
"Funny, mom..." Ferguson began, a tinge of curiosity in his voice, his form obscured in the darkness of the back room, "I've never seen this part of the store before. What's that trap door for? OW!"
Panicking, Clarissa found herself being pulled down some rickety makeshift stairs. She'd never been in the store before, and had no idea if this basement was supposed to be there. Ferguson's terrified voice, however, indicated that it probably wasn't.
"Mom," Clarissa began carefully. She knew the pressures of politics had done things to her Mother's sensitive mind. "What's going on?"
"Don't fret, either of you," Jane scolded, a dark edge to her voice. "You'll just take all the fun out of it."
As Janet pulled a chain, lighting up the tiny basement, Clarissa and Ferguson looked at each other worriedly, their faces alternately lighted and cast into shadow by the swinging bulb.
Pulling the cell phone from her daughter's jacket pocket, Janet dialed a few numbers and placed it to the side of her face.
"Marshall? The spider just caught a coupl'a flies."
Clarissa and Ferguson stared at each other helplessly, mutual anger having long since given way to fear. They were both seated in chairs, with their hands tied to their backs. In front of them were two small TV trays, each complete with a covered dish.
"Mom," Clarissa slowly began, "don't you think this is a little extreme?"
"Don't talk back to me, young lady!" Janet snapped. "If you hadn't left for college your brother here wouldn't have become such a vile delinquent! Giving candy to small babies and thumbing his nose at my health food ordinances!"
Ferguson went paler than usual and tried to avoid his mother's gaze.
"Umm, mom," Clarissa continued, "nobody likes health food."
At both Ferguson and Janet's shocked expressions, Clarissa shrugged. "Well, it was about time somebody said it!"
"Shut up, sis!" Ferguson whispered. "You have no idea what she's become since you've been away! The power's gone to her head!"
"I always knew your megalomania had to come from somewhere in our gene pool," Clarissa retorted.
"Well, you two will learn to love health food," Janet declared darkly. "I won't have my own children serving as a counter example. It won't do! Especially since my 'Tofu for Tots' Public Service Announcement airs in a few days. Excuse me."
Turning abruptly, Janet marched up the rickety wooden stairs and into the back of the store, brushing past some red curtains and off into the front. The sound of her letting someone into the store could be heard.
Unobserved for the moment, Clarissa and Ferguson looked around the room, frantically trying to see any means of escape. They looked at each other, filled with terror at what they'd gotten themselves into.
Creak. Creak. Creak. Janet and Marshall came slowly down the stairs. Clarissa gasped as she saw her father's appearance. She'd heard rumors, but, still-
His appearance was hideous. Pale and emaciated, he was a shell of his former self. And, while she couldn't be sure, Clarissa could swear that there was a greenish tint to his complexion.
"You never told me things were this bad at home, Ferguson!" she whispered angrily to her brother.
"Of course not!", Ferguson replied staunchly. "Dad was always the one who suspected my plans. Having him eaten into submission by mother served my plans perfectly!"
"Don't you ever think of anything outside of your stupid plans?!"
Ferguson looked at her with a mixture of sadness and apathy. "For me, there is nothing but the plans."
Janet smiled as she watched her two bickering sprouts, err, children. "Marshall, bring out the first course, will you, dear?"
"Yes, dear," Marshall exhaled in a weak monotone. Lifting the cover off one of the dishes on the TV trays, he uncovered the most foul looking piece of culinary drek ever created by man or beast. The lumpy orange-green mass smelled to high heaven.
"Now," Janet began slowly. "Who'll be the first to die... et?"
Clarissa and Ferguson stayed rock still, neither wanting to volunteer.
With her little finger, Janet began doing a silent "Eenie, meenie, miney, moe..." routine, with just her mouth mouthing the words and her finger going back and forth between the two.
Clarissa and Ferguson waited in terror.
Marshall simply stood there, immobile.
Janet continued her silent sing-song finger gig.
Then it stopped.
The finger was on...
"Mom, wait!" Ferguson yelled.
"What is it, dear?" Janet asked sweetly, making ready with a bib.
"If you let me go upstairs," Ferguson responded quickly, "I can use the phone to call in a camera crew, to let them film this! That way the world will know that you've finally gotten your kids to eat that shi- --uhh, shining example of culinary perfection you call food!"
Janet raised an eyebrow and wagged a finger at her son. "Are you sure this isn't a trick of yours? You're not trying to escape, are you?"
"Of course not, mother," Ferguson replied smoothly. "I've learned my lesson."
Janet smiled, satisfied. "Very well, dear."
She untied Ferguson, who smirked at his sister. "She always believes me," he whispered to her. "See you later. Have a good meal!"
"Traitor!" Clarissa hissed. "Get back there!"
Ferguson waved at her dismissively.
"One day, I'll get you for--" Clarissa was silenced as Marshall mechanically slammed a fistful of `food' into her mouth. Shocked and in pain, she locked gazes with Ferguson, glaring at him as he disappeared up the stairs.
In the back of the store, Ferguson paused for a moment, rubbing his hands together. "All too easy," he said to himself. Walking forward, he froze for a moment as he heard his mother's voice.
"That's it... that's it dear, you're doing fine. Oooooooh, just like that... that's good. Eat. EAT!"
Ferguson sighed in relief. He had feared for one terrible moment that his mother had caught on and was calling him back. Moving again, he paused as he heard a hideous sound.
Terrible, weeping sobs that were coming from his sister as spoonful after spoonful of caustic tofu was shoved in her mouth.
Shaking his head, Ferguson kept going, his path illuminated by the eerie red light from his mangled red briefcase which was lying by the door. But with every mumble of defiance from his sister, he slowed down.
Sure, he'd imagined forms of torture that would reduce his sister to tears. Yes, he'd wanted to see her defeated, humiliated, brought low. But now that it had finally happened, that her lowest moment had finally arrived-- Ferguson realized that he didn't relish it. In fact, he hated what he was hearing.
Steeling himself, Ferguson marched forwards. Standing before the front door, the exit from the store, his hand reached for the handle--
--of a fire extinguisher that was mounted on the wall.
Ferguson smiled grimly to himself. He knew what he had to do. Reading the tag, his mind rapidly processed the text and collated the instructions. There were some benefits to being a hyperintelligent schemer. You didn't need to read anything twice.
Kicking his now empty, useless black briefcase aside, Ferguson got to work, a man renewed.
Quietly, he snuck into the back of the store and down the creaky wooden stairs, the pathetic whimpers of his sister assaulting his ears like the sound of cannon shot.
He paused for a moment as he caught sight of his sister, who looked miserable and tired, like a limp rag doll wearing a bib. Bits of foul-smelling tofu goop dripped from the corner of her mouth, and there was food spilt everywhere-she had put up quite a fight.
Clarissa stated numbly forward, her eyes filled with water from the hideous smell of her mother's "food". It was more like some kind of biochemical weapon. Still, there was nothing she could do to stop the spoon that was heading for her mouth.
"Open the hangar," Janet cooed. "Here comes the airplane."
Clarissa was about to squeeze her eyes shut when she saw something that gave her pause. A hallucination. No. No way.
Ferguson, her half-wit, traitorous smeghead of a brother. was wielding a big red fire extinguisher, and creeping up on mom. He'd come back. He'd come back!
"Mother, dearest." Ferguson acknowledged her using his most ingratiating, and yet, dangerous tone.
Janet turned, her eyes widening in shock as her brain registered the presence of the fire extinguisher.
"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO", she bellowed in slow motion, raising her hands in a defensive motion as a loud whooshing sound filled the room.
As a spray of high-velocity white foam flew towards her, Janet rushed foward, still in slow motion, trying to thrust her spoonful of fetid tofu forward. The foam hit its mark, pushing Janet out of the way and temporarily disorienting her.
Time returned to normal as dropping the extinguisher and sliding forward on the foam, Ferguson swung around Clarissa's chair, bending down and undoing her bonds as fast as he could.
Pulling frantically, Clarissa scrambled out of the chair just as Janet lunged blindly towards her with a spoonful of foam- covered tofu. Ferguson grabbed the extinguisher and opened up again, giving his sister time to get clear and up the stairs.
Bravely, Ferguson stood alone, his back to the stairs, which were about a yard away. Janet, looking angry and betrayed, her face still mostly covered with fire extinguisher foam, advanced slowly forward, her belt now looped around her hand.
Instinctively, Ferguson squeezed on the fire extinguisher trigger. A drizzle of foam shot out, then nothing. The foam was finished. And so was he.
"Step aside, Ferguson." The voice was his sister's. Firm, and in control.
Stepping aside, Ferguson revealed his sister, and the news crew which had been outside filming Sam's "accident."
"And here we see," Clarissa began in her best news reporter tone, "live and direct on Network 23, Evanston Councilwoman Janet Darling, about to attack her own son in retaliation for defying universally reviled anti-snack food ordinance 132-1995A." She smiled grimly and stepped aside, allowing the real news reporter to take over.
Janet, for her part, stared at her children in shock, then numbly sat down in the midst of the fire extinguisher foam-- mute and repentant.
Ferguson, who was shaking in fear, stepped back and stood closer to his sister, saying nothing for a few moments.
"You okay, sis?" he asked slowly.
"No way, man." she answered slowly. "I'm pretty far from okay right now." The taste of turgid tofu was still fresh in her mouth.
There was a long pause. A lifetime of thoughts ran through the two siblings' minds.
"What now?" Ferguson finally asked.
"What now?" Clarissa answered, raw anger in her voice. "Well let me tell you what now, dear brother. I'm gonna call a couple more of my journalist friends, who'll go to work on mom and her health food politicos with the PR equivalent of a pair of pliers and a blow torch. They're gonna get mediaeval on her-"
"-ahh, sis, I meant," Ferguson cut in weakly, "what now, between me and you?
Clarissa sighed, and turned her eyes away from the pathetic sight of her mother, happily cooing in her pile of foam. "There is no `me and you'. Not any more. Maybe we have spent too many years picking on one another instead of helping each other out."
"So we're cool?" Ferguson asked, a little more energetically.
"Yeah," Clarissa replied after a long pause. "we're cool. One thing I ask -- two things I ask:One, you leave Sam alone and quit your criminal ways-"
"What am I supposed to do! ?" Ferguson interjected. "This is all I know!"
"Use your powers for good, or something!" Clarissa shot back brusquely. Calming down, she decided not to take the easy way out by re-igniting hostilities. She smiled diplomatically. "You can do it. You're smart enough to figure something out."
"I'll consider it." Ferguson pondered her words. "And what was the other item you wanted?"
"Two: You're in charge of the house now that I'm only home for the summers. So take care of it, and take care of these two while you're at it." She motioned to the burbling Janet and the motionless Marshall. "Deal?"
"Deal." Ferguson said at length. The two siblings shook hands, and hugged. For once there was no recoil or embarrassed looks after. They just hugged.
Ferguson then pulled out a small golden rollerblade on a chain and handed it to his sister. "I think Sam left this at my place. You should give it back to him."
Clarissa gratefully accepted the memento. "Go on now, get outta here."
As Ferguson turned to leave, he heard Clarissa say "one more thing!"
Reflexively, he bristled. He'd given her everything she'd wanted. What more could she want?! "What?" he asked a little roughly.
"There's a sign on the back of my door," Clarissa replied, nonplussed. "The one with your face and a red line through it."
"Yeah?" Ferguson asked uncertainly, beginning to think things were going sour again. "Trash it for me, will ya?" Clarissa asked, smiling brightly.
Ferguson nodded, relieved, an uncharacteristic warm smile on his face. It was a strange feeling, he reflected, but not an entirely bad one.
"So what was in that briefcase, anyway?" Clarissa asked him as they looked at each other for the first time not as enemies, or unwilling allies, but as family-and perhaps, maybe in a decade or three-- even as friends.
Ferguson grinned. "Something I'd foolishly traded away a long, long time ago." He put his arm on Clarissa's shoulder, and the two of them spent a few moments looking at the chaotic remains of their mother's health food store. The Darling Wars were finally over.
In the distance, beyond the wall, he heard voices.
"Anyway, There's a passage I just made up which seems appropriate for this situation: It's inspired by a wrestler called `the Rock'. I've just adapted it for my purposes:"
Tightly clutching the high energy combat gloves that were his own design, a lone webmaster known only as "The Innovator" stood pressed against the bathroom wall, listening hard to the sounds coming from the living room. Fergus Wallace had moved faster than he'd anticipated. The new defence system was risky, and untested. Still, he reflected, there was no time like the present.
"From the Book of Clarissa, verse 3:16: `The style of the righteous girl is cramped on all sides by the schemes of the selfish and the stupidity of evil siblings. Blessed is she who, in the name of coolness and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of deception, for she is truly her brother's better and the finder of stolen diary pages. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger you who are scummier than even my brother. You will shut your mouth and know your role-- and you will know my name is Clarissa when I lay the smackdown on ya! '"
At that, The Innovator went into full-on, action stations, survival only mode. Arming his combat gloves, he got ready to vaporise any fool assassin who might come through the door. The unholy scream of that soda slurping, USENET posting heathen was enough to tell him his turn was coming soon.
Still, The Innovator thought, they did have the good taste to take Mr. USENET out first. He had always disliked that crass, filthy "author" of questionable tales.
The Innovator sighed. The irony was that people like Mr. USENET tended to succeed brilliantly, due to their willingness to compromise principles and stoop to the "standards" of the lowest common denominator, whereas writers like himself, like The Innovator, tended to labour in relative obscurity thanks to the fact that their work required more than one functional brain cell to comprehend.
Nonetheless, all his literary capability would be for naught if Fergus Darlings' thugs were able to take him out.
Listening, he decided to wait for them to come to the door-then he would attack.
"Yeah," one of them was saying, "way to manipulate him, Clarissa."
"Shut up, Sam," the one presumably named "Clarissa" muttered in response.
"Friend of yours?" asked the one called "Sam".
"Yeah," Clarissa nodded. "He's cool. Deal-Sam-Sam-Deal."
Quickly, The Innovator realized that waiting for them was perhaps not the smartest move. Bursting out and taking them by surprise while they're all busy chatting and being social was the way to go. Their guard was down!
Smashing through the bathroom door, The Innovator charged out, his very high-tech looking red gloves glowing with energy. "High Energy Final Attack! DIE, YOU FIENDS!"
A roar of energy lanced out from the gloves, enveloping both Sam and Clarissa in a corona of white-hot energy.
Uttering a maniacal battle cry, The Innovator continued to discharge energy from his combat gloves, stopping only when the power cells ran dry. Then, his expression of vengeance turned to one of blank shock. Something was wrong. The Electrolytic Tenshin Amaguriken attack had done nothing!
"I don't understand -" The Innovator began saying to himself.
Sam and Clarissa did not wait for an explanation. Nodding at each other, they cut loose with the full power of their water guns, knocking him back and out of sight.
"He tried to write me out," Clarissa declared numbly. And he'd come so close, too... too close.
"Aww," Sam muttered dismissively. "He'll never write me anything."
"Y'know," Clarissa pondered, "Those gloves did look kinda cool. Think they'd go well with my wardrobe?"
Sam chuckled. "Only if you planned to become a high-tech crime fighting vigilante' or something."
Suddenly, The Innovator came charging out of the bathroom, running past Clarissa and Sam faster than they had time to react, only pausing long enough to chuckle once before running out the door as fast as his legs could carry him.
Hearing a loud sparking and humming sound from the bathroom, Clarissa and Sam grabbed Deal, pulling him with them as they ran from the apartment, getting to safety just as the place went up in a small thermonuclear fireball.
Outside, Sam helped get Deal into the backseat of his car. Deal had been their guy on the inside, the man with the info. If it wasn't for his help, they would have never been able to pull this job off.
"We should be dead," Clarissa insisted, as Sam started up his Nova.
"Yeah, we were lucky," Sam replied, shaken.
"That wasn't luck, Sam." Clarissa pressed. "It was a sign."
"Of what?" Sam asked tiredly. "I thought you didn't believe in signs. Or superstitions. Or stuff like that."
"Yeah, well," Clarissa mused, "when a huge bolt of electric energy gets fired at me at point blank range and it misses, I think that qualifies as a bona fide sign."
"Whatever," Sam replied, disinterested in all this phiosophizing. "We gotta get this briefcase to Fergus, or we'll be seeing more signs. The dollar signs in front of the bill for the green we'll owe him."
"Sam, you nearly got FRIED today," Clarissa protested. "You can't tell me you're still gonna work for Ferguson!" She turned to look at him.
"Keep you eyes on the road!" Sam shrieked. "What're you saying to me, Clarissa?"
"As of this job, right now, you can color me retired."
"Geez! But what about the car?"
I'm tellin' Ferguson I'm through. I'll find some other way to pay him."
Sam sighed, grabbing a small, almost rotted out tofu burger which had been sitting in his glove compartment for the last few days. He was about to toss it out the window when a thought came to him. He turned to the back seat, looking at Deal, who was still unsure of his safety. The hand holding the burger was draped over the back of the seat.
"Deal, what do you make of all this? Clarissa quitting, and all."
"I don't even have an opinion," Deal answered carefully, eyes darting to the burger. His stomach rumbled.
"C'mon, Deal. Do you think Clarissa's nuts, or that she's just crazy?"
"Heckuva choice, Sam," Clarissa sarcastically noted.
When Sam looked back to say something to Clarissa, Deal lunged forward and grabbed the burger, his hunger controlling him.
"No!" Sam yelled, "Wait, Deal!" A moldy tofu burger was some lethal sh--
The next few seconds saw a fountain of greenish-yellow liquidized bile spewing forth all over the interior of the car.
"Oh god!" Clarissa screamed, looking at the sight in her rear view mirror. "It's like the Exorcist!"
"Was that his spleen?" Sam asked in shock as a lump of something flew his way, splattering on the windshield in a goopy mess.
"What was that you fed him?!" Clarissa asked in a panic.
"One of your mother's old tofu burgers," Sam answered flatly as the undigested portion of the item in question plopped back into his hand.
"It's getting WORSE!" Clarissa yelled, as more and more hyperaccelerated green spew lashed out into the car, impacting the windows, seats, roof, everything.
Finally, the green stuff turned to red stuff, and at last, a huge, pinkish-grey thing slammed into the car's windshield, sending fragments everywhere. It was like a scene from The Evil Dead.
"Whoah," Sam intoned, trying to ignore the acidic stench,
"That's the biggest piece of cauliflower I've ever seen."
"Uhh, Sam," Clarissa nervously replied, glancing at a piece of the cauliflower that was on her blouse. "That isn't cauliflower."
"DON'T YOU THINK I KNOW THAT?!" Sam freaked. "And this red stuff isn't catsup, either! But if I let myself think for one second about what I'll see in the rear view mirror if I look back there-"
"I know," Clarissa admitted, remarkably in control, considering. "Just don't look in the rearview mirror then, Sam."
"Don't look in the rearview mirror."
Instinctively, Sam looked.
"OH MY GOD! ! !"
Clarissa could barely keep control of the car as Sam's reaction to the sight in the back seat added to the chunky technicolor sludge that was coating the interior of the car.
"Your mom's burger," Sam managed to wheeze out after a few moments, "you mom's burger... it killed a guy!"
"This is uncool," Clarissa muttered. "Seriously uncool. But not entirely surprising."
"I know," Sam muttered. "And geez, that smell. Clarissa, crack a window or somethin'-"
"No!" Clarissa interjected archly. "Look at this mess! We're drivin' around on a city street in broad daylight, with a dead-"
"-- I know, I know," Sam replied apologetically, "I wasn't thinkin' about the splatter."
"Well, you'd better start thinking about it, Sam! We haveta get this car off the road! Cops tend to notice things like you driving around in a car drenched in--"
"Can't we just take it to a friendly place?"
"We're working for Ferguson, remember? There are no friendly places."
"Well, don't look at me, Clarissa."
"Ugh," Clarissa exhaled, taking out her cellular phone and punching digits.
"Who ya callin'?" Sam asked.
"No way!" Sam exclaimed in shock. "Has he forgiven you for almost getting him killed by his big brother?"
"Sure," Clarissa replied unconvincingly. "Old news." She spoke into the phone. "Squigley! How are you? it's Clarissa."
There was a pause for a moment.
"Listen," Clarissa continued, "Sam and I are stuck in a car we haveta get off the road, pronto! I need to use your garage for a coupla hours."
There was another pause as she listened to his response. "Squigley, I can't get into this on the phone. I appreciate it. Uh-huh. OBKB. We'll be gone by then. I promise he'll never know we were there. Okay. Yeah. Five minutes. Later. Thanks!"
Folding up the phone, Clarissa turned to Sam. "We're set. But his big brother comes home from work in an hour and a half and we gotta be outta there by then."
Inside Squigley's bathroom, Clarissa and Sam worked overtime trying to get their hands and faces clean. Deal's unfortunate dietary accident had left them covered in icky bits of clingy goop which was almost impossible to get off.
"We have to be real careful with this Squigley situation, Sam," Clarissa said as she pulled a bit of hippocampus out of her hair.
"I thought you said he forgave us for last time."
"Yeah, well," Clarissa shrugged. "He's still a little sore."
"Mentally, or physically?" Sam asked as he tossed a tidbit of thalamus towards the trash.
"Both. I tell ya, he's one remark away from kicking us out the door."
Sam shrugged. "If he kicks us out, whadda we do?"
"Well," Clarissa replied, "Well, we definitely won't leave until we make a few phone calls. But I never want it to get that far. Squigley's our friend-- and you don't run into your friend's house and start telling him what to do."
"Umm," Sam protested, "last time you were here you made him do everything you said, even though his brother owned the garage and the sound equipment."
"Do what I say, not what I do, Sam," Clarissa instructed tiredly, washing off her hands.
"Just tell him not to be verbally abusive to me anymore. He kinda freaked out back there when he saw Deal. He said things that would make sailors blush."
Clarissa sighed as she watched Sam wash his hands. "Put yourself in his position, Sam. It's eight o'clock in the morning. He just wakes up, gets a call from his good friend Clarissa, goes out to the garage and sees-well, what he saw. It was early! He wasn't prepared for it! Don't forget who's doing who a favor."
"Clarissa," Sam chided, "I was completely awake and I wasn't prepared for it."
"My point exactly, Sam!" Clarissa nodded authoritatively.
A few minutes later, Clarissa, Sam and Squigley were in the kitchen, chowing down on some distinctly unhealthy breakfast pizza.
"Wow, Squig," Clarissa mumbled between chews. "This is some seriously wicked pizza. Sam and I woulda been happy with toast, or bagels or somethin'. But this, man, wooh! This stuff is the tops!"
"Quit it," Squigley snapped, scowling.
"Quit what?" Clarissa asked, trying to look as surprised as possible.
"I'm not corn on the cob," Squigley sighed and sarcastically replied, "you don't need to butter me up. I don't need you to tell me how good my pizza is. I'm the one who orders it, I know how good it is. When my el-jocko brother goes shopping, he buys tofu garbage. Tofu crust, tofu sauce, Tofu cheese. What the heck is Tofu cheese, anyway? I order the good stuff 'cause when I eat it, I don't wanna expectorate. Which brings me to the little matter of the--"
Squigley's complexion paled. "--I don't even know what the heck to call it in my garage!"
"It's a Chevy Nova," Sam replied helpfully.
"Not the car! " Squigley half-yelled. "Though that's a scary thing unto itself! I'm referring to the... the... thing in the car!"
Clarissa raised her hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Squig--
"-- I'm talkin'!" Squigley exclaimed, continuing dangerously, "Now let me ask you a question, Clarissa. When you drove in here, did you notice a sign out front that said, "Freak Digestive Accident Victim Storage?"
Squigley growled. "ANSWER the question. Did you see a sign out in front of my house that said, "FREAK DIGESTIVE ACCIDENT VICTIM STORAGE?!"
Clarissa sighed and played along. "No, Squig. I didn't."
"You know why you didn't see that sign?
"'Cause storin' digestive accident victims ain't my business!"
"I ain't through! Now don't you understand that if my brother comes home and finds that thing in the garage, I'm gonna be executed. No arrest, no trial, no appeal-just flippin' executed. AND I DON'T WANNA GET FLIPPING EXECUTED!"
Squigley went ballistic. "Don't 'Squigley' me! I can't be Squigley'd! There's nothin' you can say that's gonna make me forget how much I fear my brother! He'll be comin' home in less than an hour and a half." The boy's complexion had gone totally red, and it looked like he was ready to explode. "Make your phone calls, talk to your people, than get the heck out of my house! I'm not going to take the hit like I did last time!"
"Gotcha," Clarissa replied, going a little pale and heading for a phone.
"Who're you callin'"? Sam asked her.
"Unfortunately," Clarissa slowly replied, "when it comes down to stuff like this, there's only one person I can call."
"Fergus Darling here. Oh, hello sis. Any word on that briefcase? Good, Excellent. Now bring it to me-whaddya mean you can't? Oh, I see. I See. I SEE. Hmph. I fail to see your difficulty, however."
Clarissa paced as she spoke into the phone. "Listen, Ferguson. You've gotta appreciate what an explosive element this Squigley situation is. If his big brother comes home from a hard day's work and finds Deal--well, what's left of him--in his garage, there's no telling what he'll do!"
Ferguson smiled as he held the phone to his ear. Squigley's big brother was nothing to sneeze at. "Let us speak of the unspeakable."
"Let's not," Clarissa snapped. "You started this, and you're gonna finish it. Because if we get taken out, so does your precious little briefcase."
"I get it, sis," Ferguson replied, nonplussed. "I've grasped that. All I'm doing is contemplating the 'ifs. '"
Clarissa groaned. "I don't wanna hear about any 'ifs'." What I wanna hear is: "you don't have any problems, Clarissa. I'm on the case. Go back in there, chill out and wait for the cavalry, which should be coming DIRECTLY!"
Ferguson smiled. "You don't have any problems, Clarissa. I'm on the case. Go back in there, chill out and wait for The Ferg, who should be coming directly. Feel better?"
"That's all you had to say."
"Okay, the address you gave me is forty minutes away. I'll be there in ten. Bye, sis."
NINE MINUTES AND THIRTY-SEVEN SECONDS LATER
Sam and Clarissa stood outside the front of Squigley's house, hands over their eyes, trying to block out the glare of the early morning sun. A rumbling roar could be heard in the distance.
"Could that be...?" Sam asked, his voice trailing off.
"Yup," Clarissa confirmed, her voice a mixture of dread apprehension and relieved acknowledgment.
A huge dustcloud came into view, out of which shot a sleek, jet black Pinto. Unlike normal Pintos, which were objects of universal scorn and ridicule, this one inspired awe. Everything about it was black in some way, from the tinted headlight covers, to the black chrome bumpers and front grill, and of course, the deep black windows.
Engine purring like a Formula 1's, the Pinto easily passed by the duo, making an impossibly tight turn and roaring back towards them, finally gliding to a precision stop in front of the house.
Clarissa shook her head. As much as she loathed her brother, there were definitely rare instances when his intellect, which most times expressed itself in terms of threats, bluster and rampant egoism, shone through as something else- a cold, keen, calculating computer that worked with clockwork accuracy. It was this side of Ferguson she was counting on now. Not Ferguson Darling, the pest, or Fergus Darling the crime lord, but "The Ferg", a no-nonsense troubleshooter whose only purpose in life was to clean up the messes he'd started in order to cover his own tracks.
With a smile, she remembered the first time "The Ferg" had ever shown up. It was about the same time that her dad had decided to build a new addition to the house, a combination game room/library, which had ended up being the new home for his architect stuff.
In order to prevent his sister from ever locking him in the downstairs closet again, Ferguson had meticulously altered his father's plans so that when the contractors had finished their work, there was no downstairs closet anymore. Ferguson had conned them into lowering the whole staircase-- and to the untrained eye, it looked as if the house had always been built that way.
The door to the Pinto opened slowly, and out stepped Ferguson, clad in an elegant tuxedo. His hands were covered in tight leather gloves, and rectangular sunglasses covered his eyes.
"Squigley," Ferguson declared formally, looking past his lackeys to the owner of the house-the only man who mattered at this point.
"Yeah?" Squigley asked nervously. Ferguson didn't look like the wimpy, scheming brat he'd seen those years ago, trying to get Clarissa and Sam's short-lived garage band to sign an agency contract with him. This kid looked dangerous. Nonetheless, as the boss of Clarissa and Sam, he was the cause of this whole messy situation.
"I'm the Ferg. I solve problems." Ferguson stuck out a gloved hand.
"Good, `cause we got one," Squigley replied flatly, ignoring the proffered hand.
"So I heard," Ferguson replied calmly. "May I come in?"
"Please," Squigley replied coldly, clearly displeased by everything happening. The two kids walked in the house, flanked by Clarissa and Sam.
"I want to convey my gratitude with the help you're providing on this matter," Ferguson began with no hint of insincerity. "Let me assure you Squigley, my gratitude is worth having."
Squigley nodded curtly.
"Let's get down to brass tacks. If I was informed correctly, the clock is ticking, is that right, Squigley?"
"Your brother..." Ferguson paused, checking a pad, "...comes home at 9:30 in the AM, is that correct?"
"Uh-huh," Squigley confirmed, a look of fear crossing his features.
"I was led to believe that if he comes home and finds us here, he wouldn't appreciate it."
"No, he won't."
Ferguson nodded, satisfied by the look on Squigley's face that his sister had not indulged her tendency to exaggerate in this instance.
"That give use forty minutes to get outta here, which, if you do what I say when I say it, should be plenty. Now you have a messed up freak dietary accident victim in a car, minus a head, in a garage. Take me to it."
Clarissa, Sam and Squigley stood a respectful distance from the foul-smelling, regurgitus covered vehicle, all of them doing their best not to throw up at the disgusting sight.
Ferguson, for his part, quietly and calmly explored the interior of the car, any revulsion he felt neatly suppressed under his omnipresent veneer of clinical detachment.
"Squigley?" he asked at length.
"Yes?" Squigley asked.
"I thought I smelled some pizza in there. Would you bring me a slice?"
At the thought of eating in the sight of the mess in Sam's car, Squigley rapidly produced a slice-slightly digested, and smelling as bad as the car.
Ferguson sighed. "A slice from the kitchen, please? One that hasn't been soaked liberally in your personal digestive juices?"
Squigley nodded mutely and ran inside.
Turning to Sam, Ferguson continued his inspection. "How's this car run? Any problems?"
"Tip top," Sam confirmed. "Uhh, what's going to happen to it?"
Ferguson shook his head. "Put not the cart before the horse, Samuel. Let us repair to the kitchen."
"How can he think of food at a time like this?" Sam asked Clarissa incredulously.
"He's inhuman," Clarissa replied, shrugging.
Pacing, and munching on his slice of pizza, Ferguson quickly began laying out a plan of action.
Pointing to Sam and Clarissa, he tersely rapped, "You two. Take what's left of the body, stick it in the trunk. Careful. It's still digesting itself." Turning to Squigley, he nodded.
"Squigley, this looks to be a pretty domesticated house. That would lead me to believe that you have a bunch of cleaners and cleansers, am I correct?"
"Yeah," Squigley comfirmed. "Under the sink."
"Good," Ferguson replied, nodding in satisfaction. "What I need you two to do," he continued, again pointing to Clarissa and Sam, "is to take those cleaning products and clean the inside of the car. And I mean fast, fast, fast. You need to go in the backseat, scoop up all those little pieces of cauliflower-"
"Uhh," Clarissa interjected, "That's not cauliflower."
"I know that!" Ferguson shot back. "Just get it out of there. Wipe down the upholstery - That part doesn't need to be spic and span, you don't need to eat off it."
"Don't mention eating," Sam and Squigley chimed in unison, going green.
Ferguson exhaled in frustration, then quickly covered any sign of dissatisfaction. "Give it a good once over. What you need to take care of are the really messy parts.
The pools of stuff that have collected, you gotta soak that up. But the windows are a different story. Windshield especially. Them you really clean. Get the Windex, do a good job."
Turning to Squigley, Ferguson began slowly, knowing his next request would be more difficult. "Now Squigley, we need to raid your linen closet. I need blankets, I need comforters, I need quilts, I need bedspreads. The thicker the better, the darker the better. No whites, can't use 'em. We need to camouflage the interior of the car. We're gonna line the front seat and the backseat and the floor boards with quilts and blankets. If a cop stops us and starts poking around in the car, the subterfuge won't last. But at a glance, the car will appear to be normal."
As Squigley took this in numbly, Ferguson snapped his fingers. "Squigley -- lead the way, you two-- get to work."
As Ferguson and Squigley turned and headed for the linen closet, Clarissa called out "A `please' would be nice."
Ferguson's back stiffened, and he spun around. "Come again?" he asked archly.
"I said a `please' would be nice," Clarissa repeated, hands on hips.
Ferguson took a deliberate step towards her.
"Clarissa, what the heck are you doing?!" Sam asked in a panic.
"He can't just boss us around like this, Sam." Clarissa insisted calmly and confidently.
"Man," Sam hissed back in a whisper. "You just can't resist a chance to lock it up with him, can you? Even when you need his sorry-"
"Get it straight, sis," Ferguson began coldly. "I'm not here to say "please."I'm here to tell you want to do. And if self-preservation is an instinct you possess, you better obey and do it quick. I'm here to help. If my help's not appreciated, lotsa luck. You can cruise the streets in your filthmobile for all I care."
"It ain't that way, Mr. Fergus," Sam interjected nervously as Clarissa shot him a very angry look. "Your help is definitely appreciated."
Clarissa's eyes narrowed, and in a very low, strained voice, she warned, "I won't let you bark orders at me. I don't care what you're calling yourself this minute, Ferg."
Ferguson took off his sunglasses specifically so his sister could see him locking gazes with her. "If I'm curt with you," Ferguson hissed with barely controlled rage, "it's because time is a factor. I think fast, I talk fast, and I need you to act fast if you want to get out of this. So," he concluded condescendingly, "pretty please, with sugar on top."
Clarissa smiled, but frowned inwardly. Her little victory had been nothing of the kind. And by the looks on Sam's and Squigley's faces, everyone knew it.
In Squigley's bedroom, Ferguson was burning up the phone lines while Squigley gathered his linen.
"1974 Chevy Nova, White. Nothing, except for the mess inside. About twenty minutes. Nobody who'll be missed much. See you soon."
Putting down the phone, Ferguson looked at Squigley. "How are we doing Squigley?"
"Mr. Fergus," Squigley begain nervously, handing Ferguson a pile of linen, "you gotta understand somethin' -"
"Ferg," Ferguson corrected calmly. "Squigley, -- please, for this operation, Ferg."
"You gotta understand something, Ferg," Squigley replied nervously, "I want to help you guys out and all, but that's my brother's best linen. It was a present from our dad, and he isn't with us anymore--"
Ferguson held up a hand. "Your father obviously wasn't a millionaire."He looked around at the simple house appraisingly.
"No," Squigley agreed, remembered. "He ran off and joined the merchant marines. All this is paid for by my Brother's grunge band."
"Well, your Uncle Ferg is. AndI'm positive if your dad was a millionaire, they he'd've furnished you with a nice house, which your Uncle Ferg is more than happy to do."
Ferguson produced a roll of bills as thick as a billiard ball. "I like brownstone myself, that's what's on my house. How 'bout you Squigley, you like Brownstone?"
"But the only Brownstones I've ever heard of are in Brooklyn, New York," Squigley replied slowly.
"I can fix that," Ferguson replied flatly.
"Brownstone's nice," Squigley noted, hungrily grabbing the bills and forgetting all about linen sheets or soon-to-be-living- alone mean older brothers.
In Squigley's garage, Clarissa and Sam were inside the car cleaning it up. Sam was in the front seat washing windows, while Clarissa worked in the back seat, picking up gobs of "cauliflower". Both were twice as filthy as before they'd cleaned up.
"Ugh," Clarissa grunted, looking briefly at a piece of "cauliflower". "I will never forgive you for this, Sam. This is some messed up, repugnant stuff! Why'd you go feed Deal that sandwich! ?"
"Did you ever hear of the philosophy," Sam began slowly, "that once a man admits he's wrong, he's immediately forgiven for all wrong-doings?"
"Sam," Clarissa replied a little testily, "I've had it with you and philosophy today. First that situationism stuff, and now this instant `I'm not in trouble `cuz I apologized' stuff. Whoever made that up never had to pick up little pieces of brai- ahem, cauliflower from the back seat of a car with her fingers because of your insane mistake!"
Sam quit rubbing the interior of the windshield. "I have limits, Clarissa. And you're pushing them. I'm a race car and you got me in the red. It's dangerous to drive a race car when it's in the red. It could blow."
"Don't talk to me about cars!" Clarissa replied as her knee landed in a puddle of something. For once she was glad she was clad in this black and white monkey suit. If any of this had gotten on her good clothes-- hmm, she thought. It'd probably be invisible. She turned back to Sam. " You're getting ready to blow?Every time my fingers touch brainyflower I go thermonuclear! In fact, what the heck am I doin' in the back? This is your fault, We're trading! I'm washing windows and you're pickin' up what's left of Deal's, umm, cauliflower."
Within a quarter of an hour, thanks to Clarissa and Sam's cleaning job and Squigley's linen, what had looked like a portable slaughterhouse now passed for a non-descript motor vehicle.
As Ferguson circled the car, muttering his approval, Sam and Clarissa stood back, their clothes a stinking fetid mess, but proud of their work nonetheless.
"Fine job," Ferguson noted, impressed. "You may get out of this yet."
"I can't believe that's the same car," Squigley intoned under his breath, clearly in awe.
"Let's not go overboard," Ferguson snapped. "Phase one, clean the car, is complete. This moves us right along to phase two, which is to clean you two."
In Squigley's backyard, Clarissa and Sam stood side by side in their black suits, covered in filth. The Ferg held a garden hose with a gun nozzle attached.
"Uhh," Sam asked. "What's that for?"
"We've got to get you two clean," Ferguson stated flatly. "Strip."
"What?!" Clarissa and Sam exclaimed simultaneously.
"Whaddya think this is?!" Clarissa yelled. "A Movieline magazine shoot or something?!"
"You can forget the stripping idea," Sam declared.
"I wasn't really expecting you to go along with it anyway. Just had to get you off your guard."
"Eh?" Sam and Clarissa asked each other in unison.
Grinning, Ferguson squeezed the trigger on the hose's gun nozzle, blasting Sam and Clarissa with a jet of high velocity water.
"FERGUSON! THE WATER'S FREEZING!" Clarissa yelled, getting hit in the face by a stream of water for her trouble.
"Soap," Ferguson commanded Squigley, who lowered a bar of soap into the water stream. Within seconds, Clarissa and Sam were covered head to toe in white, bubbly foam, them and their clothes soaked from head to toe.
Turning off the water, Ferguson grinned. "You'll find towels and replacement clothing around by the side of the house. I selected the wardrobe myself. Toss the soiled clothing into the garbage bag when you're done."
"You mean we have to change outside! ?" Clarissa asked angrily.
"It's secluded!" Ferguson shot back. "And you'll go one at a time. There's no way you're tracking soap and grime into my man Squigley's house."
Waving, Ferguson indicated that Sam should go first.
Nodding and dripping a trail of foam, Sam stalked around to the side of the house.
"I don't believe this!" Sam could be heard yelling. "I'm not wearing this!"
"Hurry up, Sam!" Clarissa yelled, shivering. "This morning air is chilly!"
After a few moments, Clarissa and Sam again stood side by side, Sam in an MC Hammer style outfit and Clarissa in a funny dress, wearing a "Death to Klingons" T-Shirt, both teenagers looking a million miles from the cool, confident, black suited people they had been before.
"Perfect," Ferguson commented, allowing some evil glee to slip through. "Perfect. We couldn't've planned this better. You guys look like... what do they look like, Squigley?"
"Dorks," Squigley replied, laughing. "They look like a couple of dorks."
"Ha ha ha." Clarissa replied flatly. "They're your clothes, stupid."
"I guess you just gotta know how to wear them," Squigley declared smarmily.
"Yeah, well, we're not the experts on wearing dorky outfits that you are."
The duo got ready to leave.
"Wait a minute," Squigley interjected, "before you guys split, I wanna get a picture of this."
"Squigley," Clarissa exhaled tiredly, "have you forgotten about your big brother coming home?"
"It won't take a second," Squigley protested, stifling a laugh.
"Aww man," Sam protested.
"Sorry -- my house, my rules," Squigley replied with glee.
Ferguson leaned on the side of his Pinto and pointed to Sam's Chevy Nova.
"We're going to a place called 'Endless Mike's Truck and Tow. 'Endless Mike is sympathetic to our dilemma. Now I'll drive the tainted car. Clarissa, you ride with me."
"I don't want to ride with you!" Clarissa shot back.
"I'm not letting you touch my Pinto," Ferguson declared icily.
"Sam, you follow in my Pinto."
"Cool!" Sam chirped, but after a moment his face twisted into a frown. "Wait. What is gonna happen to my car?"
Ferguson frowned. "Best not to dwell on that now. Just be sure to take good care of my car. If I get it back any different than I gave it, Endless Mike's gonna be disposing of two bodies. Let's move."
"Wait a minute," Squigley protested. "I wanna take a picture of you guys."
"We don't have time," Clarissa protested.
"We have time for one picture. You and Sam get together."
Clarissa and Sam stood next to each other.
"Okay Ferg, get in there."
"I'm not a model," Ferguson protested.
"After what a cool guy I've been, I can't believe that you treat me like this. It's the only thing I asked."
"Okay," Ferguson relented. "One photo and we go."
"Everybody say `Pepsi'!" Squigley commanded.
"I am not saying Pepsi," Clarissa protested.
"Smile, Ferg," Squigley requested.
"I don't smile in pictures," Ferguson replied curtly.
There was a brief flash, and the moment was preserved forever.
In the head office of Endless Mike's tow yard, which was actually little more than a dilapidated shack in the center of a junkyard, Ferguson and Endless Mike concluded their negotiations via the exchange of five thousand dollar notes.
"Your business is always welcome," Endless Mike Hellstrom replied with a smile.
"I would think by now I've earned the equivalent of Frequent Flyer miles," Ferguson quipped, a smile forming on his face.
"I'll tell ya what," Mike replied, "if you ever need it, I'll dispose of one part for free. Your choice."
"How 'bout an upgrade?" Ferguson asked. "You dispose of a whole one for the price of a part."
The two of them shared a laugh. "That one I need to speak with my accountant about," Mike joked with a grin.
Exiting the tow yard, Ferguson met Clarissa and Sam by his Pinto, which, much to his relief, was in perfect condition.
"Are we cool?" Clarissa asked Ferguson.
"No," he replied slowly. Observing his sister and Sam's worried reaction, he concluded "you're dorks," with satisfaction.
"Very funny," Sam muttered tiredly. "So where's my car?"
Ferguson pointed to a pickup truck which was carrying a large cube on its flatbed. Clarissa grasped the answer well before Sam did.
"Uhh, Sam?" She asked. "I just want to take this moment to say I'm sorry for snapping at you like I did earlier."
"Forget it," Sam replied with a smile. "I did mess up, didn't I?" It was then he noted something familiar about the cube on the back of the truck. "No..." he exhaled.
"Yup," Ferguson declared proudly. "compact, efficient, untraceable."
"YOU REINCARNATED MY CAR AS A PAPERWEIGHT!" Sam bawled.
"Well executed, if I do say so myself," Ferguson replied, smiling. Sam made a choking noise.
"Relax,"Ferguson coolly. "I'll give you and sis a ride back into town. And after that I'll hook you up with a new set of wheels."
"That's decent of you," Sam admitted in surprise, impressed.
"I'll add it to your obligation to me, of course," Ferguson declared flatly, getting into the drivers' seat of his car. "A few more years in my employ ought to do nicely."
"Swell," Sam exhaled weakly, slumping into the back seat of the luxuriously appointed vehicle.
"Where to?" Ferguson asked.
"You know I could go for some breakfast," Clarissa remarked. "Want to have breakfast with me?"
"Sure," Sam replied, exhausted by the morning's events. He just hoped things wouldn't get any crazier today.
Clarissa and Sam sat at one of the comfy, green leatherette- covered booths which were considered choice seats at MacDrekky's. The duo was still dressed in the ridiculous outfits Squigley had provided, although neither seemed to care. Sam, finally regaining his appetite after the incident with Deal, was gobbling up as many Big Dreks as he could get his hands on.
For her part, Clarissa was just sipping at a Carbide Coffee, not really all that interested in her food. She took a moment to try and straighten out her disheveled hair, but eventually gave up and went back to not drinking.
"What's up?" Sam asked at length. "You've been awfully quiet."
"I've just been thinking," she replied slowly.
"About what?" Sam asked.
"About a big Mack Truck called the Future."
"Really," Sam remarked neutrally.
"It's got us in its headlights, Sam. And it's coming right at us at a hundred miles per hour. And there's nothing either of us can do to stop it."
"It's that thing again," Sam exhaled tiredly. "Almost getting fried."
Before Clarissa could continue, there was a loud thud from somewhere behind them.
"Everybody be cool! I'm A-OK!" came a familiar voice from the back.
"Isn't that-" Sam began to ask.
"Clifford Spleenhurfer," Clarissa confirmed with surprise.
Then, another voice yelled out, "Don't any of you wage slaves move! I'm gonna get statements from every last one of you!"
Clarissa froze. That voice--!
"What is it?" Sam asked. "Hey, that girl looks a lot like you. Wait, that's--"
"Eve Biderberg," Clarissa stated flatly. She couldn't believe what was happening. It was a like a sick parody of her life was going on right before her eyes-almost as if her life were a live stage act, or a TV show.
"Claire!" Yelled a group of kids from the rear of the restaurant. "Look everybody, it's Claire Starling!" A small throng of hyperactive teenagers stormed the front of the store, brusquely shoving past Sam and Clarissa, who were looking on in shock.
"Can we have your autograph?" one of the kids asked, holding out a small pencil and pad.
"Uhh." Eve replied, taken off guard, "Oh-Bee-Kay-Bee."
"She said it!" the kids squealed, jumping up and down in rapturous delight.
"Hey!" Clarissa spat sharply. "That's my-"
"Why, if it isn't Clarissa Darling, College Girl," Eve hissed sweetly. "What brings you and Spam back to my hometown?"
"Sam," Sam corrected acidly.
"This is my home town too!" Clarissa replied angrily. "I live here, remember?"
"Used to," Claire spat. Clarissa ignored her.
"--and apparently, so does my clone."
"Oh, but you're not the same girl you were when you left home all those months ago," Eve cooed. "I am."
"What?" Clarissa asked. "The same girl you were when I left, or the same girl I was when I left?"
"Stop it, Clarissa," Sam protested. "You're giving me a headache."
"Does it matter?" Eve replied. "To these neophytes, I'm everything you once were. I look the same, talk the same-AM the same! And they do *anything* I say." She tossed a camera to one of the kids in the audience. "Photograph the scene!" she commanded. "I want a permanent record of Clifford's unfortunate accident!" She ground her foot into Clifford's side.
"Ohh! My fibula," Clifford groaned overdramatically. "I think it's broken."
"If it wasn't, it is now," Eve muttered under her breath, ramming him again with her boot-clad foot.
Eve blinked as a flashbulb went off almost in her face. "What's going on!" she screamed.
"Sorry, Claire," the kid with the camera apologized. "You just looked so cool standing there that I had to take your picture."
"Well--" Eve started, blushing.
"You got her picture?" a boy in the audience yelled out. "I want a copy!"
"Five bucks!" the kid with the camera yelled back.
"I'll give you six!" chimed another boy.
"Seven!" yelled the first bidder.
Clarissa and Sam watched incredulously as fistfights began developing over who would get to have a picture of 'Claire'.
"Fine," one boy acquiesced at last. "I'll pay you fifty dollars."
"Okay," the kid with the camera replied, only to feel himself lifted off the ground.
"Wrong," Clifford Spleenhurfer corrected, grabbing the camera. "You'll pay me fifty dollars. NOW."
"Here," the rich kid replied, slapping some more money into his palm. "Can you take some more shots?"
"Yes!" the crowd yelled. "More shots!"
Clifford shook his head. Eve dragged him aside.
"Fool! Say yes!"
"What about the slip and fall?"
"Forget that! Those scams take too long to set up and are too risky anyway! These kids are willing to pay through the nose for pictures of me! We're set for life!"
"Or until you become an ugly hag," Clifford replied, cleaning the inside of his left nostril with a forefinger.
Eve rammed her elbow into Clifford's side. "Just do it!"
Eve leapt up onto the counter and began to pose, smiling and laughing at the crowd.
"My god!" one of the kids stuttered, almost shaking.
"Facial expressions! Capture every subtle nuance! Not one muscular twitch must go unrecorded!"
Clarissa sat down at a booth facing the spectacle, somewhat dumbstruck. "Ooh, look," she exhaled tiredly. "Claire's drinking a soda."
"GET IT ON FILM!" someone in the growing throng roared in reply.
"Archive it!" Someone else bawled. "Post it on the internet!"
"Don't you have a problem with the fact that people don't really seem to care about who you really are, `Claire'?" Clarissa finally yelled, trying to be heard over the raucous mob. "That all they want is an endless supply of pictures of what you look like while pretending to be me?"
"I'm beautiful," Eve replied, striking a pose. "They wish to drink in my beauty. There's nothing wrong with that."
"But what about the Eve Biderberg I knew?" Clarissa pressed. "The sweet, insecure girl who came to Thomas Tupper High just trying to fit in? Sure you made some mistakes, but you'd overcome all that! You were your own person!"
"After you left I remade myself! I am my own person!" Eve shot back, a slight frown crossing her face.
"Who just happens to look like Clarissa," Sam interjected.
"I look nothing like you!" Eve cried, pointing to the ridiculous outfit of Squigley's that Clarissa was still wearing. "You left! Vanished! Whatever you were left with you! I am the only one now!"
"That's my look!" Clarissa protested. "I invented it! I perfected it! Don't you want people to love you for who you really are?"
"Do the people love you for who you really are?" Eve spat back, leaning down and grabbing Clarissa by the arm, yanking her up onto the counter with her.
"Who's that?" the boys started to protest.
"So right now I don't look even remotely cool," Clarissa admitted to the crowd, acknowledging her outfit and generally messy condition. "But I'm a person, you know, not just an object. I've got qualities that go beyond simple appearances. And so does Eve here, if she'd only let them show through!"
"Boys," Eve replied sweetly, "which would you rather have? A long conversation with geek girl over there, or fabulously photographed stills of my tres cool self?"
"Hey!" Clarissa retorted. "I know lots of stuff about cars, video games, art, movies, and just life in general! All you have to do is take the time to talk to me about it! Are you even interested in talking to Eve? What're you gonna do with a picture of her, anyway?"
She paused, looked at the hyperactive freshmen and frowned. "Don't answer that!"
To Sam, who was still standing in the audience, it was like there were two Clarissas on stage, battling it out. One was the real her, and the other was this larger than life cliche', a sort of parody. Unfortunately, the parody seemed to be winning.
"PICTURES!" the crowd yelled. "WE WANT PICTURES! PICTURES! PICTURES!"
"What about conversation?" Clarissa pressed desperately. Most of the crowd hissed in reply.
"Conversation is off-topic," Eve whispered snidely. "This is all `you' are to them, Clarissa! A photogenic girl with funky mismatched clothes! Take out the photogenic," she waved at Clarissa's shabby state with contempt, her voice raising triumphantly, "and you're less than nothing! Dirt city!"
"Fine," Clarissa replied, jumping down off the table, and pushing her way through the crowd with Sam following. As they reached a booth near the exit, Clarissa turned and looked back at the figure of Eve, who was standing above her crowd of worshippers like some kind of pagan goddess. She pushed open the exit door, but then turned around, slowly and confidently.
"Like someone once said," Clarissa yelled, as Eve and the crowd turned to look at her. "You're nothing but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets her hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more."
A hush fell over the crowd. A few understood what Clarissa had said, but most were just trying to figure out the antiquated prose.
"Didn't know I knew Shakespeare, didja?" Clarissa asked the slackjawed crowd. "Can't get that from a photograph."
Eve watched as Clarissa turned her back to her, and balled her fists in impotent rage. No amount of pretty smiles would erase the stinging truth of Clarissa's words.
"Sam," Clarissa asked quietly as the crowd continued to gawk at her, "remember when I told you about that big Mack truck called the Future?"
"I dunno. I think it's ready to take us somewhere new." She glanced back one last time at Eve.
"I think I see what you mean," Sam replied slowly. Looking down at the booth next to him, he saw the coffee Clarissa had ordered earlier. "Coffee?"
Clarissa shook her head. "No thanks. It's old n' cold." She pushed the drink aside.
"I think we oughta leave now," Sam replied as he felt the myriad eyes of the crowd boring into his back.
Clarissa nodded. "That's probably a good idea."
Then, to the amazement of the crowd, the girl wearing a "death to Klingons" T-shirt and her weird friend in the MC Hammer pants walked out of the MacDrekky's without saying another word.
Thanks go out to the following:
The prereaders who graciously took the time to go through the final draft of this fanfic:
(in Alphabetical Order)
Paul Booth (inventor of Technicolor Sludge <TM>)
Greetz go out to John Porter of Go! Go! Superstar Clarissa fame, the only other non CEIA-related 'fic writer active today (other than that one USENET author who shall not be named).
And thanks to YOU for reading!
REMASTER NOTES (2017 Edition)
Clarissa now turns the television in Ferguson's office off, rather than "flipping it off." A more refined dictional choice for a more civilized time.
In the original, it was not clear that the use of acid in the super soakers was a fake. Upon re-reading that was a very uncool thing to do and it has been made more explicitly a feint.
Waged an unholy crusade against the word "said" which is my bane as a writer.