Three boxes sat in front of Toby. Three presents. But he could only have one.
Mike, his sponsored Big Brother, had two other kids to visit tonight, but Toby knew he was the favorite and thus got first choice. That or he was the hardest hit by life and Mike felt sorry for him—not that Toby wanted anyone feeling sorry for him. Becoming an orphan at eight had been a nightmare, but bouncing between twelve different foster homes over the last seven years? He kept his bag packed. It was just the kind of karma Toby oozed. He hoped it didn’t rub off on Mike because he really liked the guy. He thanked his lucky stars every week that his current foster family had reached out to Big Brothers, Big Sisters on his behalf.
“Do you remember what you asked for?” Mike prompted.
Toby shrugged, not willing to voice the stupid wish again. World peace. Like that was going to happen any time soon. He’d mumbled it out half sarcastically when Mike asked what Toby wanted from Santa. If the world was at peace, he’d still have his parents. Both of them.
But life was never that simple.
“My wish don’t fit in no box,” Toby said.
Mike crossed his arms. “Are you sure?”
Toby eyed his mentor again and then the waiting packages.
One box, long and skinny.
One fat and wide.
One perfectly square.
“Can you give me a hint ‘bout which one I’ll like most?” Toby asked.
Mike leaned back, head cocked. “Sorry little bro, no can do. You has gots to be usin’ your own skilz on this one.”
Toby focused back on the packages, analyzing the paper. One was red and white Christmas trees against a green background. One was plaid with hints of pink between green and white stripes. The last one was white snowflakes on ice blue.
He reached for the Christmas trees, then hesitated and brushed the snowflake packaging, but the plaid pulled at him like a bug to light. He snatched the long skinny box and shook it next to his ear. It weighed almost nothing and made no noise. Maybe he’d made a mistake.
Mike was grinning at him.
If this was something stupid like a postcard of the globe with a peace sign drawn over top, Toby was going to burn the thing.
He peeled back the wrapping paper carefully, hoping the box underneath would give it away, but inside a long white Tupperware container hid its contents in tissue paper.
Toby readied to paste a fake smile on his face as he lifted the lid.
Empty. The box was empty. Toby lifted it and examined each corner closely to make sure he hadn’t missed something, but there was nothing to find. He sucked in a breath, ready to ask what kind of lame lesson Mike was teaching—a box filled with love or whatever—and gagged.
The smell. The box reeked! Lemons mixed with super body odor and something sea-foody. Was Mike trying to kill him with the smell inside the box?
Meaty fingers wrapped around the back of his neck and shoved his face inside the Tupperware, holding him there while Toby choked on the stench. He flailed backward, knocking at Mike’s arm, but he couldn’t get the jerk off. Toby gagged and sucked in the fumes. They lodged in his chest like a sick and dying puppy, scraping at his insides and begging for mercy. The nastiness dissipated from the container, but it stuck inside Toby’s nose.
He broke free and leapt to his feet, facing Mike. “What the flip, man?”
Mike was grinning still, Cheshire cat like.
Toby threw the package down and stormed away. He was wrong. All this time he was wrong. He thought Mike was his friend, that he had his back. Turned out he was in this for some perverse joke—getting his jollies off tormenting kids.
Toby pounded the wall.
The wall shook. The floor shook. The ceiling shook. The windows wobbled and one cracked. A tree outside tumbled to the ground. Toby raced to the window over trembling floors and his jaw dropped.
A crack split across the road, trundling into the neighbors’ house across the way, splitting the street, a car tumbling into the ditch.
An earthquake? In Iowa?
“So that’s what it looks like.”
Toby whirled around at Mike’s voice. His Big Brother stared out the window from behind him, watching as the destruction spread further and further away.
Toby braced himself against the wall and it stilled. The floor quit shaking. The windows quit rattling. “What what looks like?” he asked.
Mike patted him on the shoulder. “You wanted world peace, but people don’t listen to diplomatic rallies. They respond to things that happen. When nature attacks, they quit fighting each other and band together to survive.”
“Are you mental, man?” Toby grabbed his temples, rubbing Mike’s words in and trying to understand. “You think the answer to the world’s problems is causing more problems?”
“No.” Mike stared right at him. “It’s controlling the world’s problems.”
“That’s crazy talk.”
“It’s also your gift.”
Toby blinked. He blinked again. “What?”
Mike lifted the Tupperware from the floor. “There isn’t anything in here to regular teenagers, but you’re not regular. You were made to keep the peace.”
The guy had officially stepped off the sanity spectrum. Toby fingered the phone in his pocket, wondering if he could pocket dial the police.
“This box had a manufactured gas in it that activates your gifts when inhaled. We’ve been looking for you for a long time, ever since your parents bit it in a battle with other powered individuals.”
“Your Mom shook the earth, like you. Your dad summoned storms.”
Toby laughed weakly. “Um, no. Dad worked as a meteorologist and Mom was an army soldier.”
For once, Mike wasn’t smiling. “Is that what they told you?”
Toby’s legs shook. He slid down the wall and landed on his rump.
“I found two others,” Mike continued. “The three of you will be a team, and I’ll help you figure it out, but you three will save the world.”
“Save it from what?”
What if superheroes are normal people and have been part our the world all throughout history? Powered individuals battle through time in the Maiden of Time series. Pick up MOONLESS today.
Crystal Collier is an author who pens fantasy, historical, and romance stories, with the occasional touch of humor or inspiration. She can be found practicing her brother-induced ninja skills while teaching children or madly typing about fantastic and impossible creatures. She has lived from coast to coast and now calls Florida home with her creative husband, four littles, and “friend” (a.k.a. the zombie locked in her closet). Secretly, she dreams of world domination and a bottomless supply of cheese. You can find her on her HERE.