Cheryl descended the steps to Bart’s basement. A paper football sailed past her head. It ricocheted off the wall and lodged in her hair. She gave hard eyes to Hunter and Ian as she passed and hucked the paper triangle at them. Sophie shook her head and shrugged her shoulders in solidarity with her sister's vexation.
“How did you get stuck with the babysitting duties?” Cheryl asked her.
“Heh, duties,” Hunter chucked.
Ian stifled a giggle.
“Bart’s out buying poop…” Sophie held her hand out to Hunter and Ian, waiting.
“It's only amusing if it’s not what you intended to express,” Ian said.
“There are rules to this stuff, Soph,” Cheryl said.
“...Carl is working on your car,” Sophie continued, “And Billy is watching Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all at once to see if he can figure out what’s going on by averaging them out.”
Cheryl put her bag down on the workbench and began removing the contents; soldering iron and breadboard, a voltmeter, a Speak n’ Spell.
“Oh man, a Speak n’ Spell,” Sophie said, “Remember these? I had one when I was a kid.”
“This is the one you had as a kid,” Cheryl said.
“Why do you have it?”
“I found it going through the old storage locker we rented after mom died. I made some modifications to it. It’s psychic now.”
“No, really, watch this. Psychic Speak n’ Spell, what’s Sophie’s middle name?”
“Mildred,” the Speak n’ Spell buzzed.
“What? How’d it know that?” Sophie leaned on the workbench with a hand on her hip and squinted hard at Cheryl.
“Because you have the bearing of someone who was saddled with a name like Mildred after the year 1920. Hence you won’t even put your middle initial on job applications, to avoid risking them asking you, what it stands for,” the Speak n’ Spell said.
“Oh, bull, you programmed it to say that.”
“Ye of little faith,” she pointed at Hunter, “What’s that idiot’s middle name?”
“Thompson,” it croaked, “What else would it be?”
“Well, I’ll be,” Hunter gasped.
“Computer Thing?” Sophie said, “What should Cheryl’s new superhero name be?”
“Princess Pain-in-the-Ass,” it droned.
“Holy cow, Cher, it is psychic.”
“I’m still working out the wrinkles,” Cheryl switched the Speak n’ Spell off.
“No, that’s definitely your child,” Sophie picked it up and danced away with it. She switched it on, “Let’s ask it something useful. Hey, Computer Thing? What should we do about Englebert’s gang?”
“The ones you forgot about for the last two episodes?” the Speak n’ Spell said.
“What’s that mean?” Sophie looked to Cheryl askance.
“Wrinkles,” Cheryl shrugged her shoulders.
“The answer is; stop being a bunch of dumb pussies,” it said.
“The mouth on this thing,” Sophie shook her head and gave Cheryl mocking side eyes.
“It’s right though,” Cheryl said, “Why don’t we just call them out, as a group, so Englebert can’t catch us out with our evil twins.”
“And what’s your plan?” Ian asked.
“Fuck a plan. When do they ever go right?”
“Fair point, but how are we going to draw their attention? Walk around shouting? And would they even come as a group?”
“There’s gotta be some shit going down somewhere that we can make worse. Get on the news. He can’t miss that. As for forcing his hand, you just have to know what nerves to hit.”
Cheryl slumped in front of the police scanner with her chin resting, heavy in her hands, as it crackled out the latest goings on in the area. After about five more vandalism reports she fell to her side and she let her head hit the table. She groaned.
“What I wouldn’t give for a bunch of mooks in fish masks,” she said into her arm.
“That armed robbery sounded promising,” Ian said.
“It was just a Royal Farms.”
“Maybe we can stage something,” Hunter said, laying on his back across stacks of bagged soil, talking at the ceiling.
“You want to false flag this shit?”
“Why not? The Man does it all the time.”
The scanner began to spit out garbled static relating to the appearance of a yellow, glowing creature stalking the streets of a Philadelphia suburb. The police had sustained heavy casualties in trying to subdue it.
“Sweet,” Cheryl’s popped up from the table. She stuffed some things into her bag and slung it over her shoulder. Grabbed her keys and ran up the steps onto the street.
Hunter, Ian, and Sophie followed. Cheryl ran to the parking at the other end of the block.
“Fire up the Chariot, Carl,” she shouted running toward him.
His index finger covered the hood as he pushed it shut. The bedsheet he used to wipe the grease off of them looked like a dishrag in his hands, “Where are we headed?”
“The Burbs? What the hell is out there?”
“Some kind of monster shitting weird glowing pellets in the street. Get in the trailer.”
“You know I don’t feel right in the burbs. Everyone stares.”
“Everyone stares at you here.”
“Yeah, but there are so many more people in the city, it becomes like an abstraction. Like stage courage.”
“I think they might be happy to see you this time. Get in.”
The gang arrived on the main drag that passes through the sylvan suburban town. All the side streets leading in were shut down. Cheryl parked the car in a Wawa parking lot and the gang piled out. They ran through the traffic jam of the fleeing. They ran through a small park and were stopped by the police as they tried to exit the other side.
“You can't come any further,” an officer said, “This area has been cordoned off.”
“About that,” Cheryl said, “We’re here about the monster.”
“Who the hell are you people?”
“People who deal with weird shit.”
“Hey,” another officer said walking over, “You’re those weird freaks that blow shit up in Philly.”
“Disturbingly apt description,” Ian said.
“We saved the world and all people can talk about is the property damage. Look, that shit probably would have eventually exploded anyway,” Cheryl said.
Officers looked at each other.
“Look, they’re already here,” one said to the other, “And whatever mess they make they do get results.”
“Thank you, officer,” Sophie said.
“We lost some good guys today. You want a crack at it?”
“Happy to be expendable,” Cheryl said.
“We’d be happy to help you with your problem officer,” Sophie said.
The officer stepped aside and held his hand out. The gang walked past.
“How come half of them look like they’re from the future and other half looks homeless?” one officer asked.
“Weirdos,” the other replied.
As the gang tread down the street, they saw what looked like a round, bulbous toad, with a weight lifting addiction. It was crouched on its muscular hind legs and lifting an Audi into its waiting maw. It bit down and broke the car in half. It swallowed its mouthful and gulped down the front end.
“Oh, that was an Audi, Carl,” Sophie chirped.
“Bad year,” he replied.
The caught sight of the gang and bounded over, leaving jiggling, glowing balls of light behind it.
“Is that thing doing its business in the street?” Sophie groaned.
“I hope it’s that and not something else,” Cheryl replied.
“Gross either way.”
“Standard protocol?” Ian asked, “Run in flailing?”
“Why don’t you play it a lullaby?” Sophie said.
Ian lifted his flute and played. Cheryl winced and plugged her ears. The toad stopped and tilted its head like a dog hearing a curious voice. It let out a gurgling roar and uprooted a towering oak and hurled it at them. They scattered as the tree smacked the ground and slid into the street.
“Look, Roland, Battletoad agrees with me,” Cheryl said, “Tune that thing.”
“A flute can’t be out of tune with itself,” Ian shouted, “It’s your neural structure.”
“He’s saying your brain damaged,” Hunter said.
Cheryl produced arcs of electricity between her hands, “You want brain damage? How about electroshock?”
“Guys,” Sophie said, “Pooping monster is coming.”
“Should I just go nuclear on it?”
“Let me take a swing,” Carl said, stretching his neck.
Carl ran toward it and crouched down in wrester’s stance. The two grappled. Carl grabbed it by the wrists and struggled against its powerful arms.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” Carl said between gasps, “Do you need help?”
The toad began to shrivel and become like a rag in Carl’s hands. Its glow began to fade and its features become human-like.
“So hungry,” the creature whimpered.
“You’re not making out with it are you?” Cheryl called.
“It’s...shrinking,” Carl said.
“Well, brute force 1, James No-way, nothing.”
Carl walked back to the gang holding a frail, gaunt man. He appeared to have neither muscle nor fat. His baggy skin slid back and forth over his skeleton. His eyes were sunken and rings underneath were black against his greenish skin. His hair grew in sparse clumps over his scalp and jowls.
“He said he’s hungry,” Carl said as he laid him down in the grass.
“He just ate an Audi,” Cheryl said.
“I have a Clif bar,” Ian said, holding one out.
The made him shake his skull.
“You want a cheesesteak?” Cheryl said, “There’s place right over there.”
“I tried to get a bag of chips there while you guys were busy,” Hunter said, “They don’t take cards.”
“Ghosts,” the man said in a husky whisper.
“You see ghosts?” Sophie asked.
“Did he just say he fucking eats ghosts?” Cheryl said.
The man nodded.
“Sophie’s department,” Cheryl pulled some cash from her pocket, “Let’s go get that bag of chips.”
“Guys, we have to find some ghosts,” Sophie said, “He’s going to die.”
“I’m fully confident in your abilities to carry out the duties of your department.”
Sophie shot her with her eyes.
“Does he really eat ghosts or is he making a metaphor for outwardly manifesting neuroses. If that’s the case, this place is a buffet,” Cheryl crouched beside the man, “Real ghosts?”
The man nodded.
“So when you get weak you need to eat ghosts and then you turn into that thing?”
The man nodded and grabbed her sleeve, pleading with his eyes.
“Alright,” she sighed, “Let’s get this guy some goddam ghosts. It’s the burbs, there should be a graveyard around here somewhere.”
“Yeah, but is it haunted, that's the problem?” Sophie said.
“We’ll find out when we get there.”
“Google Maps has one a few blocks that way,” Ian said, looking at his phone.
“Get him to the car. Tell the cops, crisis averted.”
“We should take a sample of this substance,” Ian said, poking the glowing white blobs with a pen.
“If you want to touch Reverse Pac-man’s shit, be my guest. You’re now head of that department. The Department of Reverse Pac-man’s Shit. Ian Roland, Director.
“Here comes the news,” Carl said pointing to the gaggle of reporters and cameramen jogging over.
“Perfect,” Cheryl walked over to greet them. She smiled, “Hello, I’m Ms. Cheryl Ellers, the leader.”
“Is that an alias,” a reporter shoved a phone in Cheryl’s face.
“No that’s my name.”
“Do you have an alias?”
“Princess Pain-in-the-Ass,” Hunter shouted.
Sophie shushed him as she giggled and slapped his arm. Ian covered his face. Cheryl looked off with a thousand yard stare and regrouped.
“What can you tell us about the monster?”
“The monster, whom we’re calling Reverse Pac-man for now, is under control. We don’t know much about him other than he eats ghosts.”
“Eating ghosts? Is that slang term for drugs among the youth?”
“We frequently see you wielding high-tech devices yet, you all look like you assembled your superhero suits at the Goodwill, where do you get this technology? Does someone fund your operation?”
“We have friends from the future. Does anybody not remember anything, that wasn’t even a year ago….and...yes we do receive substantial support from a very generous donor that believes strongly in us and what we do.”
“Can you give us a name?”
“He’s such a humble man, he wouldn’t like the attention, but what the heck, he deserves it. Professor Winston Englebert,” Cheryl grinned into a camera, “Ph.D. in English Lit,” she formed the words with relish, her grin changing to a smirk.
“What is your relationship to your benefactor?”
“I was his favorite student. He’s my biggest fan.”
She pointed into the camera, then pointed to herself and then to the ground at her feet.
“These people are going to be pretty nonplussed when they realize we got rid of one monster just to call in five more,” Ian said.
“Oh,” Sophie’s face fell, “Cher,” she called.
Cheryl waved to the camera and back toward Sophie behind the police line.
“How was that?” Cheryl asked.
“A little cheesecake-y,” Sophie scrunched her face.
“Whatever, it’ll get under his skin.”
“There’s a problem though. We’re calling them out in here.”
Cheryl stared back.
“In this nice suburban neighborhood.”
Cheryl look around and astonishment rolled over her face, “Oh shit.”
“And we have that guy,” Sophie gestured to Reverse Pac-man.
“RPM,” Cheryl said to him, “Let’s get you fed.”
“Ben,” RPM said.
“Your name is Ben?” Sophie asked.
He nodded, “Ben Parkman.”
They arrived at a graveyard and propped Ben against a headstone. His eyes darted and his head wiggled, like a cat tracking a fly. He shot his bony hand in the air and grabbed a wad of screaming mist. He sucked it into his mouth. He sat up. He plucked another one howling, from the thin air in front of him. The color began to return to his skin and his eyes brightened. He was still skeletal, but looked stronger, like he did Crossfit. He stood up and looked at the people who had helped him here.
“Thank you. I normally don’t get that weak, but the big fella took it out of me. I’m sorry I threw a tree at you,” he said, “It’s fight or flight when I’m like that. Mostly fight.”
“Glad you’re feeling better,” Sophie said, “I hope you remember us the next time you turn into a toad and don’t throw anything at us.”
“Not trying to quid pro quo you,” Cheryl said, “But we could really use some help in return. When you’re glowing and yellow are you cognizant enough to return a solid, or does it not work that way?”
“There’s a good chance I could help you, but it’s pretty animalistic in there. I’m easily distracted.”
“We have these people…”
They heard a voice bellow out over the neighborhood, “Ellers.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Ben said.
The gang walked the long blocks, toward Engelbert and his crew.
“Alight, huddle up,” Cheryl said, “Piper, you have babysitting duty. Focus on Dethmetl. Psamurai, you get the mage hunter. Carl, take Englebert. Priest, you’re assigned to Earth, Wind, and Fire. I’ve got the Harajuku. Clear?”
“Got it,” they replied and joined hands in the middle of their circle.
“I’m not doing that,” said Cheryl.
They closed the distance. Engelbert's team stood in a line silent and scowling.
“You guys look like an album cover,” Cheryl said.
“As much as I’d love to indulge in your unfailing charm,” Engelbert said, “This has gone on for far longer than should have.”
“That’s because you thought it would be easy. You assume everything is going to be easy for you. You thought stealing my work would be easy. Look where that got you.”
“It is I,” said a squeaky voice, “Legendary, witch hunter, Abraham Van Helsing.”
“Really?” Cheryl groaned, “This guy?”
“I could call in backup,” Sophie said.
“You mean the vampire Uber driver?” Cheryl asked.
“He said we could call him.”
“Sure, why not? I was thinking this wasn’t enough of a circus.”
Sophie ducked behind her friends traced a circle in the dead grass with her foot. She performed a series of uncomfortable looking contortions of her hands. The circle began to glow. A shaft of light erupted into the sky.
Duke was crouched behind the open door of his car as bullets flew overhead. Skip hid in the backseat, peeking up every so often to get a lay of the scene.
“Aren’t you glad you came for a ride along?” Duke shouted.
“How are you against bullets?” Skip shouted back.
“I don’t know. Now isn’t when I want to find out.”
Several bullets sprayed from a Kalashnikov and peppered Duke’s car door.
“Jeezus, dude,” Skip said, “They’re turning your car into Swiss cheese.”
“Good thing I don’t drive for Lyft. They’d deactivate me.”
Duke felt an irresistible pull coming from an unseen force. He looked at his hands as they began to dematerialize.
“Bad timing, Priestess,” Duke said.
Skip watched as Duke dematerialized and millions of his disintegrated particles were sucked into a funnel of light into the sky.
“Duke,” Skip shouted, “What the hell, man, you can’t leave me here.”
As Duke regained his awareness he saw Sophie standing outside the circle he now found himself in. A battle was raging some yards away. As his vision resolved he saw swords swinging and electricity cracking and a small Japanese girl knocked a man the size of a semi-tractor through a fire department. Duke looked at Sophie, as he floated to his feet.
“484-555-2342,” Duke said.
“What’s that?” Sophie asked.
“My number. Maybe you guys could use that next time,” he cracked his neck, “What’s all this?”
“Big arch enemy fight. And that Van Helsing guy is here too.”
“Nice,” Duke cracked his knuckles, “Let’s do this thing.”
Sophie ran toward the fray, firing a volley of arrows into the melee. One hit Englebert in the back of his mech suit, causing a spray of sparks and fluid. Another stuck into Devanna’s shoulder. She broke it off and aimed her rifle at Sophie before she was hit by a blast of electricity. Another struck Yukio and ricocheted back at Sophie. Duke swatted it down and his hand sizzled.
“Shit,” Duke said, looking at his burn, “What are they made out of?”
“Focused light,” Sophie replied, “Basically a laser.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he floated above the fray and shouted, “Where’s is Van Helsing?”
“Who wants to know?” Van Helsing said.
Duke floated down to him, “Duke Dracula.”
“I have no beef with you.”
“What? You call yourself Van Helsing. Let’s see you walk the walk.”
“He thinks Van Helsing is a witch hunter,” Cheryl said.
“Dude, have you ever read Dracula? Stakes out, little man, we’re doing this,” Duke grappled Van Helsing by the shoulders.
“Now that Danzig has Stormfront occupied…” Cheryl said, “You know what you’re doing.”