Chris Key studied every detail and rumor. When his neighbor discovered an unexpected wormhole inside her vintage Flash Gordon lunchbox, he begged his parents for a matching one, hoping to join the battle against the alien overlord Xnudlinfyr. His hope faltered the next week, when he counted seven Flash Gordon lunchboxes in his class alone.
He regained confidence after hearing about Jasper Hicks, a high school freshman shoved into a locker by the junior varsity tennis team. Jasper emerged weeks later bearing a crystal sword and a talent for slaying monsters, made all the more surprising by his zero-and-eleven record at fistfights. Despite his own prowess in losing fistfights, Chris found nothing inside the lockers at his school but rotting food and sweaty hoodies, though he did discover how to pick the lock from the inside.
Of course, the locks were ancient and faulty to begin with. Like most Arrowton eighth-graders, Chris attended the old public secondary school. The lucky students went to the School for the Heroic and Fearless, with its modern amenities and no-homework policy. The lenient principal gave the young heroes the flexibility they needed to save the world every night, and the school district could claim a measure of credit for educating the chosen ones. Only the unchosen found the arrangement wanting.
Astrid twisted a strand of curly black hair around her finger. Both hair and finger were identical to Isadora’s. The girls had grown up believing they were twins adopted shortly after birth. In truth, as a government scientist explained to them a year ago, they were clones with different experimental genetic mutations. Isadora’s mutations gave her super strength, super senses, and super speed. She had already used her powers to save the residents of Milwaukee twice from the evil Viperisa.
Astrid’s mutations gave her an extraordinary tolerance for spicy food. No one became a hero with a gift like that.
“Seriously,” Isadora said. “I miss the old school.”
“Mine’s the School for the Hopeless and Forgotten. All anyone there cares about is getting their own quest.” Astrid thought of her history textbook. The person who had it the year before her had filled the margins with images of a cartoonish superhero, a key emblem on his chest, running through sewer pipes and punching tentacled monsters.
“It’s practically like that at my school, too,” Isadora said. “Everyone wants someone else’s quest.”
Astrid rolled her eyes and took a bite of ghost pepper sandwiched between two Flamin’ Hot Doritos. “Not helpful.”
The sisters sat in silence for several moments. “Well,” Isadora said at last, “I don’t have anything to do tonight. Viperisa’s gone quiet lately. Want to watch a movie?”
“I can’t,” Astrid said. “Homework. They say we non-heroes need algebra to get along in the real world.”
When he was six, he’d fallen down an unused well at his aunt’s dairy farm. It was too deep for him to climb out, and the strange insects and rodents he’d seen during the hours it took for someone to find him still populated his nightmares. In his nightmares, he pressed his fingers to the concrete walls of the well, looking for an entrance to a secret cave he never found, while rats and tarantulas and snakes crept over his skin without pausing to grant him a transformative bite that would catapult him into the ranks of the superpowered.
The nightmares were mostly about how he didn’t find a secret cave down there, and that none of the insects and rodents had bestowed upon him cool powers based on their everyday characteristics.
Now, he did his homework in the darkest corner of the basement and switched his phone screensaver daily to a new creepy animal. Heroes always had to overcome their deepest fears. He would be ready.
“He got a quest, I bet. You know those dreams he had?”
“Oh yeah, tunnels. Maybe the mole people summoned him.”
A shiver jolted her. She turned around. “Who are you talking about?”
“Chris Key. No one’s seen him since Tuesday. I bet the mole people…”
Boy trapped in the sewers, she texted Isadora. Do your thing.
After the bus parked, she slung her backpack over her shoulder and trudged into the building. Isadora could skip class to be a hero, but Astrid’s teachers would accept no such excuse.
He tried to distract his mind from the pain that kept him from moving with the thought of producing a map. He shined a flashlight down the tunnel and noticed several smaller holes; irregular, odd shapes, like an afterthought. Or an unauthorized addition. Maybe he could draw them later, if he ever got out of here. It was a good distraction, for a while, but the pain only grew as the morning stretched on.
Finally he heard footsteps thudding closer from further down the sewer. Fast, powerful steps, each one booming with purpose. He was right, something was down here—and he was in no position to do a thing about it.
All right, then. A hero’s fate was never certain. He was ready to die.
“Just a hunch,” Astrid said. “People never get the quests they want.”
“Are you kidding? Don’t sell yourself short. It was more than a hunch. And…” She lowered her voice. “It wasn’t just a boy down there. There were hideouts, a whole network of tunnels. I think it’s where Viperisa’s been hiding. I can’t believe I never thought to look there.”
A nurse entered the waiting room and considered the sisters with a skeptical expression. “He said, and these are his words, that he’ll only see whichever of you is a loser like him.”
“That’s stupid. You would have died down there.” She shifted from one foot to another. Probably bored. Not that he could blame her.
“At least everyone would think I died heroically.” He crumpled a flowery get-well card from Jasper Hicks. “Now they’ll think I’m a weirdo.”
Astrid shrugged. “You’re a good artist,” she said. “Your drawings are the best part of my history textbook.”
“Sure.” He’d heard it all before. “There’s a place for all types.”
She snorted. “Even useless duplicates? I mean, be happy you’re not a lookalike for the two-time savior of Milwaukee. Why’d you call me in here, anyway?”
“To pass along a message. My mom said I should thank the girl who rescued me.”
“I’ll tell Isadora.”
He rolled his eyes. Was she pretending to be this obtuse? “I meant you.”
“Oh.” She looked down, and then laughed. “Well, what are you complaining about, then? We all get our call to greatness!”
“I’m serious. No one would have found me if not for you. You’re like a psychic—or close enough that you could pretend to be.”
The sarcastic smirk vanished from Astrid’s face. “You might be onto something,” she said. “By the way, did you happen to see anything in the sewer?”
“I was kind of distracted by the smell. Some tunnels, I guess. Different-looking ones, like they’d been added recently.”
She crossed the small room in three strides and sat in the plastic chair next to the bed, her face now as earnest as her sister’s. “Look, I think you are The Locksmith, just not the way you imagined. What does a key do, right? It goes into dark chambers and unlocks things. You helped my sister find the answer she needed.”
His head was flat against the pillow, yet he felt dizzy. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying maybe keep working on that costume you’ve been drawing, but add a few tools to account for your limitations. You know, like a homing device, so you’re easy to find?” A smile spread across her face. “If you want to keep it low-tech, I know where you can find a really big ball of twine.”
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