Super Max and the Mystery of Thornwood’s Revenge
Superheroes should never be grounded.
But if I had to be grounded, being stuck in my grandfather’s workshop wasn’t all bad. Toppy and I sat close together in the giant metal outbuilding, since I wasn’t allowed to be on my own with tools and wires for a while—which was so completely bogus, because that fire was totally an accident.
Holding my breath so I wouldn’t holler at Toppy about my punishment and get kicked out of the workshop, I snapped a connector onto the circuit board on my table. Toppy had one of our kitchen chairs clamped upside-down on his workbench as he used wood glue and finishing nails to stabilize one of the legs.
“Come on,” he told the chair, his breath fogging in the chilly air. “Work with me.” He tested the leg. It wobbled. He glared at it and adjusted his trapper hat. “Max, hand me the Phillips-head.”
I grabbed the screwdriver from my table and rolled it over to him.
“Thanks.” He gave my circuit board a quick once-over. “You about done with that thing? If we’re out here much longer, I’ll need to turn on the heat.”
“One minute, maybe two,” I said. “It’s just a kit, and I didn’t change much.”
He went back to the chair, twisting the screwdriver and mumbling at it like it could understand him. I squeezed the red clown-nose on the top of my joystick. It honked as I motored back to my table. After that, it took me only a few seconds to snap the last circuit into place on the kit board, check the extra panel of LED lights I had added at the top, and then plug the main connector into my iPad.
I cued up a song and pressed play on one of Toppy’s favorite Elvis tunes.
“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” the King declared, and my circuit board lit up and changed colors in time to the music, just like it was supposed to do. Toppy let go of the chair leg and watched.
“Cryin’ all the time,” Elvis sang.
The little panel of lights I had added fired up and blinked SFC Stinks every four seconds.
Toppy’s eyebrows lifted.
“That’s—” Toppy started to say, but just then the little panel flashed again, twice as bright as it should have been.
I shielded my eyes. “Uh-oh.”
Toppy squinted at the glare. The panel made a popping noise, and the last three letters went dark.
Another flash of light made me wince.
A pop and a fizzy noise.
The last little bulb went supernova and cracked. Sparks shot from the edges of both boards. I leaned back as flames licked out from the added LED panel. The stench of burning plastic made me cough, but before I had to grab sand to smother the fire, it burned itself out.
Toppy came over to my workbench and unplugged my iPad from the smoking circuit board. He handed the iPad to me, then pointed to the extra wires I had used to attach the LED letter panel to the main board and the battery I chose to boost the power. They were smoking, too.
“You, ah, put a resistor in that LED panel you made?” my grandfather asked.
“I did,” I said.
“Well, either you didn’t wire it correctly, or the resistance was too low.” Toppy patted my shoulder. “It drew too much current, so it shorted and blew the resistor. That’s why your circuit board burned up.”
I stared at the fried boards, miserable. Four weeks of allowance, poof. Up in smoke. Literally. “I’ll work on my design.”
“How about next time you want to make a blinking sign, you start with a circuit board meant to power blinking signs, not flicker to iPad music. And the right resistors, too.”
I dug through my memory, trying to figure out where I’d messed up in my math. Those enhancements should have gone off without a hitch, even if the main board came from a kid’s kit.
“You can’t always make something haul the load you want it to, Max,” Toppy said. “Not when it wasn’t made to do that work.”
I didn’t answer, because I didn’t agree, and I was sooooo close to working my way off grounding from the fire. The other fire. The big fire. The real—oh, never mind.
“Let’s go, Max,” Toppy said. “It’s getting that time.”
• • •
Like I said, superheroes should never be grounded—and superheroes definitely shouldn’t be forced to watch
sappy brain-eating holiday movies on the Sentimental Flicks Channel. SFC. Yeah, as in the big, blinking, flame-spitting SFC Stinks sign.
On the giant-screen television that dominated our living room wall, a girl squealed as a guy who just happened to be a secret prince rode up on his horse to return her lost puppy.
Toppy, who had ditched his down coat and trapper hat when we came inside, ignored my sound effects. He kept his bald head bent over the crossword puzzle on his worktable, but when I groaned a second time, he shot me a sideways glare. “Finish that report if you ever want to see your best friend again.”
I bumped my joystick and backed up my wheelchair until I could look him in the ear. “This has to be child abuse.”
“There are actual people who suffer actual abuse in this world.” He scribbled a word into the puzzle. “Show some respect.”
The threat of more days without seeing Lavender and more nights of my grandfather’s heinous version of being grounded hung in the air between us. Movie credits rolled, and I muted the schmaltzy music, leaving the room quiet except for the pop-hiss of cedar burning in the fireplace and Toppy’s slightly too-loud breathing. The air smelled like evergreen and winter, and the secret
mug of Earl Grey tea with honey steeping next to Toppy’s crossword book gave off a shimmery feather of heat.
With a sigh, I picked up my pen and scribbled a paragraph about the movie’s ending, then slid my paper across the table toward Toppy. He took it and held it over his crossword, reading silently. The muscles in my neck tightened as his bushy white eyebrows lifted once, then twice. He tapped his pencil on the paper.
“Good insight about weak characterization. The Central Park Prince movies don’t offer much in the way of literary merit.”
I leaned hard against the back of my chair. “Literary merit? Who uses phrases like that in actual sentences in this actual century? No wonder you can’t get a date.”
“Wouldn’t date on a bet.” He kept reading. “And I’m not the nerd who can name every superhero in both the DC and Marvel universes.”
“Hey, it’s a useful skill.”
“I’ll be waiting on proof of that assertion without holding my breath.” Toppy held up my report. “If I accept this as your final paper, we’re agreed that you won’t modify anything else in the house’s electrical system without discussing it with me first?”
I squeezed the oversize clown-nose on my joystick tip, making it squeak. “If I had tightened the nuts on those wires, we would have been fine with my added fuses. I just wanted the breakers to stop blowing.”
“Well, they’re all tight now.” Toppy’s green eyes drilled into mine. “The three thousand dollars to replace the burned fuse box and repair the scorched wall was bad enough, but all that burned-up mess could have been the whole house. It could have been you.”
“I won’t touch the house electric again,” I conceded. My fingers trailed along my armrests, the leather covers currently painted with silver and gold runes I saw in a movie about faeries and King Arthur. “But my wheelchair—”
“That chair is no different than your legs. You do what you want with your own body, Max. Don’t let me or anyone else tell you any differently.” Toppy pushed my paper to the side and almost went back to his puzzle, but he paused long enough to add, “Though I’d rather you not bust the thing trying to make it fly or float on water or whatever you come up with next, seeing as I don’t have an extra ten thousand lying around to buy you a new set of wheels this year.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, my guilt rising like the heat off his tea. I hated how much my chairs cost, even though Toppy usually didn’t make a big deal out of it, even when I broke something or fried some wires trying new ideas.
“And no, you can’t have a tattoo until you’re eighteen.”
The phone rang.
Toppy and I both jumped and stared at each other. I caught the sudden sadness and concern on his face. The lines on his forehead deepened even as my stomach sank. Nobody would call at eight o’clock on a Friday night except for Mom.
My fists clenched on the arms of my wheelchair. “I don’t want to talk to her.”
Toppy held up one hand as the phone rang again. Caller ID flashed across the television screen, noting Blocked Number.
So, not a California area code. Not Mom.
Toppy answered the old-fashioned desk unit. “Yel-low?” Pause. “Wait, who is this?” Pause. “Facebook? Bunch of cat pictures and whining, far as I can see.” Pause. Then Toppy’s head flushed a bright shade of red. His eyes narrowed, and his jaw set, and when he spoke, his normally mellow voice ground out in a low growl. “Now you wait one minute, Margaret Stetson Chandler.”
I shot forward and bumped his chair with mine. When he startled, I leaned forward and grabbed the phone from his hand before he could say anything we’d all regret. Margaret Chandler was his least favorite person in the entire universe. She also happened to be Blue Creek’s most revered businesswoman, owner of Chandler Construction, and the mayor. Which made her Toppy’s boss.
“Hello, Mayor Chandler,” I said, happy because she wasn’t my mother. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“Maxine.” Her voice switched from cool to warm as she spoke to me, then blazed right on to red hot. “You tell that—that—that man to take down what he posted. Right now, or I’ll convene the City Council and we’ll have his separation papers finished by morning. I will not have somebody speak about my business and my family—and my hair—in that manner!”
I pulled the phone away from my ear, looked at it, then realized I couldn’t see whatever kind of confusion had infected Mayor Chandler through the mouthpiece. “I’m sorry to interrupt, ma’am, but are you talking about a Facebook post?”
“Yes!” She hollered so loud I heard her without the phone being back against my ear. “It’s right there on his page, and every single one of his posts is shameful. You’re a beautiful young lady, Maxine Brennan, and you know I adore you, but your grandfather is old enough to know better than to misbehave on social media. It’s unbecoming for a city employee, and absolutely inappropriate for the chief of police.”
I managed to get the receiver back against my ear without losing an eardrum to her shrieking, but it was a near thing. “Mayor Chandler, Toppy doesn’t have a Facebook page.
He doesn’t have a computer at home, he doesn’t have a smartphone, and he won’t let me have one, either.”
“Phones are for dialing telephone numbers,” Toppy grumbled. He had already gone back to his crossword puzzle.
“How can you say he doesn’t have a Facebook page?” Mayor Chandler sounded very skeptical, but at least her volume ratcheted down a few digits. “I’m looking at it right this very moment. Every post seems designed to make the town or me look foolish.”
Wow. I briefly wondered if Toppy had taken up Facebook over at the police station, but just then, he bit at his pencil eraser, absorbed in trying to find an eighteen-letter word for who-knew-what.
No. Toppy and Facebook, that just wasn’t happening.
“Just a minute, ma’am. I’ll be right back.” I put down the receiver, hit my joystick, and whizzed around to my side of the big drafting table, where my iPad rested on a custom stand Toppy built for me to hold it steady and at the exact angle I needed to be hands-free in my chair. I pressed my thumb to the fingerprint sensor, unlocked my screen, and pulled up Facebook. Then I typed my grandfather’s name into the search bar, but got nothing.
I had to stretch to get the receiver, then work not to get tangled in the cord (no, Toppy wouldn’t even do
cordless). “Mayor Chandler? I’m on Facebook, but I’m not finding any page for Toppy Brennan.”
“It’s not under Toppy,” she snapped. “It’s listed under his real name. . . . Oh.” She trailed off, the fire in her tone burning out completely. Once upon a time, a million years ago, Mayor Chandler had dated my grandfather. They were both in high school, before he joined the Army. They hadn’t been together very long, maybe a few months, but long enough that Mayor Chandler knew Toppy never ever went by his legal name. “Interesting. I mean, that’s unusual. I mean, why would—oh, never mind. I’m coming over.”
She ended the call.
I hung up the receiver and put my hand on top of Toppy’s crossword.
He glanced up at me, pencil poised over my third knuckle. “What was all that going-on about Facebook?”
“Mayor Chandler’s coming over. We’ve got ten minutes, assuming she wasn’t already in her car when she phoned.”
For the briefest moment, Toppy looked like a mortified SFC heroine just after the hero shows up and catches her in flannel pj’s. Because that’s exactly what Toppy was wearing. Red-checkered no less. With matching red fluffy bunny slippers I had given him for his birthday.
“The mayor,” I said, hoping to jar him out of stun.
“She’s coming here. Right now. I’ll get rid of the tea.”
My grandfather was seventy-four years old with arthritis in both knees. I never would have known that when he exploded up from the worktable and blew out of our living room, dropping a few not-okay-for-school phrases on his way to his closet.