Middle Grade -- Joseph Miller
My fingers twitched as I unlocked the treasure chest in my grandparent’s living room and pulled out the box marked “Amazing Spider-Man.” As I lifted issue #1 out of its sleeve, a part of me wanted to shout, “Halleluiah!”
I couldn’t believe Grandpa gave me his Spider-Man comics. It was the best birthday gift ever!
I flipped to Spider-Man’s origin story (my favorite part) and slipped into a daydream. What if a radioactive spider bit me? What kind of super power would I get?
With my luck, I'd gain a useless one like the ability to transform into a common household spider. No thanks! The last thing I needed was the power to shrink into a daddy longlegs. My six older brothers made me feel small enough.
What I really wanted was a way to stand out (in a good way).
Of course, that was hard to do when my brothers had already beaten me to all the cool stuff. Awards and trophies crammed their shelves.
Football Championships. Science Fair Ribbons. Young Writers Contests.
You name an activity or talent and one of them excelled at it. The only thing I was better at than them was being unlucky.
Odd accidents and strange mishaps followed me around like a couple of frisky black cats with extra sharp claws. They pounced at the worst possible moments, too. Not exactly something to celebrate. Although I had gone thirty three days without an incident, which was a new record!
The eerie calm of the last month gave me an irritating sliver of hope that this year might be different. I didn’t want to be the butt of people’s jokes anymore. There were only so many times I could listen to my brothers (or classmates) say something along the lines of, “Knock. Knock. Who’s there? Avery. Avery who? Avery-body run for the hills!”
Ha, ha. Very funny... the first time I heard it.
Anyway, back to my point. I needed to find something I was good at.
Something my brothers hadn’t done before me. Something eye-catching and trophy-worthy.
But first, I needed to read some comics... for inspiration.
The doorbell rang.
“Avery,” said Grandma from the kitchen. “Get the door!”
I banged the back of my head against the couch. Couldn’t I have five minutes of uninterrupted reading time?
“Avery, did you hear me?”
“Yes,” I said, setting the comic on the couch. “I’m going.”
The quicker I got this over with, the faster I could get back to reading. I rushed to the front door and reached out for the handle.
My hand stopped short.
What if my brothers were back from their super-secret birthday gift mission? I shuddered at the thought. Last year, they gave me an unsolvable 5 x 5 Rubik’s cube. The stupid thing drove me nuts for hours, until I figured out they’d switched some of the stickers.
Did I want to let them in? No. But would my brothers bother ringing the doorbell? Not likely. They were more of the pound-on-the-door-until-it-opens types.
My parents on the other hand... they rang doorbells. Maybe they’d finished making my birthday cake (Spider-Man theme!) and needed help bringing it inside.
I grabbed the handle and yanked open the door.
No brothers. No parents. No cake. Instead, a huge cardboard box stood on the front edge of the porch. Stamped on its front was a winged-hat logo that read, “Mercury’s Messengers: Delivery at the Speed of Now.”
I peered around the box.
Where was the delivery guy?
I yelled back into the house, “Grandma, you got a package!”
“Bring it in, dear,” said Grandma.
“It’s huge!” I said.
“Frank!” said Grandma. “There’s a—”
“I heard!” said Grandpa. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
While waiting for him, I inched forward.
The box’s shadow stretched over my feet.
A chill crept up my legs and back as if an army of centipedes were marching over them.
Was this another birthday present for me? My mind buzzed with the possibilities of what was inside. A model rocket kit? A remote control helicopter? The world’s biggest jig-saw puzzle?
I peeked at the shipping label for a clue, but all it offered was a mixture of letters, numbers, and strange symbols.
I ran my finger over the code. What did it say?
Grandpa stepped outside and frowned.
I couldn’t remember the last time I saw him without a grin. “Is something wrong, Grandpa?”
“Get the door for me.” He lifted the box off the porch like it was filled with feathers.
“What is it?” I asked.
Grandpa squeezed through the front door. “Nothing for you to worry about.”
He weaved his way around a knick-knack cabinet full of Wizard of Oz collectibles and a pair of shelves cluttered with books.
I chased after him. “Come on, give me a hint. Please!”
Grandma stepped into the hallway, blocking my way. “Stop pestering him and help me set the table for lunch.”
“But—” I tried to squirm past her.
She herded me toward the dining room. “No buts about it.”
Grandpa disappeared into the back room, the one which led to...
The click of a deadbolt echoed down the hallway.
My brain short-circuited. What had I been thinking about? I forced myself to focus. The back room. Where did it led to? The answer popped into my head like a cartoon bubble.
How could I forget my grandparents had one? I must have passed by the back room a thousand times, but never gave the basement a second thought. How weird was that?
Grandma dragged me over to the table.
I asked, “What’s in the basement, Grandma?”
Her eyes narrowed and she pointed me toward the silverware. “Fewer questions, more place setting.”
I grabbed a bunch of knives. Why didn’t she trust me? I was eleven now. I could handle the truth.
As I slapped silverware on the table, my birthday wish became crystal clear. More than anything else, I wanted to get inside my grandparent’s basement and find out what was in the mysterious box.
After what felt like hours of setting the table and peeling vegetables, Grandpa reappeared. He touched Grandma’s shoulder and whispered into her ear.
The color in her cheeks drained away. Her smile crumpled. She looked like someone had just run over Cheshire, the stray cat that hung around their house.
“Avery,” said Grandma. “That’s enough carrots. Go read your comics.”
I dropped my peeler in the sink, washed my hands, and escaped before she could change her mind.
I grabbed for the comic on the living room couch.
The echo of my grandparent’s footsteps drew my attention upstairs.
Were they going to talk about the mysterious box? I put the comic back down and crept up the steps to Grandpa’s study.
I pressed my ear against the door.
The music from the stereo drowned my grandparent’s conversation in a sea of blaring horns and booming drums.
A whole minute passed without hearing a single word. I almost gave up, but as I left the song died down.
“...know what happened to Demetrius?” asked Grandma.
“No,” said Grandpa, “They found him...”
A trumpet solo played over his answer.
Oh, come on! Couldn’t the band be quiet for one minute! Who was Demetrius? What happened to him? What was his connection to the mysterious box?
I tried to tune out the trumpet, but it was no use.
The door vibrated against my ear, then stopped.
Grandma’s voice cut through the unexpected silence. “...don’t want him in our house.”
“And where do you suggest we put him?” asked Grandpa.
“If it was up to me I’d...”
The music swelled, again.