Disclaimer: See Prologue.

Trial By Ed

Chapter XIV: On the Other Ed

The sun had begun it's slow descent across the sky, but the heat of midday lingered. Because of this, the Kankers, bereft anyone to tease (read: torment, inflict chaos upon, etc.) but unwilling to return home quite yet, had retreated to the shadow of the nearest fence, idly watching the workmen undo their handiwork. Well, for a definition of idle…

"Unbelievable."

"What is?"

In response to the middle sister, Lee pointed at the nearly complete facades of the homes across the street. "Two days, and they're almost done. But in two years, they still haven't finished the construction site."

"Isn't that kind of our fault?" May pointed out, stretched out on the weird kid's lawn.

From her perch on the fence, Marie shrugged. "Meh. If they haven't learned to tie down their stuff right, that's their problem…I think that this is a different company though, these guys look different."

Lee squinted. Out of the three, her vision was probably the worst. Her bangs, with their tendency to fall over her eyes, tended to have that effect. Even without pushing them out of the way, though, she could make out some of the figures; they did look different. "Huh."

While her sisters were comparing notes May had returned her attention to the builders; it looked like they were shoring up the wiring on her Ed's house… Something caught her eye. "Hey! Did that guy seriously just look at us and cross himself?"

"Heh. Creepy." Marie was snickering, though, so Lee didn't take her too seriously.

"…Let's get out of here. We got stuff to do anyway," Lee decided.

Let it never be said that Kankers did not have survival instincts. Drunks, lawyers, and religious nuts with power tools were high on their avoidance list…but a peeved Ma Kanker trumped all others. After a brief "nonverbal" conversation, the trio hopped the fence into wolf-boy's backyard.

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The site foreman sighed in relief as the primary sources of his income disappeared from view. He couldn't believe that that had worked, but he couldn't complain; the PCE crew would owe him big time for finding a way to ward off those menaces before they could start pinching their equipment.

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Jimmy was on a Mission. It had started when he and Sarah were flipping through a box of old magazines for pictures to collage for their homework. Perhaps it was fate, perhaps it was all this talk of superheroes getting to his head, but a headline jumped out to him—EM…Super-Design. Quickly flipping through the old magazine, he decided it was mostly articles and black-and-white pictures and set it aside.

Wait, what?!

He'd already set the magazine aside, but the moment the words registered in Jimmy's head, he reached back into the pile to retrieve it. Quickly, he tried to locate where he had seen the headline. Drat—he'd lost the page. He flipped to the front of the magazine and looked at the cover. It was an old Time Magazine, from April 1982—long before he was even born! How long has this been up in my attic?, he wondered. Still, he located a probable category in the Index. Index…Art…40. He flipped to the page and his eyes went wide.

EM Speaks: Secrets of Super Design

Inspiration!

"What do you have there, Jimmy?"

He turned the page over so Sarah could read it, but made sure not to hand it over—after this long, he knew how clumsy she could get when startled; he didn't want to risk this article being accidentally ripped…or burned, now. "Dunno, Sarah, but I think I have an idea…" He shrugged demurely, and set the magazine aside. "But, it can wait for later. Did you find any good tigers?" he diverted, pointing to her considerably brighter National Geographic.

And so the matter was set aside until later. But, Sarah and Jimmy were not best friends by mere circumstance; theirs was the product of choice. These two little manipulators would be the first to say that they made a great team. So it was no surprise that, this early in the school year, between the two of them they had wrapped up their assignments within the hour.

So now, they were exploring Jimmy's idea—costumes for the gang.

"Great find, Jimmy!" Sarah commented from the bed, where she was taking notes on the five-page-long Article. Jimmy was glad she seemed to be perking up, after the disappointment this morning. "I can't believe that Miss Mode was a fashion designer for superheroes!"

"Thank you. I mean, yeah, she has always been the pinnacle of avant garde fashion, but this…it sounds amazing, looks amazing, what she was doing. Is doing? Did you see anything else about her in there?" he wondered, trying to simultaneously point at the box from his perch by the window and the clippings he was assembling on the wall. After some experimentation with static cling, Jimmy had begun sticking pictures of superheroes from recent magazines onto the wall of his room, juxtaposing them with rough sketches he made from the black-and-white illustrations that accompanied the article. (They would have cut the pictures out, but they needed the text intact.) It made a nice visual reference.

"Nothing even close, and I looked back through the ones we'd already gone through even!" Sarah wrinkled her nose, clearly frustrated. Then she grinned. "Guess we'll have to go to the library tomorrow." Jimmy grinned through his retainer.

He was this close to declaring The Article his new bible.

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Away from the main roads, silence reigned during early afternoons in Peach Creek's wooded areas. The trees still rustled, leafy greens tinged with gold amidst the conifers, but the morning birdsong had died down as the heat of the day reached its peak, leaving only the incessant drone of insects in the leaf litter. This was about as silent as the woods got at this time of year, before every second became precious for whatever wildlife failed to migrate to warmer climes. Of course, this being Peach Creek, this peaceful tableau is easily shattered. As often the case, this, too, was accomplished by yelling.

"Come on, Lee!" Marie whined, dogging her sister's heels. "They were about to bring out that new torch. Why did we have to miss it?"

Lee grit her teeth, smoothly sidestepping some poison oak. "That guy with the cutter made the sign of the cross at us—what do you think! You know Ma tells us to avoid religious nuts with power tools!"

Marie rolled her eyes. "I still say it's stupid." The poison oak shriveled as she passed.

"Maybe he was trying to exercise us," May guessed, stepping right through the unfortunate plant, oblivious to the sound of cracking twigs and crackling of dehydrated leaves.

The elder Kankers glanced at each other, and shrugged. Sometimes, they really couldn't guess what went on in that blonde head.

"Whatever. We still have to get the laundry before Ma gets home."

The middle sister rolled her eyes at the reminder; the youngest groaned.

Soon they came to the "creek" that cut between Park-'n-Flush and Rathink Ave., and followed it upstream. September had so far been unusually dry, leaving their summertime routes along the creek open and mud-free. It suited the sisters nicely; they had carved this particular path out of a rough game trail over the past three years through sheer frequent use, and they all found it a pain to reroute during wet weather. Still, they had to fall into single file as they neared the "bridge" that crossed the creek. As they clambered over the split log footbridge, their home came into view through the other trailers.

May stopped. "Who left the lights on?" she asked, pointing at the illuminated kitchen window. Distracted, Marie tripped into her, tumbling them both straight into the dirt.

Their usual squabbling was cut off as Lee groaned. "Crap. Ma's back!"

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that any progress made at a measurable rate will inevitably be interrupted. In the case of Rathink Ave's 6th-grade population, it was by the call of nature. Sighing as his focus was broken by the machinations of a full bladder, Jimmy excused himself to the restroom, passing Sarah in the doorway as she returned from raiding her brother's semi-toxic comic stash. She shrugged, and started skimming Raiders of the Beyond for hat ideas.

Meanwhile, Jimmy concluded his business and emerged into the hallway—and was sent spinning as some force passed him by. Landing flat on the floor, it took him a few seconds to recognize something missing. He squirmed upright, trying not to tangle his pants any worse than they were, then pulled them back up. He could do the math.

Who would find casually pantsing someone funny?

Eddy.

Who could run so fast that Jimmy's keen eyes could not keep up?

Eddy.

While in the past such an action would have led to tears and passive-aggressive vengeance, Jimmy did like to think he had matured. Even knowing the culprit, he considered letting it slide. After all, at least it was just pantzing, and in his own hallway at that. Jimmy didn't know what he would have done if his pants had been stolen, with Sarah in his room…

Still, Jimmy knew he had to respond. "SARAH!"

His avenging angel peaked out into the hallway. "What happened, Jimmy?" she responded, seeing him pulling himself off the floor.

"Eddy pantsed me again."

Sarah's eyes lit up, then narrowed. "Now did he…?"

Jimmy smirked.

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It was a common item of gossip in the trailer park: what did those three girls' mother look like? Between her usual night shifts, weekend moonlighting, and taking any holiday shift available for the combined holiday bonus and overtime, almost no one had even seen her.

The theories ranged from the simple to the absurd. Maybe she was a classical beauty, able to turn every head in the room. Maybe she was short. Maybe she looked like a stereotypical addict of some sort. Maybe she wasn't a she at all!

What was she? The theories also ranged. Maybe she was a Madame, or a former prostitute. Maybe she was on the dole. Maybe she was a former bikette who traded in her ride for a trailer.

If you were to look at her now, however, you wouldn't see any evidence of whatever secrets her past life held. No, she just looked tired. In part due to working three jobs to support her family, in part the drain of energy that came from trying to keep up with her daughters' antics, but so much of it from that time. Out of that time, the only real good that had come was her daughters. She would have fallen apart if they hadn't needed her, and she would certainly have given up if it wasn't for the hand extended to her by a cousin she hadn't realized she had.

In truth though, although she had once turned heads when entering a room those days were long past. Three pregnancies had that effect.

No, now she generally just looked tired, and not a little bit bitter. But, at the moment, she just looked annoyed.

"Th' 'ell 'ere you?" Anne "Ma" Kanker growled through a stack of plates and bowls tucked under her chin, balancing precariously on a short plastic stool, but had turned to face the girls who had barely passed the threshold in their progression through the house. Her preparedness was no surprise.

The screen door in the Kankers' trailer creaked when it was shut. Of all the neglect the trailer endured, this one point was very much on purpose. Anne liked to know her…energetic daughters' whereabouts, but, realizing that no door had yet been made that they couldn't find a way through, she had since settled for being conveniently notified. As the only surviving exit in and out of the trailer, that squeaky hinge could inform of her children's comings and goings her far more reliably than their rare announcements.

"…Out."

%&^*! That was never an answer that spelled good news. She put the stack of dishes on the counter; she really couldn't afford to replace them on her income. "Cut the crap, Lee. What did you girls break this time?"

May pouted, Marie rolled her eyes, and Lee shrugged. "Nothing."

Anne froze.

Then blinked.

Then bit the inside of her lip. Ow. Okay, so she was not dreaming. She still couldn't believe her ears, though.

"…What did you say?"

"Nothing, Ma."

There had to be something wrong with this picture. "…Nothing? What were you doing then?" A thought hit her. "You weren't going and harassing those boys on the street again, were you?"

The replies came in unison.

"Nope."

"Nah."

"No way, Ma!"

Anne believed them. Since they had been dropped off at her doorstep by the state police a few years ago, and only narrowly avoided a CPS investigation thanks to higher intervention, her daughters had recognized just how precarious their situation was. (Or would have been. She didn't tell them just why the State had backed off, of course.) They wouldn't risk getting taken by the state and separated. At least she had taught them that much. "Good. What, then?"

"Um…" Finally.

"Marie, do you have something to tell us?" By the looks the other two were sending her middle child's way, this was an independent action, so it wasn't too reassuring. Still, if it wouldn't be a major issue, Anne needed to know what kind of damage control she'd need to deal with ASAP.

"I kinda pinched one of Double D's magazines. Didn't think he'd mind too much…"

Please don't let it be porn… no this is a teenage boy what am I thinking? Anne scowled. "Hand it over."

Marie sighed, but didn't protest as she pulled a rolled-up magazine out of her pocket and held it out. Anne took it, and skimmed the pages. What the…?

"Really, Marie? Engineering Digest? Why?" It was a moot point. Really, why did any of her daughters do anything? Still, Anne tried to be responsible and involved in her kids' lives, so she needed to ask.

"…Was thinking about building a bike or something."

…Huh. That was not something Anne had expected. Can't afford the parts, but if this'll keep her out of trouble, I'll beg the Boss for that raise. "Just don't give the kid too much crap if he asks for it back." She straightened. "Now why ain't the laundry done?"

The trio gulped.

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Something poked her shin, and the world turned sideways. Nazz glared at the ruler now lying flat front of her face, and peeled her cheek off the blue vinyl mat. "You still aren't keeping your balance, Nat." She pushed herself up, elbows first, eyes following the edge of the mirrors that lined the dojo's back wall.

"Hai, sensei. I know," she breathed out, as she climbed to her feet. The clock next to the mirror displayed 5:59 PM.

"Your coordination has definitely improved… but it looks like you need to work on not glancing back behind you during the step…need to work on that…" The clock beeped. 6:00. Sensei sighed. "Practice it for homework, and we'll continue next week."

"Thank you, sensei," Nazz bowed, and backed off the mat, when…

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Nazz blinked at her instructor, who was collecting rulers off the floor.

"Oh, right." She stepped back on the mat and began to run through some basic stretches. Considering her friends' predictions in mind, she really didn't want to be feeling two hours' worth of kata tomorrow morning. She decided she would go easy on her yoga practice later.

Meanwhile, her sensei bustled around her. Of his many quirks, Sensei's habit of throwing cheap advertisement rulers at errors in her stance was actually an improvement over past ways he'd point corrections out. Chalk really was too messy, and had kept getting in her eyes when she began. (Really, really nasty stuff.) Back then, when she had been working off that excess weight, the impact of a flimsy chunk of plastic had been barely noticeable by comparison. Now, however, it was an old friend.

Much like her stretch routine. Nazz didn't need to check the clock to know that she had completed the stretches in under ten minutes; by now, it was rote. Standing up she again stepped onto the scratched, rubbery black floor and made her way to the cubby on the side wall that she had stowed her gear in upon entering. This, too, was rote. She grabbed her bag and ducked into the first training room on the wall. Although equipped as a training room, with thick red mats good for falls, this training room had been functionally commandeered as a changing room long before she had begun taking lessons at Shotokanryu Karate, and remained such ever since. It made a convenient place to quickly change back into normal wear. Stopping at the doorway, she looked behind her. Did I miss anything? She had learned that in the gentle rush that followed a good workout, sometimes she would forget otherwise obvious items, like her shoes, on the way out. (Not a pleasant experience in mid-December.) Everything seemed in order, but the main room was empty. "'Bye, Sensei!" she called, pushing open the door, disturbing the door chimes. Tink-a-link-a-link.

"Stay safe!" Sensei replied, stepping into view through the threshold to the back room.

"Thanks, I will," Nazz smiled as best she could, and stepped out of the dojo. The sound of the bells faded and were silenced with a click as the door slid back into its casing. Despite the relative warm compared to the morning, after the warm interior of the dojo, she couldn't help but react to the chill, and paused to zip her jacket up further.

She looked up at the sky, already stained gold—the sun wouldn't be down for another hour. The Dojo was situated on the opposite corner from Peach Creek Junior High, next to the PCFD, in a converted shop, but its windows were not visible from the main training room, so she had missed how much time was actually passing. Despite her training, she was not allowed to venture outside the cul-de-sac alone after dark—except for Halloween, of course. For some reason, this was the only thing her parents could agree on, and the one time she did break the rule, she had been grounded for months. It was darker now than she had expected, still used to the summer months, but it was still light enough. Since she had time, she felt she could enjoy her walk home.

Checking both ways, she crossed the street and walked down the side of the road opposite the school. See you tomorrow, she thought at the building. It didn't seem to be occupied—the boys must have already gone home. It didn't appear to be destroyed, either. For a moment, she wondered who pulled off that miracle, before dismissing it as a foregone conclusion. Thank you, Kevin. Her first friend was probably the only kid on the block without a history of significant property destruction, directly or indirectly, and so was probably the resident expert on not leaving damage.

Even she herself had, in addition to Kev's bike, destroyed at least two fences and half a dozen windows without even trying. Getting away without destroying large objects seemed a little implausible in Nazz's experience—yet, Kevin pulled it off. She still wondered how he managed it.) Still, although she didn't seem to have any powers (yet), she knew that she would have gone with the guys to help prevent accidents, if only to take some of the work off her friend's back.

She wasn't in the least bit exhausted, which was strange, since Sensei had pushed her much harder than usual. Normally, she was allowed a break when she showed visible signs of fatigue—when she was gasping for breath, when her legs burned, when she was pressed to put any energy into her kicks. This time, she hadn't needed one. Not even once. She always seemed to have just enough energy to complete her tasks.

…It was weird, to put it mildly.

Passing by the school, she took a sharp right into the woods. The sky had turned a vibrant red; dark shadows raced across the ground, cast by branches silhouetted against the sunset. Under her feet, a fresh layer of leaves crunched, but she could feel the well-worn trail, a shortcut used for years by all the members of the residents of the cul-de-sac. Despite the dusk, there was no chance of her getting lost!

Then, not far in the distance came a slew of screeching voices. She couldn't make out the words, but Nazz recognized the voices far too well to mistake… the Kankers. What on…? Although this route did pass by the trailer park, she had never had trouble the Kankers who lived on the other end—what had brought them in this way?

A blood-curdling cry rang out from the same direction. Nazz nearly jumped out of her skin. Then, there was a crash. Unconsciously, her feet steered her toward the cacophony, cutting through the trees. She soon close enough to make out some of what they were saying.

"—you idiot!"

"…crap, May! Mom's gonna kill us!"

"…What the? ICK!"

"Woah…Stop bawling—cussin' helps the pain!" Nazz's jaw dropped as her ears were met by a frankly impressive barrage of what could only be swearing… She was pretty sure some of it wasn't even English…but who knew?

Beyond the underbrush, she could see the Kanker sisters… well, two out of three, which meant the third must not be too far away. They circling a twitching pile of leaves and branches. Nazz backed away, hoping to disappear into the brush and escape without being dragged into the sisters' latest chaos.

Suddenly, Lee Kanker's hand twitched, and she shot a glare at Nazz. Nazz froze. "Hey, you! Get over here." Mechanically, Nazz stepped forward, filled with dread.

Kankers…nightfall… It was like a scene out of a bad horror movie!

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Miles away, an intelligence analyst examining some two-year-old security footage was having the same reaction. He rewinds the segment, zooms in, and watches again. Then, he calls his superior.

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"Oh, come on! We don't bite!" The barking voice shook Nazz out of her reverie. Apparently, she was taking too long for Lee's taste; the lead Kanker huffed, and turned her attention to her sister. "May, make yourself useful and get the axe and jack."

May sloppily saluted. "Sure thing!" She took off in the direction of the trailers, running. Nazz idly noticed that on the in-between steps, when neither foot was touching the ground, she seemed to travel just a bit farther than she should. Using wind to push her along? she wondered.

Lee had returned her attention back to Nazz, though, cutting off that line of thought. "We just need an extra set of hands," she explained, pacing the pile. "May toppled this tree," she kicked the thick side of the trunk, where the branches had thinned, "Marie was in the way."

Nazz winced, now understanding. "You okay?" she asked the spot—about halfway down the tree, where she could hear scraping sounds. She got a muffled, angry-sounding, reply.

"She's fine," Lee asserted, considering. "Just stuck."

Fine? After being flattened by a tree? Nazz's disbelief must have been clear on her face, because Lee shrugged.

Kneeling down to break off some of the thinner branches, she unhelpfully explained. "Not the first time we've been nailed by one." Before Nazz could ask her to clarify, May popped up, holding a car jack and a

Nazz saw the axe slip out of her hand, headed straight toward her head. "GAAH!" She ducked and made for the side of the clearing.

"Give me that!" Lee caught the axe by the handle at the top of its arc, right where Nazz's head had been seconds before, and began hacking away at the lower branches. "Gonna poke your eye out someday," she muttered flatly.

May at least looked embarrassed. "Sorry," she said, "Forgot you were around."

Nazz took a moment to appreciate that the girl only looked embarrassed at the incident, and didn't look shaken in the least. Not for the first time she wondered what kind of insane home life could have produced her fellow cheerleader.

May stared at her blankly, opened her mouth as if to speak, then shut it. She then wandered over to help remove the branches as Lee sliced them free. Nazz could hear them speaking with the tree—or rather their sister underneath, Nazz realized—as they worked. As the load lightened, Nazz could see increasing movement in the debris. "Stay still Marie, I can't see that good," Lee cautioned, and the pile froze.

The chopping slowed to a stop; Lee stood up and stepped back, revealing the situation: two legs and feet sticking out of a shallow gouge in the ground that perpendicular under the trunk. Nazz could see now how Marie was unable to extract herself.

Lee seemed to nod—it was getting harder to see her face in the mottled light—and jammed the car jack in a parallel groove. "You girls keep the tree balanced. Maybe we don't have to use ropes, but I'd rather no one get crushed if this thing rolls over."

End in sight, Nazz walked over to the jack, and found a handhold on one of the remaining branches, then waited until May found one further down on the opposite side. Lee winched the jack; the tree shuddered and threatened to roll over with each inch. Nazz gulped, and tried not to bolt as the fifty-foot pine leaned toward her.

Finally, though, Lee seemed satisfied. "Marie, I'm going to pull you out now." She grabbed her sister's ankles, and tugged.

Only for the owner of the limb to yelp. "Watch the leg!"

"Shit!" Lee dropped the leg; Nazz stared. Even in the twilight she could tell that the liquid on Lee's hands was not tree sap. The eldest Kanker seemed to reconsider her strategy, and walked back around the trunk. "You're arms okay?"

Lee received a rather creative hand gesture for her concern. "…Yeah, they're fine." She grabbed the offending hand and pulled, dragging the rest of her sister out behind her.

The blue-haired Kanker did look worse for wear; covered in scrapes, clothes run through with pine needles, twigs sticking out of her hair. But, her expression was pure Kanker rage. "MAY YOU IDIOT!" Nazz winced as the girl threw herself at her sister, clearly out to pound her sister into a pulp.

"HOLD IT!" Lee caught her by the collar before she could land a hit, and pulled her over to assess the damage, pinning her down with one foot. "Marie, shouldn't you be bleeding?" she checked, eyeing a hole the branches had poked through her sister's jeans.

"Ya think?" came a snide reply.

May glanced her way. "You prob'ly want to get out of here now." Nazz nodded. Years-old Peach Creek survival instincts won out, and Nazz made a break for the trees while the Kankers were distracted by their bickering. Still, she thought she could hear them even as she made her way down the road.

A sniff. "Told ya she was just bellyaching."

"Nah, there's blood alright. Just not bleeding. Shit, what'd I break?"

"Oh! Weird…"

What's weird is that I'm still in one piece, Nazz thought, jogging again down the trail towards the creek. Even when they weren't going after anyone, Kankers were dangerous creatures, especially when wounded. Still, the incident drifted from her mind as she made her way home.