A few minutes later, security systems around the base came back to life. Power levels rose, scanners rebooted, and dormant patrol bots awakened. The life-signs detector came back online as the surveillance equipment drank of its electrical elixir. Dictator Jimmy’s voice crackled over the newly re-activated the comm. link: one word uttered, then static.
The simple statement ping-ponged throughout Sectors 1-4, a world of meaning compressed into three syllables.
“I must congratulate you. Your plan to use April and Nav as a diversion was a success.” He paused, allowing silence to intrude for a moment. “I went to investigate, and I must admit they caused quite a substantial amount of damage. However, the outcome of the encounter was, as you may have surmised, the inevitable one: both targets were successfully eliminated. Nav stabbed and knocked out April, and I shot him. These are not taunts, these are facts. I am merely giving you the information you need.”
His words twisted and turned through the passages as they snaked toward their intended target. He paused again.
“If you’d care to avenge your fallen comrades, I’ll be waiting for you in the control room. Let’s settle this, once and for all.”
He switched off the intercom. Elsewhere in the sprawling complex, across jumbles of identical passages, over countless tiled floors and past gun turrets and hidden traps and unlabeled rooms, Future Libby clapped a bandaged hand over her mouth.
“I can’t…I won’t believe it!” she gasped. “Not April an’ Nav!”
Future Sheen watched her reaction without comment.
“How could he! He's…he must just be sayin’ that to mess with Aurora’s head! He must be lyin' again, just like he was about you…”
Sheen flinched almost imperceptibly, then looked away. She bent forward and peered around the corner, and he dared another glance at her – or, more specifically, at her backside. When she turned around again, he gazed nonchalantly into the air as if nothing was going on at all.
“Let’s keep movin’…”
They proceeded in their cautious march, tense and alert. Future Sheen led, his restless fingers plucking the air.
Future Libby whispered to break the silence. “Sheen, I think…”
“Shh. Do you hear that?”
He lurched abruptly like a startled animal, and Future Libby jumped as well, more in reaction to his movement than to any perceived threat.
“That humming sound. The guns are coming back online.” He pointed to the gun turret mounted above the doorway a few feet away. “You hear it? You hear…RUN!!”
He grabbed her wrist and jerked her forward, and she cried out from the pain in her burned hand. They leaped through the doorway just in time for the gun to begin firing at the base of the exit – it missed them by a few inches. The violent, pinging ricochet still fresh in his ears, Future Sheen pulled one of Future Libby’s gold bracelets from her wrist and hurled it at the gun turret across the hall. After winging to its target, it sliced right through the cord hooked up to the motion sensor. The weapon fizzled anticlimactically, then went silent.
She looked back and forth between the gun and Sheen, eyes strained in disbelief. “Was that…that’s not even possible!” she gaped. “How did you even do that?”
“Have you ever seen those guys on TV who cut stuff in half with playing cards? They just sort of wail them, and bam! Slice right through. Anyway, I remembered watching a show like that when I was a kid. Thought I’d give it a try.”
He grinned. “Heh heh, you like that? Wait to you see what else I can do!”
She stared up at the now harmless weapon, a wrinkle of disbelief still clinging to her features. “Well, maybe you got it this time, but what about the rest of the guns? I’m gonna run out of bracelets.”
He laughed, then jogged across the hall. “I’ll take this one!” he said, gesturing at the mounted gun.
He jumped up and grabbed the stock, then wrenched the whole thing down. Sparks and a few wires rained down along with it, and Future Libby winced.
“Will that thing work now that you yanked it out of the wall?”
“No idea! But it’s a pretty solid hunk of metal. Worse comes to worst, I’ll just chuck it at the next gun. Shall we?”
She followed somewhat reluctantly; casting glances over her shoulder. The next passageway had no weapon; neither did the passage after that. As they snuck forward, Future Libby fought a growing unease.
“Uh, Sheen?” She tiptoed in circles, shoulders drawn tight. “They always tell a girl to never ignore her instincts, and right now I feel like we’re bein’ watched…”
His hand tightened around his weapon. “I feel it too. I think it might be spyders.”
“Spiders? How could spiders be watching us?” Fear crossed her face. “….You don’t mean genetically engineered super-bugs or something!?”
“No, not spiders. Spy-ders. With a y.”
“Spy-ders? What are those?”
“Exactly what they sound like. Little surveillance bots that look like spiders. He made me fight them once. I hate them.”
Something flashed in her peripheral vision, and she whipped around just in time to catch a glance of scuttling, needle-like legs as they vanished into a patch of shadows. She shuddered and moved a little closer to him. They came upon a small alcove just before a 3-way intersection of passageways, and Future Sheen motioned for Libby to hang back while he checked the area.
“OK, I think we’re set. If we keep going at this pace, we should…” He turned back to check on her, and his expression changed in mid-sentence. Lunging forward, he dropped his gun. “LIBBY! Behind you!”
Future Libby cried out as a torrent of spyders streamed down from the ceiling and onto her body. She stumbled backward and crashed into a section of wall behind her as the shimmering metallic creatures engulfed her. Future Sheen cleared the distance between them in a single bound and slashed at Future Libby’s attackers, sending them flying one by one. She threw off the rest herself with a screech of disgust.
As the last of the spyders retreated back along the sides of the corridor, the rhythmic sound of mechanical footsteps echoed from somewhere in an adjoining passage. He reacted quickly, pushing the shaking Future Libby into the alcove between the halls. He shielded her body with his own, his bare back exposed to whatever enemy might be approaching. He slid a hand over her mouth and leaned in close to whisper.
“Shh, not a sound…”
Future Libby nodded, eyes peeled wide with fear. They stood motionless, every muscle drawn tight. Future Sheen gazed over his shoulder, watching intently for the slightest movement. After what seemed like hours, the footsteps faded into the distance, and the corridor once again fell silent. Future Sheen removed his hand from her mouth, and Future Libby slumped forward in relief, burying her face against his chest. With adrenaline-fueled clarity, she felt the texture of his skin, sticky with sweat, and noticed the pattern of goose bumps that rose and fell with each breath. She quickly straightened.
“I think we need to find you a shirt…” she laughed nervously.
She looked up at him with an unsure smile, expecting a laugh or a reassuring glance. When their eyes met, however, the color drained from her cheeks, and she took a step backward. His left eye was glowing, and his sudden, frightening smile left her throat feeling dry. He effortlessly pushed her against the wall with one hand and leaned over her, his frame silhouetted against the partition of light beyond their darkened alcove. His teeth flashed in the darkness, but her attention remained fixed on his eyes, which gazed back at her with an alarming intensity. She squirmed, trying to look away from him. His free hand wandered to her hair, and he wound a stray braid around his finger, staring at it in fascination.
“Sheen, what are you doin’?” she hissed.
In response he leaned closer, and Future Libby shrunk back against the wall, the blood pounding in her ears. He touched her face, and her eyelids threatened to close. Desperately, she tried to regain control of the situation.
He didn’t seem to hear her. He merely shifted his weight and brought his body closer to hers. His eyes traveled over her features, devouring each one in turn, as if he were seeing her for the first time. When he spoke at last, his voice was low and distant.
“Ten years Libby…ten years I was locked in that cell. Do you know what ten years in the dark does to a person?”
She suppressed a squeak. A shiver ran down her spine as his hand wandered dangerously close to restricted territory.
He grinned and murmured in her ear. “You know what kept me from going insane?”
“You mean, more insane than you already were?” she asked hopefully.
He didn’t acknowledge her attempted joke, but merely smiled harder. “YOU. The thought of seeing you again…”
Future Libby entered full-out panic mode. Dizzy from the sight of him, the sound of him, the smell of him, she grabbed at the wall behind her.
“It seemed like I couldn’t get you off my mind,” he murmured, eyes half-lidded. “Your voice, your smile, your laugh…I waited for the day when I’d get to see you again.”
He petted her hair, his red eye glowing brighter. “When I was all alone for those endless hours, I thought about this moment. I imagined your eyes…”
He leaned in and gently brushed his lips across her eyelids.
He kissed the end of her nose, and his hot breath lingered in her nostrils. She shut her eyes and tilted her head down.
For a breathless moment Future Libby was sure that she was going to faint. Terror and anticipation welled up inside her, but at the last minute Future Sheen straightened, suddenly tense.
He stealthily crept to the edge of the alcove and peered out. Future Libby seized the opportunity to turn away from him and gather her wits. Heart pounding, knees shaking, she drew in a deep breath.
“Get a hold of yourself, girl!” she chided under her breath. “This is Sheen we’re talkin’ about here.” Her hands flew to her burning cheeks, and she shook her head vigorously, her braids flying. “Oh jeez, why did he just do that? That was so…! Sheen doesn’t do stuff like that. Sheen is awkward and geeky and hyperactive and cute, not tall and dangerous and obscenely attractive and…oooh! Snap out of it girl!”
“Uh…Libby? Who are you talking to?”
She landed back in reality and, without meaning to, met his eyes. To her profound relief, there was no trace of the hunger that had been present just a moment before. He smiled back amiably, and the tension in the air broke.
“Don’t worry, they’re going the other way. You’re perfectly safe here.”
“Safe from them, at any rate…” she muttered.
“What was that?”
“Oh…n-nothing. What you were saying before. Are…are we almost there?”
He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Uh…to tell you the truth, I don’t really know how to get to the control room. I mean, I have a vague idea what the base looks like, but I’m kind of shooting blind here.”
She sighed. “It’s OK. If we keep walkin' in the same direction, we’re bound to find it sooner or later. Maybe it’s better if we take our time anyway. Aurora probably wants to take care of this on her own.”
“Well, we’ll give her plenty of time, then,” he said slowly.
“I didn’t mean…I just think we’d just be a distraction to Aurora. She…well, I mean, sometimes she…I uh…sometimes I…”
He grinned briefly at her verbal train wreck, then motioned for her to come along. Future Libby followed close behind, struggling to gather her discombobulated thoughts. He grabbed the gun from the floor on their way out and twirled it in a painfully transparent attempt to impress her. She laughed in relief, and the two of them resumed their silent trek toward the main control room. Closer…
Back in Sector 5, the door to the fifth room flew open, and all five kids and Goddard tumbled through and fell on the ground with an audible sigh of relief.
“Aww, man!” exulted Sheen. “It’s a good thing I’m such a hyperactive insomniac or we would’ve all been stuck like Rip Van Winkle in there!”
Jimmy stood and straightened out his clothes. “How do you even know that term?”
“That’s what the doctor told my dad after this one time that I ran around the house for 48 hours straight.”
“Ah, well. That would do it.”
Libby yawned loudly and shook Carl, who muttered incoherently. “No Mommy…just five more minutes…”
Jimmy helped Cindy to her feet, then prodded Carl with the tip of his shoe. “You can get up now. The effect of the last room should have worn off.”
The chubby boy rolled forward and grabbed onto Sheen’s pant leg, then used it to haul himself up.
“Hey! You wanna watch where you’re grabbing?!”
They took a moment to survey their surroundings: the room started out wide on either end, then pinched into a narrow passageway in the center, like a gigantic hourglass.
“Hmm, guess the door out of here must be on the other side of that passage,” deduced Jimmy.
Cindy took a step forward, and a cloud of finely ground powder billowed up on all sides of her foot. “What the…? Neutron, there’s some kind of dust coating the floor.”
“Really?” Frowning, he bent down to get a closer look. He brushed his fingertips across the ground, then rubbed the substance between his fingers. “Weird. It feels like corn starch…”
Libby looked down. “Come to think of it, it’s all over my clothes.”
“Ugh, mine too.”
The girls rapidly brushed off their suits, kicking up the unidentified powder, which expanded and rose in delicate plumes until it reached face height. Jimmy’s eyes grew wide, and he pulled the collar of his suit up over his mouth before he could inhale. His warning, however, came a few seconds too late.
“Hold your breath! Don’t breathe it in!”
Even as the words left his mouth, the others broke out hacking on the airborne particles.
“What is this stuff!” coughed Libby.
“I can’t say with absolutely certainty,” replied Jimmy, “but I suspect it’s some sort of concentrated version of the love potion!”
Expressions of horror swept through the group, and Sheen darted forward.
“Quick, somebody break out the stinky cheese! I refuse to be at the beck and call of merciless lady love! I can’t lose my freedom! I have my pride as a man to consider! I have…well, helloooo sweet thang…”
He instantly changed pace and sidled over to Libby. He waggled his eyebrows and threw an arm around her shoulder, and she responded by giggling flirtatiously.
“Oh Sheen, stop being such a kidder! You’re makin' me blush…”
He tickled the underside of her chin. “Hey there pretty lady…did you illegally park in a handicap space? ‘Cause you got ‘fine’ written all over you…”
She played with a lock of her hair. “Cut it out!”
“Shall I compose a poem to your loveliness, a sonnet to your charms? Ahem: Libbylicious, you are sweeter than ice cream, more addictive than video games, hotter than summer vacation…”
“…more radiant than the Nebulon galaxy, and dare I say it, you make my heart beat faster than part 2 of the Ultralord season finale!”
Libby drew in her breath. “More than Ultralord? Sheen, I’ve never heard such a sweet compliment! You sure know how to make me smile…”
He leaned in closer. “I can do more than just make you smile…”
Jimmy gaped at the spectacle, eyebrows askew in simultaneous amusement and revulsion. Pulling his shirt tighter over his mouth, he awkwardly mimed sticking a finger down his throat.
“Ugh! Gag me!”
He stiffened a moment later when he felt a pair of hands slide up his shoulder blades. Cindy leaned over and whispered into his ear from behind.
“I think you like it…”
Jimmy’s cheeks instantly flushed red. She wrapped her arms around him, resting her chin on his shoulder.
“You know how I’m always picking on you and giving you a hard time? It’s ‘cause you get to me. You get under my skin like nobody else can.”
Jimmy gulped, then carefully extracted himself from Cindy’s embrace. “Uh, Cindy…” he said, backing away, “I appreciate what you’re trying to say…but…uh…oh boy…”
She advanced toward him, eyes glittering alluringly. “Remember when we were stranded on the island together?”
He nodded dumbly.
“That was the happiest I’ve ever been. Whenever I’m having a bad day, I think back to that, and I feel better. Come to think of it, there’s nobody I think about more than you. Sometimes I spy on you across the street with my Mom’s binoculars.”
“OK, that is really creepy…and I…I…” His vision started to dim as the love potion overpowered his judgment.
“I love your big show-offy brain and your junky little tin rocket,” she continued. “And I love it when your experiments go horribly awry, because it gives me an excuse to rag on you…”
She crossed the space between them and, looking up at him from under her eyelashes, slid a hand up his chest.
“No,” he protested, “no, you’re just saying that because of the pheromones…you don’t really mean it…we have to get to the door…we have to…”
Goddard’s rear compartment popped open, and the chorus of “Ice Ice Baby” started blaring from his speakers.
“Goddard! You’re not helping!”
“Neutron…” she whispered, eyes asparkle.
He grew weaker. “You smell so good…”
Streams of sensation drizzled down him like warm syrup as the airborne powder seeped through the fabric of his suit. Mind dulled, limbs weak, and innards knotted, he searched for a way to escape. Instead, he found himself firmly glued to his position, unable to control his own actions. He opened his mouth to shout; instead, a soliloquy poured forth, sickeningly romantic words penned against his will by some sadistic, all-controlling force.
“Before you, Cindy, my life was like a moonless night. Very dark, but there were stars, points of light and reason. ….And then you shot across my sky like a meteor. Suddenly everything was on fire; there was brilliancy, there was beauty. When you were gone, when the meteor had fallen over the horizon, everything went black. Nothing had changed, but my eyes were blinded by the light. I couldn’t see the stars anymore. And there was no more reason for anything.”
Immediately after the words left his mouth, Jimmy’s face crinkled into an expression of disgusted disbelief. “Ugh!! What in the name of Carl Sagan was that? Who SAYS stuff like that?”
Cindy took a drag of the dusty air and then blew it out gently. “Shh…” she put a finger to her lips. “Just shut up and close your eyes…”
She leaned in to kiss him, but before she could bridge the gap, someone yanked him backward, and Cindy ended up face-planting onto Jimmy’s chest instead.
“Stay away from him!” came Carl’s catty voice. “He’s mine!”
“Wait, what?” yowled Jimmy. “What the heck??”
“Don’t leave me, Jimmy!” begged Carl. “I love you even more than your Mom!”
Cindy flailed her arms to regain her balance, and the brief pang of alarm caused her to return to her senses. “What the…? Did Carl just steal Jimmy right out from under me? And since when did I become such a pathetic drool-monkey anyway?”
Libby’s cry rang out from across the room. “Wait, Sheen, come back! I can’t survive without you!”
Somebody grabbed Cindy’s hand a second later, and she stumbled forward to find Sheen kneeling at her feet. He planted a kiss on her palm, then in a flourish jumped up and twirled her around.
“Oh flower of my heart! Apple of my eye! Grapefruit of my hand! Miscellaneous fruit of my nether regions! I can resist you no longer…you’re so smart and blonde and talented!”
Cindy was shocked to find her natural reaction – detestation – give way to pleasant surprise. Her heartbeat quickened, and she tripped over her words, suddenly bashful.
“Sh-Sheen, I never knew you felt that way!”
“Sure I do! How could I not be crazy about a girl like you?”
“You mean, all those times that you got amped up on sugar, and I wanted to strangle you until your eyes popped out, you really were just trying to show me your real feelings?”
“You got it, sister. I think you’re the most angelic, most beauteous, most…most…” His gaze wandered away from her face and re-focused on a point in the distance. “Oh, wow…I never noticed what beautiful blue eyes Jimmy has…”
Sheen dropped Cindy, who landed with a thump on the dusty floor. He pirouetted over to Jimmy, who was busy tickling Carl’s arm a few feet away. He rested his elbow on Jimmy’s shoulder, then flashed him a come-hither smile.
“Hey there, big boy…” he purred seductively.
Jimmy looked over, and his mouth fell open. “Sheen…you’re so tall…”
“And your nerdy little genius routine makes me so hot…”
Carl glanced past them and spied Libby, who was helping Cindy off the floor. In his mind, the lines of her body melted and coalesced into a giant candy Easter bunny.
“Oh my…” he gaped. “Libby is a chocolate goddess!”
Libby paid him no mind; all her attention was focused on her friend. She adjusted Cindy’s suit for her and gently brushed a lock of hair off her forehead.
“Don’t worry about them, girl. They’re just stupid boys. We don’t need them.”
Cindy blushed. “L-Libby…”
“Shh…” she kissed Cindy on the nose. “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”
“Libby…you’ve always been there right next to me, but somehow I never noticed…”
Carl dashed forward after his cocoa idol, knocking Jimmy straight into Sheen’s arms in the process. There was a moment of breathless silence as their eyes met.
“Sheen…I can’t stop thinking about you…”
Sheen leaned in, his mouth millimeters from the other boy's. “Kiss me, my big-headed…HEY! What the heck?! Jimmy, what is your dog doing to my leg??”
Sheen pulled away, leaving Jimmy clear-headed for a moment. He shuddered violently and repetitively wiped his mouth.
“Of all the vile, repulsive…ugh!! I almost kissed Sheen! This is madness! This is…anarchy! We need to get out of here before this situation gets any more out of control!”
Carl dove forward and slid on his knees, coming to a rest in front of the girls, who were staring into each other’s eyes with a look of utter bliss.
“Libby! Please love me! I’ll bring you cake and cookies and those weird rap CDs and anything that you want!”
“Why, Carl…” gasped Cindy, “you’re so rotund…
Sheen yelled out from his spot across the way. “Hey! I need wine and flowers over here! Goddard is SO high maintenance!”
Jimmy stared straight down at the floor, desperately trying to keep from looking at any of the others.
“This is so hideously out of character! It’s like we’re caught in the middle of some horrible fanfiction! We’ve got to get out of here! Come on, Jimmy, think! Think…thiiiink….”
He retreated inside his own mind, searching for the elusive, last-minute inspiration that had saved him so many times before. Threads of insight wound through his inner vision, tangling and looping through cascading imagery, some real, some fanciful. But before he could arrive at a solution, his mental reverie devolved into a low-budget flick featuring a bikini-clad Cindy running down the beach in slow motion. Further clarification failed to dawn on him, and his brain-blast came to a close with nothing more than a lingering desire to see Cindy in yellow polka dots.
“What?!” he shouted angrily. “That was it? I can’t get my brain to cooperate at all!”
He beat his fist against his own forehead to punish the culprit, then, feeling defeated, looked up to see what sort of pandemonium might be unfolding. Sheen was chasing Carl around the room, while Cindy and Libby were curled up on either side of a pimped-out Goddard, who was blasting “This is why I’m Hot” at full volume.
“Wait, Carl!” called Sheen. “I need you to bear my children!”
Carl ran in circles, arms extended. “I believe I can flyyyyyyyyy!…”
Fighting a wild, irrational attraction to each and everyone one of his friends, Jimmy had a flash of realization. What sense was there in fighting the love potion if he could use it to his advantage?
“Well, I can’t believe I’m going to do this, but…when in Rome…”
The others looked up a moment later in response to the shrill whistle that resounded throughout the chamber. The sudden sound attracted their attention to Jimmy, who had assumed a seductive pose some distance away from the group. Back arched and rear end protruding, Jimmy touched a finger to his lips, his expression pinched into a coy, unsure smile.
“Hey you guys…”
He winked, then twirled around once, executing a subtle hair-flip at the end of the revolution. The room played scandalous tricks on their eyes – Cindy saw a lab-coat clad Jimmy, holding a bubbling test tube which casts greenish reflections on his face; Libby caught a glimpse of a boy in loose jeans, leaning coolly against a brick wall. Sheen saw an extremely feminine Jimmy decked out in a purple Ultralord swimsuit; Carl saw Jimmy with Judy’s hairdo, and Goddard saw a very inviting leg.
Libby fanned herself. “What a hottie! I think I’m gonna pass out…”
Jimmy basked in the attention, calculating, letting his desire for all of their affections motivate his actions. “Ooooh guys…don’t you wanna come play with me? I have all the desirable qualities in a mate! I’m youthfully rubicund and obstetrically capacious!”
Sheen jerked a thumb in Jimmy’s direction. “I have no idea what that means, but I want me a piece of that!”
Jimmy turned and scampered away, swinging his hips from side to side in an over-the-top imitation of female decadence.
“Ya, that’s right, come ‘n get me…”
The others bolted after him; as they squeezed through the narrow center of the room, they pushed and shoved each other to vie for the best position.
“Out of my way, Carl, you big fat lump!” barked Cindy.
Sheen used his shoulder to pin her against the wall. “Cram it, sister!”
She pushed him off. “You cram it, ultrawimp! I’ll kick your –“
“Hey, he’s gettin’ away!” pointed Libby.
Somehow the lust-intoxicated kids managed to break free from one another and stream out into the second half of the room. The moment they were through, Cindy clenched her fists, wheeled around, and slapped Libby across the face.
“I saw you! I saw you looking at him! How dare you try to steal him from me? I thought you were my best friend, you back-stabbing man-eater!”
Libby dragged the top of her hand across her mouth, and her shocked expression gave way to one of anger. “Man-eater? Oh, that’s rich comin’ from you! You were the one who stole Sheen from me back there, remember? You can’t just help yourself to what’s mine!”
Sheen draped his arms around the both of them, feigning cool nonchalance. “Ladies, ladies…there’s enough of ‘the Sheen’ to go around for everyone. Don’t you worry your pretty little heads…”
Libby threw his arm off. “Hey, don’t tell her not to worry! You’re supposed to be on my side, not hers!”
Jimmy marched over and thrust his way in between them. “Why on earth would he be on your side? He’s my best friend!”
Behind his glasses, Carl’s eyes flashed. “I thought I was your best friend, Jimmy.”
“You’re…you’re both my best friends…”
“You can’t have two!” countered Carl.
Sheen considered. “Hmm. He’s right. You’ll have to pick.”
Jimmy looked back and forth between the two, caught off guard.
“Well, which one of us is it going to be?” demanded the red-haired boy.
After a few seconds of silence, Sheen inflated his chest proudly. “Aha! See? I told you he liked me best.”
“No way! He didn’t even say anything!”
Cindy leaned back against the wall, looking them up and down scornfully. “Pfft, you’re both idiots. When it comes down to it, he’ll always put me first, and you wanna know why? Because I’ve got something that you don’t have.”
“Girly parts?” suggested Sheen.
“Halitosis?” put in Carl.
“No you idiots! A brain!”
Libby rolled her eyes. “As if! Everyone knows guys don’t care about brains. They only care about how you look. And I think we all know who will be the prettiest when we grow up…”
“Oh, don’t be so full of yourself!” scoffed Cindy. “Your older self dresses like a skank!”
“Your older self IS a skank!”
“Oooh…burn…” winced Sheen.
Cindy whirled angrily to face him. “Shut up, Sheen!”
Their argument continued to escalate, becoming more and more irrational with each passing comment.
“What are you talking about, Vortex? My handwriting is infinitely superior to yours! What about your stupid curly-cue nonsense could possibly make you think it’s better than mine?”
“Puh. Yours looks like it was written by a malfunctioning robot!”
“Bark bark bark!”
Jimmy grabbed at his head in frustration. “Ugh, just stop it, Vortex! Just stop it! Stop always trying to be better than me! It’s useless, useless, useless! You’ll never be better than me! And you look like a fool whenever you try! Just accept you’re second best and get on with your life!”
He broke off, breathing hard. Sniffling in the quiet moment that followed, he wiped a finger under his nose, smearing sticky red across his face.
A few seconds later, trickles of blood oozed from all their nostrils. Carl teetered a little, sickened, while Jimmy held his nose and tipped back his head.
“Must be some sort of after-affect of that powdered love potion,” he surmised, voice muffled. “Man, what were we thinking, shouting at each other like that? If this room was able to cause a nosebleed, who knows what other kind of psychosomatic damage we might be sustaining? I don’t want to get out of here only to collapse from internal hemorrhaging. Let’s keep our heads and keep moving.”
They nodded, frightened by their own behavior. Clasping their nostrils shut in unison, they followed Jimmy to the door a few feet away. He turned the handle and pushed it open.
“Hold your breath…”