Jimmy heard his own voice speaking, but found that he was not the one saying the words.
" …Be prepared to be awed and entertained by my latest invention. Before beginning, however, I feel obligated to provide a disclaimer. I warn you, what you are about to see may be too much for your meager minds to comprehend."
Jimmy's surroundings began to swim into focus, and he found himself standing in front of a classroom of blank stares.
Nick tossed up a coin and caught it. "Dude, just get on with it."
"Ya," put in Butch. "Some of us would like to get out of here before we actually learn something."
Jimmy felt himself roll his eyes. "“Ugh, fine. Unimaginative troglodytes...Ahem! Without further ado, I present to you what might possibly be…and I know I’ve said this before…my greatest invention ever!"
The genius held the triangle up above his head, and when it caught the light, it sparkled with a crimson aura. Britney oohed and aawed at the sight, and it was at this point that Jimmy's consciousness finally jolted back into his body. He doubled over as if punched in the gut, involuntary gasps pouring from his mouth. Before any of the students could comment on his sudden and seemingly unprovoked spasm, Carl made an even greater spectacle of himself.
"Oh my gosh," he yelled to the room, "we're back! We made it you guys! We're back home!"
There was a moment of silence, and then the students broke out into laughter.
"Sweet, dude," snickered Nick. "Glad to hear you're back from your visit to Retardia. I hear you're a real celebrity there."
"Not Retardia, another universe! We've been gone for days, and had all sorts of adventures, and oh...I'm so happy to see you guys!"
Sheen, overcome by the convulsive after-effects of his own transport, flew off his chair and rolled onto the floor. He twitched a few times before he was able to hoist himself up onto all fours.
"Gah, how can you be happy at a time like this? We're back in school, darn it! School, as in homework and sitting still and extended periods of cartoon deprivation. Think of what we've lost! Weep for it, man! Weep!"
"Dude, what are you talking about?" asked Nick, looking around. "Who are you even talking to?"
Butch reclined in his chair, gnawing on the end of his jumbo eraser as though it were a strip of beef jerky. "Haha, Sheen's flipped his lid too! This is awesome!"
Sheen slapped the floor. "Ha! Shows what you know! I never had a lid to begin with!"
Butch picked a chunk of eraser out of his teeth, then stood, brushing rubber shavings off his shirt. "Ladies and gentlemen, as your democratically elected classroom bully, it is my duty (and my pleasure) to mock and humiliate these two on your behalf. On the count of three, say it with me: one, two, three! 'Yes I can!'"
"Yes you can!"
Arms still wrapped around his waist, Jimmy lifted his face just enough to glare at the bully. "Cut it out, Butch. Leave them alone."
"Aha." Butch swiveled round to face the boy genius. "It seems the peanut-head gallery is volunteering to be mocked as well."
Jimmy straightened, his breathing finally under control again. "First of all, it's 'peanut gallery', and second of all, I'm not volunteering. I'm telling you to leave them alone."
"You sure? I don't mind adding you to my 'to mock' list. I am an equal-opportunity bully, after all..."
"Butch, I said it once, and I won't say it again. Shut up and sit down."
"Ooooooh..." chorused the students.
"Oh yeah, peanut-head?" challenged Butch, darkening. "Who's gonna make me?"
Miss Fowl opened her mouth to intervene, but her chicken-like squawk was drowned out by the sound of gasps. To everyone's surprise, Cindy jumped up out of her seat, red-faced and breathing heavily.
"Me." The blonde slammed her pencil down on her desk, and the classroom went so quiet that you could have heard a pin drop.
Butch looked confused. "Wait...what just happened?"
"I interceded, you brainless git. Look it up." She scowled from one face to the next, doing a sweep of the whole room. "Now, before you morons rudely interrupted, I believe Neutron was in the middle of showing us his stupid sparkly invention. Am I right?"
"I – err – yes," replied Jimmy.
"He was also telling us about the hallucinogenic effects of the triangle, and how it can induce random outbursts in some viewers, isn't that right?"
Jimmy stared open-mouthed for a second before snapping back to his senses. He nodded vigorously, impressed by Cindy's cover-up.
"Yes, that's exactly what I was explaining. You'll have to forgive Carl and Sheen, everybody, they simply had a bad reaction to the invention."
"Precisely. A bad reaction," echoed the blonde.
"Cindy, girl, like...how do you know so much about his invention thingy?" asked Britney. "I like totally don't remember this being a partner show 'n tell."
"It isn't. I just –"
"She just helped me design it, that's all," completed Jimmy smoothly.
"Come on, Vortex, don't be shy. True, your intellect is not quite on par with mine, but that doesn't mean you're not brilliant in your own right. In fact, I'd like to take this opportunity to publicly declare my appreciation for all the help you've given me during the past few days. You were truly indispensable."
Cindy gaped at him, glassy-eyed, as if not believing her own ears. She scrutinized his expression, but found only sincerity, and the corners of her mouth began to twitch upward into a smile.
"I don't say this very often," he continued, "but in many ways your level of talent rivals my own, albeit with your strengths in different areas. To tell you the truth, I –"
SMACK! Butch's chewed eraser conked Jimmy right between the eyes, cutting off his speech mid-sentence. Jimmy, somewhat cross-eyed from the impact, stumbled back a step, and the whole classroom erupted into laughter. Ms. Fowl raised a finger to chastise Butch, but at that moment the final bell of the day rang. Leaping from their desks, the students poured out of the classroom as though fleeing for their lives. A few of them nearly trampled Sheen, who rolled under Carl's desk to avoid their stomping feet. Once they had cleared the premises, Sheen peeked out from between Carl's legs.
"Is the coast clear?"
"The stampedin' buffaloes are gone, Sheen," said Libby. "You can come out now."
He hauled himself up off the floor, then sagged with relief against an empty desk. "Phew! Glad that's finally over. I was beginning to worry it would never end."
"I know what you mean," agreed Libby. "The trip back to our bodies was kinda rough. It knocked the air clean outta me for like two whole minutes."
"Actually, I was talking about school."
Libby rolled her eyes, then scooted her chair back and started gathering her things. Shouldering her backpack, she took out her CD player and wrapped the headphones around her neck.
"Well guys, it's been real. I'm goin' home for a nice, long bubble-bath now, and I do NOT wanna be interrupted. If any of you so much as calls my cell, I swear that I will go public with every li'l piece of dirt I've ever dug up on you. We clear?"
"As clear as Invisible Sista standing on a glass table in the middle of a fish tank."
She shook her head in exasperation. "Anyway, I'll be at the Candy Bar around seven if you guys wanna hang. But seriously. I don't wanna hear from you 'til then."
Libby strode purposefully toward the door. At the last minute she hesitated to steal a backward glance at Cindy and Jimmy, who had not moved since the bell rang. Cindy held her pencil in one tightly balled fist, while Jimmy rubbed the red spot on his forehead distractedly. Hiding a self-satisfied smirk, Libby motioned for Carl and Sheen to accompany her.
"On second thought, you boys can walk me to the bus. Let's give Jimmy and Cindy a minute to sort themselves out."
"Anything you say, my cream-puff Ultra-truffle..."
Libby hung her head in nickname-defeat, and the two boys grabbed their belongings and followed her out. Still rubbing his head, Jimmy wandered over to his desk to retrieve his personal items, and Cindy began to gather up hers as well.
"So, um...Neutron...about earlier..."
Jimmy glanced repeatedly over his shoulder at the door as he rummaged through his backpack. He answered, only half listening. "Ya?"
"What you were saying before...about me being talented in my own right..."
Agitated by something, he continued to crane his neck toward the hallway, and Cindy broke off. When he failed to notice, she tried another angle of approach.
"So...you want to meet me at the Candy Bar after dinner? The others are going to be there too, and I figured we could..."
"The Candy Bar, genius," she repeated. "Meet me there?"
He stuffed the last of his books into his backpack, then slung the strap over one shoulder. "Look, maybe later, OK? I kind of need to take care of something right now."
He practically ran out of the classroom, and Cindy was left standing alone at her desk. After a moment of silence, the pencil in Cindy's hand snapped in half. Pursing her lips together, she snatched her backpack off the chair and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her. Ms. Fowl, still seated, flapped her arms in bewilderment.
"Did I missss somethingggbraaaawk?"
Ten minutes later, Butch arrived at his locker. He turned the combo dial, still picking at the bit of eraser stuck in his teeth. The locker popped open, and the usual torrent of crumpled papers and books threatened to rain down on him. He shoulder-checked it back into place, then somehow managed to cram his backpack into the tiny compartment along with the rest of the mess. When he shut the door, he found himself looking straight at Cindy, who was reclining, self-assured, against the row of lockers. She crossed her arms over her chest.
"Hi there, Butch."
"Say," she began in a honeyed voice, "you aren't busy after school today, are you No...extracurriculars or homework to tie up your schedule?"
"Eh, I was supposed to go to detention, but I can blow it off. Why?" He lifted the hair out of his eyes. "You aren't...asking me out on a date, are you?"
Cindy's expression soured, and she jabbed an an angry finger in his face. "In your dreams, lamebrain. Meet me outside in ten minutes, and bring your game face. If you still want a date after I whoop your sorry hide, you can go out to dinner with the contents of the cafeteria dumpster. You'll be in for a real treat, too...I hear they made mystery meat today."
He scratched his head. "OK, not that I need a reason to fight or anything, but...why are we fighting again?"
"Here's the thing, Butch. Normally, seeing Neutron get smacked in the face with a chewed eraser would make my whole day. But this time you crossed the line. He was about to announce in front of the entire class that I'm just as smart as him, and you ruined the moment."
"Yup. Just like I'm going to ruin this one."
Cindy whirled around to find Jimmy standing behind her, also leaning against the lockers with his arms crossed over his chest.
"Neutron, what the heck! Mind your own business, will ya?"
"Stop inciting brawls in the hallway, and I will," he retorted. Without taking his eyes off her, Jimmy jerked his thumb toward the exit. "Butch, the fight's off. Go home and forget this ever happened."
Butch shrugged. "All right."
He strolled off, whistling, and Cindy turned her glare on Jimmy.
"What is your problem? I had a legitimate grievance to redress!"
"With your fists?"
"Yes, with my fists! Jeez!"
"Cindy, haven't you learned anything?" he asked, with mock gravity. "Violence is never the answer. Science is."
"Science? Are you kidding me? As I recall, it was science that got us into this mess in the first place. Or maybe you've forgotten the whole 'we're in an alternate universe and now we have to fight an evil dictator' thing. If you really think science is the answer, then you clearly haven't learned anything either."
"Well, then I guess we're both defective, aren't we?" Jimmy stole a glance around them, checking for teachers, before flashing her an evil grin. "Actually, there's a reason I stopped you from beating up Butch just now. You see, after he pulled that stunt in class today, I knew I would have to take some sort of action. So, in the hallway after the bell rang, I hit him with my Hypno-ray. It was petty of me, but after this whole debacle, I'm willing to cut myself some slack. Tomorrow he'll come to school in a coconut bra and will nance about the room proclaiming his undying love for Shetland Ponies, before breaking into the Principal's office and reciting embarrassing personal facts over the loudspeaker. It ought to be a fun morning."
Her jaw dropped. "So that's why you bolted from the classroom? To hypnotize Butch? Ooh, Jimmy, that's so delightfully underhanded! I approve."
"And your approval fills me with shame. But alas, I shall bear it with dignity."
She giggled. "Wow, now that I stop and think about it, this afternoon kinda feels like a step backward, don't you think? I mean, here we are ganging up on the school bully for crying out loud. I thought these adventures were supposed to teach us some kind of moral lesson. You know, make us better people, or something."
He made a face. "What gave you that idea? Since when have our adventures ever taught us anything? Tomorrow I'll go right back to making crazy inventions, and in no time at all one of them will malfunction horribly, inviting mayhem and peril on the whole town, and then we'll be right back where we started. You'll get all bent out of shape and call me a hundred names, and I'll scramble to find a solution, and things will get really hairy for awhile, but then in the nick of time we'll find a way out of it. Just like we always do."
"And when that happens, I'll go right back to hating you as much as I ever have."
"An ambiguous statement. How much have you ever hated me?"
Jimmy chuckled. "All right, I'll let you plead the fifth this once." Grinning, he turned to leave, then stopped at the last moment. "You know, Cindy – the Candy Bar isn't the only place that serves dessert. If you'd care to stop by tonight, say, for a cup of a hot chocolate, my lab has open hours from six to eight. We can debrief on the last couple of days, then exercise our first amendment rights while getting buzzed on sugar."
"Sounds unimaginably dull. Will I be able to access the restricted areas of your lab?"
"Over my dehydrated, lifeless corpse."
"I'm there," she said.