In which the easiest way to solve a problem turns out to not always be the best way. Or any way at all.
CHAPTER 9: BIG RED NONE
Standing as stiff as he possibly could and not moving a muscle, Craig tried to keep himself from whimpering in fear.
“Uhh—boss? I don’t want to, like, butt in or anything, but when Chad told us to do whatever you told us to, I’m not sure this was what he meant.”
From his position about thirty feet away, Drake Masterson cracked his knuckles and pulled his arms back over his shoulders, sneering as he stretched.
“Can it, Craig,” he said, squinting into the sunlight as he eyed the apples carefully balanced on both of the Centaur scout’s shoulders and on top of his head. “Every time you talk, you weaken our national security.”
“I don’t know, boss,” Hector spoke up from his safe zone about ten paces behind the Quetzal scout. “Are you, like, sure about this and stuff? I mean, not even a senior scout like Chad could do something like this, and he’s pretty good.”
“Oh, please,” said Drake, rolling his eyes. “Chad’s an even bigger moron than the two of you. He can’t pick his nose without practice. He couldn’t take that deadbeat Jack Ferguson in an unfair fight, even with me carrying his water for him. Or just emptying it out so those bozos’ bush-league potion trick wouldn’t work. As long as you shut up and let me concentrate, no one’s going to get hurt. Probably.”
“Probably?” Craig echoed, quailing.
“You move one inch and I’ll make that a definitely.” Drake grumbled, shrugging his shoulders and tugging at the collar of his green blazer. “What is it with these jackets? They’re so uncomfortable. What is this, polyester? Seriously tacky. I’m never going to be on the mark as long as I’m wearing this thing.”
Hector and Craig looked at each other and gulped.
“Umm—” Hector began, but was silenced by a glare from Drake.
“I don’t want to hear it, dummy. Besides, if somebody does get hurt or brutally mangled or whatever, that’s what health insurance is for. I know our butler was glad he had it when he had his accident.”
“What accident was that?” Craig asked.
“Oh, he got burned over, like, ninety percent of his body. Serious stuff, too. Funny. Nobody ever figured out who did it. Guess he just wasn’t a very good target.” Drake scowled at him. “Want to shut up now?”
Before Craig even had a chance to register his alarm, Drake gritted his teeth and clenched his left fist, conjuring a spiky and angular runic halo around it. With his right hand, he whipped his pistol-shaped wand free from its leather holster and shot from the hip, with blasts of fire shooting through the air and blowing the apples right off the Centaur’s shoulders. He then did a half-turn, sticking his hand behind his back and sniping the last apple off the top of his head. As Craig collapsed to the ground, his legs turning into jelly as he sobbed with relief, Drake expertly twirled the wand in his fingers, blew on the still-smoking tip, and shoved it back into its holster.
“Wow, boss,” Hector breathed. “That was, like—”
“Yeah, yeah,” the Quetzal said, waving off his praise. “I don’t need peons like you guys to tell me I’m better than you. I already know that. I’m better than everyone in this oversized outhouse. Only thing that’s keeping me here is that I still have to get even.”
“I heard it was because Hasselberry made you,” Hector responded, but he instantly regretted his words as Drake rounded on him.
“I swear to God, you talk back to me one more time and it’ll be you up there as crash test dummy next,” he seethed. “And I’ll put the apple in your mouth this time. Then maybe I won’t have to listen to you anymore. Now that I think about it, a hole in your head could only improve your brain function.”
Hector swallowed and bobbed his head in agreement as Craig decided to redeem himself.
“You mean get even with Jack Ferguson, right?”
“No, I mean with Tarzan, King of the Jungle,” Drake said sarcastically. “Of course I mean Ferguson. Nobody humiliates me in public and gets to keep both their legs. I want him broken. But since I’m loaded, I can’t be expected to do the dirty work myself. That’s what I have idiots like you for. Rule number one about being rich: if you still have to work for it, you’re not doing it right. And in case I wasn’t clear, I have tons of money.”
“We’ve tried, boss,” Hector insisted. “Honest, we have. A lot of people have. But it’s weird. It’s like Ferguson can just magically make everyone like him.”
“That’s because he can,” said Drake, pacing back and forth across the grass. “He’s telepathic. He tried to use it on me the first day, but anybody with half a brain wouldn’t get caught falling for that. Besides, he doesn’t even know he’s doing it half the time.” He pounded his fist into his hand. “God, he pisses me off. And I don’t know how he pulled that stunt on Fordman, either. If there’s one thing I hate more than an idiot, it’s an inconsistent idiot.”
“So how are you going to take care of him?” asked Hector.
“Well, at first, I was coming up with all these really elaborate plans to make him suffer, take his life apart piece by piece, and then finally, when he’s depressed, alone, and a failure, I could just sit back and savor every second of it. But then I remembered how lame being patient is. So I decided to go with Plan B, which is to just beat the living snot out of him. For real this time. Simple solutions are the best solutions. It’s Occam’s Razor.”
“What’s an Occam’s Razor?”
“A thing I’m going to cut you with if you don’t quit interrupting me.” Drake stopped walking, folded his arms, and smirked at them. “So tell me, who’s the biggest, scariest, most violent guy in this camp?”
“You mean—Big Boris?” Craig whispered, as if afraid to actually say it. Hector elbowed him viciously, but Drake had already heard.
“What was that, wide load?”
“Nothing, boss. Nothing,” Hector assured him, giving his buddy a sidelong glare. “Craig didn’t say nothing.”
Drake groaned, smacking a hand to his head.
“I swear, I think Chad just put you two with me to drive me nuts and stick it to me some more. There wasn’t a single word you just said that didn’t make me want to kill you.”
“What’s the matter?” Hector asked, genuinely concerned.
“Oh, you know. Just trying to keep my brain from exploding from dealing with absolute stupidity, that’s all.”
“Huh,” Craig mused, scratching his balding head in puzzlement. “I didn’t think you were that stupid, boss.”
Drake clenched his jaw and gave both Centaurs a withering look.
“Okay, that’s it,” he said, an unstable fire burning in his eyes. “You’ve got five seconds to tell me what you both were talking about before I fry you. I think I’ll go with well-done this time around. Got a preference?”
“Uhh—uhh—but—” Hector stammered, but Drake ignored him and pulled out his wand, the symbol reappearing on his hand and its tip glowing white-hot.
“But you said you’d count,” Craig cried.
“I lied. Go figure.”
“Wait,” the muscle-bound boy moaned, tugging on Hector’s sleeve. “Come on, Hector. Just tell him.”
“All right, fine,” Hector relented, his knees trembling from fear. “We’re just not supposed to talk about him. His name’s Big Boris.” He glanced around for a moment, as though worried someone else might hear, before continuing. “He’s a Centaur scout, and he’s been here for a while. Never graduated or anything. He doesn’t even go to classes or lectures. Everyone’s afraid to go near him.”
“Oh yeah?” Drake smirked and lowered his wand. “Sounds like my kind of guy already. Keep going.”
“Well, nobody knows that much about him,” Craig chimed in, “but he’s big. Like, really big. If he wanted to, he could be a whole regiment.”
“Nobody knows how he got that big, either,” said Hector. “Some people think he’s just a freak. You know, born that way. Other people think it’s some kind of strength spell gone wrong, or maybe—”
“Do I look like I care about his life story?” Drake demanded, stamping his foot. “Cut to the chase. How strong are we talking here?”
“One time, one of the instructors made a joke about him. He asked Boris how the weather was up there. Boris didn’t like it, so he got mad, and he picked the guy up and threw him.”
“Threw him? How far did he go?”
“No one knows,” said Craig, mystified. “They never found him. Most people say he just got scared and ran away after he landed. Maybe.”
“And this other time, someone was pulling a bus out of the camp motor pool when Boris was walking by, and he was in the way,” said Hector. “So he hit it.” He gulped. “It was a K.O.”
“Well that’s not so tough, then.”
“For the bus, not for Boris,” Craig clarified. “He didn’t even have a scratch.”
“Huh. Okay,” said Drake, his smirk growing wider as he thought about it. “Throws teachers? Knocks out buses? Sounds perfect. Where do I find him?”
“You want to find him?” Hector echoed nervously. “Boss, you don’t just go talk to Big Boris. He’s, like, dangerous and stuff. Don’t you want somebody else to go?”
“What, are you volunteering?” Drake snapped. Seeing the terror on Hector and Craig’s faces, he snorted. “Yeah, didn’t think so. If you want someone bribed right, you’ve got to bribe them yourself.”
“Big Boris doesn’t do anything for anyone,” Craig moaned. “He’ll kill you.”
“Yeah, well, in case your brain is on a week-long tape delay and you haven’t been paying attention, let me restate: I’m awesome. This’ll be a piece of cake.” Drake’s lip curled into a confident sneer as he saw the hopeful optimism in the two Centaurs’ faces. “And before you ask, no, you can’t have any. Let’s move.”
Slowly and reluctantly, Hector and Craig turned and led Drake across the camp, through the confines of Quetzal Troop, over top of the small slope separating it from Centaur Troop, and down into the sea of red blazers and banners. Every ten feet it seemed, as Drake cast his critical eyes around him, there were large, broad-shouldered scouts engaged in military drills, shouting orders, running laps, and all the typical behavior he had long ago filed in the back of his brain under the heading “For Chumps”. His approach didn’t go unnoticed either, as an athletic and tanned girl with short, messy blonde hair pushed out from a crowd of sparring partners with her hands on her hips.
“Well look at this,” she said, sarcasm heavy on her words. “Our lord and master visits the peasants. What do you want, Masterson?”
“Thanks for the welcome wagon, Stone,” said Drake, noting her athletic shorts and stained tank top. “I’d say you look like a tramp, but that would just be insulting to the actual tramps. But I could fix that. Get you a nice evening gown, some high heels; you might be able to pull it off. Just say the word.”
Tessa tried to keep her cool, but her disgust made her face twitch all the same.
“Sorry, Drake. I try to not to make a habit out of taking gifts from psychos.”
“Yeah, you’re right. You probably couldn’t handle being part of my kitchen staff anyway. Bet you couldn’t even make me a sandwich without screwing it up.”
Grinding her teeth angrily, Tessa took a threatening step toward Drake, but Hector and Craig stepped in her way and grabbed her shoulders, leaving her to ball her fists and struggle as Drake smirked at her.
“You’re lucky you’ve got the scoutmaster on your side, Drake,” she hissed, “because nobody else around here likes you. They might be scared of you, but I’m not. One of these days you’re not going to have bodyguards around to save you from getting a punch in the nose.”
“Please,” Drake sneered. “You’re nowhere near my level, Stone. I could take you with one hand tied behind my back. And just in case you’re wondering, I definitely don’t have a problem hitting a girl. But I’ve got more important things to do right now. I’m going to have a chat with Big Boris.”
At the mention of the name, all the Centaur scouts in the immediate vicinity fell silent and stared at him, dumbfounded. Even Tessa appeared surprised.
“What?” she said. “I guess I had you wrong, Drake. I didn’t realize you were suicidal. Although it does explain a lot.”
“As if,” Drake shot back. “I’m Drake Masterson. I’m already living the dream. Premature death would just ruin the experience. I didn’t come here to make friends. I came here to be the best, and nobody’s getting in my way. Not you, not Hasselberry, not Ferguson—nobody. And I think I’ll have that last moron crossed off the list pretty soon.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, at least Jack’s not a daddy’s boy who took everything he has from his family.”
Drake ground his teeth and he compulsively ground his heel into the dirt as small fires broke out on the grass around his feet. Flames flickered between the fingers of his free right hand while his left stroked the grip of the wand in its holster at his hip.
“I don’t take squat from my family,” he snarled. “They’re even bigger hacks than you, but I know that’s pretty tough to believe. I’m done here. Move it or lose it, morons.”
He gave Hector and Craig a shove and pushed them onward, leaving the irritated Tessa in his wake.
“You know, you really are pretty brave, boss,” said Craig admiringly as some of the other nearby Centaurs nodded in agreement. “Nobody’s ever stood up to Big Boris before. You could be, like, a hero or something.”
“Shut up,” Drake shot back in disgust, silencing them all. “Like I give a crap about your problems. If you were drowning at my yacht club, I wouldn’t buy a glass of water to pour on your head.”
The three crossed through the rest of the Centaur encampment and finally stopped at a tent that was set apart from all the others at the outer edge, and slightly larger than the standard sleeping arrangements.
“That’s it?” Drake demanded, jabbing a finger at it.
“Sure, boss,” said Hector, grimacing as he and Craig pulled back from the canvas as though it were the surface of the sun. “But seriously, you’d better not go in there. Big Boris could—”
Before he could say another word, however, Drake took out his wand and slipped behind the two Centaurs, jabbing it into both their backs.
“Yeah, yeah, he could break my face or something. I heard. That’s why I’ve got you goons to go first.”
“No way,” said Craig, his voice trembling. “You can’t do that to us. We won’t go in there.”
“Let me put it this way,” Drake hissed in his ear. “You can either go in there and maybe get beaten to a pulp, or you can stay out here and definitely become barbeque. Your call.”
His grip on the wand tightened and its tip became instantly searing hot, making Hector and Craig yelp with pain as they dashed, in terror, into the tent, with Drake following close behind only a few seconds later after making sure he didn’t hear the sounds of bones crunching or wails of agony. Once inside the opening, they stood still for a moment, squinting to adjust to the unnatural darkness. It was as though none of the sunlight from outside was making its way through the canvas.
The tent itself was a mess, littered with oversized clothing, open and empty bottles of vodka, and other assorted debris along with an overturned cot whose legs and been bowed as though from massive weight.
“So this is where the big shot lives, huh?” Drake said, unimpressed. “I expected more. After the way you clowns built him up, I was thinking something that didn’t look like every teenage girl’s room. You better not have wasted my time. I’m starting to think this whole Big Boris thing is just a big load of—”
A sudden deep growl came from the far corner of the tent, as a shadow melted out of the other, deeper shadows, and began to stir. Hector and Craig, wide-eyed and quivering, clutched at each other for support as a slurred, loud, and angry voice with a thick Russian accent rolled across the space like thunder.
“IT’S JUST BORIS.”
The massive Centaur scout got to his feet, shaking the ground under theirs, and stomped over to them, his hairy chest only partially concealed by his oversized red blazer, with its sleeves carelessly ripped off to free bulging biceps that seemed to be the size of Mack trucks. A giant head with long, shaggy black hair tilted down toward them and dull but deadly eyes glinted in the darkness.
“WHO DARES TO DISTURB ME?” Big Boris rumbled, his voice accompanied by ominous creaking as he clenched his ham-sized fists. “NOBODY BOTHERS BORIS. I WILL CRUSH YOU, PUNY WEAKLINGS.”
“Oh my God,” Hector moaned. “This is it. We’re dead. We’re totally, totally going to die.”
“Hector, if we get killed, I just want you to know that you’re my best friend ever,” Craig whimpered, holding him closer. “I love you, man.”
“Ugh,” Drake scowled, rolling his eyes. “Give me a break. If I wanted to hurl, I’d go listen to the rest of those bums in Quetzal Troop talk about their golf games.” He shoved his way past Hector and Craig and stared up at Boris, folding his arms. “Let’s just get to it, okay? I’m the one who was looking for you. The name’s Drake Masterson. You’ve probably heard of me. I’m a big deal. And I guess you’re Big Boris.”
“NO!” the giant bellowed, stamping his foot in rage. “IT’S JUST BORIS!”
“Uhh—boss, he kind of doesn’t like being called big,” Craig whispered. “It makes him mad.”
“Thanks for the update, Kronkite,” Drake said, glaring at him. “That totally wouldn’t have been useful to know before we walked into the giant maniac’s tent.”
But Boris overhead him, and his hand reached out to grab the entire front of Drake’s blazer.
“BORIS IS NOT MANIAC,” he growled. “YOU ARE DISRESPECTFUL, RICH BOY. BORIS COULD CRUSH YOU BETWEEN HIS TWO FINGERS.”
Drake looked down at Boris’s hairy hand, up at Boris, and back down at the hand again.
“You know, I don’t remember a time when somebody touched me that they didn’t end up wearing orthopedic shirts five seconds later,” he said, calm but dangerous.
Boris grumbled and raised his arm, lifting the Quetzal scout’s boots off the ground and holding him about a foot in the air.
“But there’s a first time for everything, I guess,” Drake observed dryly, as Hector and Craig began to back out of the tent.
“Drake’s dead meat, right?” Craig asked.
“Yeah, buddy,” Hector confirmed. “Let’s get out of here.”
The two Centaurs beat a hasty retreat as Big Boris’s face twisted into a satisfied grin.
“YOUR PUNY FRIENDS ABANDON YOU, DRAKE MASTERSON,” he said. “ANY LAST WORDS BEFORE BORIS BASHES YOU INTO A MILLION TINY PIECES?”
“Actually, yeah, I’ve got some,” said Drake, glaring at his captor. “Like I was saying, there’s a first time for everything. For example, the other day was my first time ever getting humiliated in public. This nobody punk named Jack Ferguson took a couple of cheap shots and made people laugh at me, and there’s no way I’m letting him get away with it. Bet you’re used to getting laughed at too, right? You know, because you’re a freak. You’re stupid. You’re ugly.”
He grunted as quietly as he could as Boris’s grip tightened.
“In, like, the best way possible. But seriously, do you even know how to read?”
“BORIS NOT STUPID,” Boris rumbled resentfully. “BORIS NOT UGLY. BORIS NOT CONFORM TO BEAUTY STANDARDS OF MASS SOCIETY. BORIS ENJOY LITERATURE WITH MEANINGFUL CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AND COMPLEX ROMANTIC ENTANGLEMENTS. DON’T MAKE FUN OF BORIS, WEAKLING.”
“Really?” Drake asked, raising an eyebrow in surprise. “Didn’t see that one coming. Whatever, I don’t care. The only thing I care about is revenge. So what do you say? You in, big guy? Want to get back at all the losers out there in this dump of a camp?”
Big Boris simply shrugged his massive shoulders.
“NO. NOT INTERESTED, PUNY BOY,” he said. “BORIS DOES NOT NEED TO PROVE HIMSELF TO ANYONE. BORIS HAS HIGHER SELF-ESTEEM THAN THAT.”
“Good for you, pal,” said Drake, rolling his eyes. “Figures. Okay, I guess I’ll have to do this the hard way. How much do you want? You let me get an arm free here and I’ll whip out my checkbook. All you have to do is destroy Jack Ferguson. I’ll put five zeros on it for just a general annihilation, six for some really creative stuff.”
There was laugh from the giant Centaur scout that seemed to shake the earth.
“YOU CANNOT BUY BORIS, DRAKE MASTERSON. YOUR MONEY MEANS NOTHING. IN FACT, BORIS IS INSULTED YOU WOULD EVEN CONSIDER HIM WEAK ENOUGH TO TAKE SUCH A BRIBE.”
“Well, you can’t blame a real boy for trying, Pinocchio.”
“ACTUALLY, BORIS CAN. AND YOU MUST PAY FOR YOUR INSOLENCE. PREPARE TO ENTER A WORLD OF PAIN, RICH BOY.”
Boris’s ill-fitting jacket-vest creaked at the seams as the massive scout pulled back a fist and his biceps bulged like small countries, ready to take a swing. That was when Drake decided it was time to bring out the big guns.
“All right, sure. Go ahead and punch my lights out or something. I guess this means you don’t care what Jack said about your mom.”
Boris froze in mid-motion.
“WHAT DID YOU SAY?” He demanded. “ANSWER BORIS. WHAT DID JACK FERGUSON SAY ABOUT BORIS’S MOTHER?”
Hook, line, and sucker, Drake thought.
“Oh, man. You don’t even want to know, I promise. It was some really personal stuff. Way over the line. And over the line is pretty much where I live, so that’s saying something. It’s probably not worth fighting over, though, right? I’ll just do what you wanted and get lost.”
“NO,” Boris thundered, nearly tossing the Quetzal to the ground as he jerked in a paroxysm of fury. “NOBODY SAYS NOTHING ABOUT BORIS’S MOTHER. SHE IS SAINT PERSON. YOU WILL TELL ME WHERE THIS JACK FERGUSON IS, MEAT. YOU WILL LEAD ME TO HIM SO BORIS CAN DEFEND HONOR, OR I WILL CRUSH YOU AND TEAR THIS CAMP APART UNTIL I FIND HIM MYSELF. DO IT NOW.”
Picking himself up and dusting off his clothes, Drake worked but entirely failed to suppress his smirk of perverse delight.
“Sure thing, Boris. Whatever you say.”
Slowly raising his head from where he lay on his back in the muck, the lanky Quetzal scout groaned, in a daze, as he slowly turned his head to survey the grass and mud splattered over his green blazer.
“Aw, man,” he groaned. “This crap’s never going to come out. Wait a second. What happened?”
As if on cue, the bright sunlight was blocked out as Leo, Oliver, and Jack leaned over him, looking at him with varying degrees of concern.
“Hey there, Conrad,” Oliver said gently. “You all right, buddy? You fell pretty hard there.”
“I’m not your buddy, slacker,” Conrad spat, but grimaced with pain at the effort. “Just shut up and talk. Where am I? What happened?”
“Don’t you remember, bro?” Jack asked, tipping his cap back. “We’re at the obstacle course. You know, the one that’s, like, a six out of ten on the likely to get maimed scale. You were overseeing us Jackalopes while we ran the thing after the other troops finished up. You turned around to berate a couple of the rookies and the haunted battle axe caught you from behind.”
“Yeah, sure,” the Quetzal blustered. “Of course I remember. I’m not a low-budget idiot like you guys.”
“Nah, you’re just the total package,” said Leo, rolling his eyes. “Look, Conrad, I’m not going to sugar-coat it. We helped out the best we could, but we could only do so much. The good news is, you’ve still got your health. Unfortunately.”
Conrad’s eyes widened in sudden fear at Leo’s resigned tone of voice.
“What do you mean? What’s the bad news?”
Jack sucked in a breath regretfully.
“Well—you were a lefty anyway, right? Ooh, sorry. My bad.”
“Huh?” Conrad’s head jerked to the right, and he let out a half yelp, half sob of horror as he realized his right arm was gone just below the shoulder, the edge of both blazer and flesh stopping neat and clean. “Oh my God. I’ve got no arm. It’s gone!”
“Yeah,” said Jack, shrugging and managing a rueful grin. “Looks that way, man. Tough break. But come on, let’s get you up. Want a hand?” He grimaced again. “Sorry. Every time.”
“But—but—” Conrad moaned, struggling to come to terms with his new reality. “This can’t be happening. I’ve got too much money to be a cripple. I could swear that it’s still there, though. Like, I can feel my fingers wiggling.”
“Dude, don’t you know anything?” Leo grumbled. “It’s called phantom pains. Read a book.”
“You know, Leo, you’ve got the bedside manner of an undertaker,” Oliver said dryly.
“So what? That’s what this guy gets for abusing our newbies. Only we’re allowed to do that. I’d give my arm for some respect around here.” At Conrad’s whimper, Leo couldn’t help but smirk. “Aw, man. Sorry about that, pal. Bad choice of words. But you know me. I’m just an idiot.”
“Guys, seriously, don’t you think this is a little harsh?” Danny whispered from behind them, looking mortified as the other Jackalopes present held their snickers in behind their hands. “I mean, isn’t it just kind of cruel to pretend that we got rid of his arm when we only really—”
But he was cut off as a thunderous voice boomed across the campground.
“JACK FERGUSON. WHERE ARE YOU, PATHETIC WORM? BORIS WILL GRIND YOU INTO PULP AND USE IT AS CHASER FOR VODKA.”
All the scouts present froze, including Leo and Oliver. Jack just blinked in confusion.
“Wait, what the what?”
“Uh-oh,” said Leo. “That sounds like—”
“Big Boris,” Oliver finished, flinching as the roar came back.
“IT’S JUST BORIS! BORIS!”
“Hold up for a second,” said Jack. “Who’s Big—I mean, Boris? And why’s he got a beef with me? I’ve never even heard of the guy.”
“I have,” Danny whimpered, his legs suddenly feeling like jelly. “Sam told me about him before. He’s this giant, mean, super-strong scout who just destroys the crap out of people. But I thought he, like, never went outside his tent and stuff.”
“That was the theory, anyway,” said Leo. “I don’t know what you did, Jack, but man, does he sound pissed.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Jack insisted, annoyed, as all the other scouts decided it was time to make a strategic exit and dashed off wildly in every direction, ducking behind tents and jumping inside crates to hide. Even Conrad jumped to his feet and ran away, shrieking like a girl as he did so. “Hey, wait up! Oh, great. He didn’t even let us break the news to him that we just made his arm invisible. Perfect practical joke, wasted.”
“That’s okay,” said Oliver. “If you want a punch line, I think you’re about to be one. Accent on the punch.”
“I know, right?” Leo replied, shaking his head. “Major bummer. And to think we’ve been spending, like, a week so far training Jack up to be our sidekick and stuff. Now he’s going to get leveled and we have to start fresh with someone new. So inconsiderate.”
“Hey, I’m not dead yet,” Jack shot back.
“Wait for it,” Danny moaned as the massive, hairy-chested scout hove into view, pounding his knuckles into his hand with a sound like a car crash and his massive face a mask of rage.
“WHERE IS JACK FERGUSON?” Boris demanded, bearing his enormous, pearly-white teeth. “SHOW YOURSELF, COWARD, OR I WILL BE FORCED TO CRUSH EVERYONE IN MY WAY UNTIL I FIND YOU FOR INSULTING MOTHER.”
Instantly, Leo, Oliver, and Danny took a giant step back, leaving Jack alone and facing the titan all by himself.
“Gee, thanks for the support, guys,” he muttered, gesturing at Boris. “And come on. This is the guy? Big Boris? There’s no way I can take this seriously right now. He’s like a walking cliché. Next thing you know, he’s going to be asking for my last words or something.”
“I think we could all get along without hearing more words from you, Ferguson,” Drake Masterson sneered, stepping out from behind one of Boris’s tree-trunk legs with a cowering Hector and Craig. “Expect maybe ‘Mommy’. Yeah. That’d be good. You’d die like you lived: a sniveling, worthless, talentless hack. Who’s laughing now?”
“Drake?” Jack asked, stunned. “So wait, you’re the one who sicced Ivan Drago here on me? But why?”
“Why do you think, Ferguson?” Drake shouted back. “Because you’re a loser, and because you humiliated me when I first got here. So this is revenge. You really need me to explain it to you?”
Jack’s face fell.
“What, that? Really? Come on, dude. I was just messing with you. You know that, right?”
“I don’t care,” said Drake. “You need to go away. Boris, points for creativity, okay?”
“Bro, are you really going to watch this?” asked Oliver, giving Leo a sidelong glare as Boris smiled and tightened his fists into battering rams of solid muscle.
“Sorry,” the other Jackalope replied, shrugging his shoulders. “What can I say? It’s like a slow-motion train crash. You just can’t look away.”
“He’s even scarier than I thought he’d be,” Danny whispered, terrified beyond rational thought. “It’s like all of my worst nightmares and gym classes combined into one person. Jack, quick. Use your telepathy thing on him. Maybe it’ll give us enough time to get away. I mean, you.”
But Jack wasn’t listening. In fact, he was laughing.
“Okay, okay, that’s it,” he said, unable to suppress his giggles. “Nice one, guys. You got me. Good prank. I see what’s going on here. This is just my initiation into your little gang, right? I have to say, you even got Drake into it, so that’s pretty good commitment. But sorry, I’m not buying it.”
“Jack, seriously, we’re not,” said Leo. “This isn’t a prank, man. You’re really going to die. Big Boris has done it before, too. Remember when he threw that instructor, Oliver?”
“TIME TO DIE, JACK FERGUSON,” Boris grunted, the ground shaking as he began his menacing approach. “BORIS ENJOY NICE CUP OF TEA AND NATURE DOCUMENTARY AFTER THE LIFE IS CRUSHED FROM YOUR BONES.”
But Jack still couldn’t stop smiling.
“Cut the crap, guys,” he said. “Of course it’s a prank. You’re totally winding me up. This guy’s just too perfect. Big bruiser? Russian? Goes after people based on personal insults? And those weird moments of smartness? Come on. It’s like two stereotypes had a baby and it’s one giant super-stereotype.”
The shaking stopped as Boris paused in his tracks, suddenly looking uncertain. Meanwhile, Leo and Oliver started frowning as well.
“You know, I’ve never seen Big Boris before,” Oliver mused. “But now that I have, Jack’s actually kind of right. This guy is six kinds of stereotypes. I thought we had more class around here than that.”
“Yeah, the Rocky reference was totally on point,” Leo added, squinting hard at Boris as though trying to see him better. “It’s like a really cut-rate, knock-off Arnold Schwarzenegger thing. Am I right?”
Slowly, the other campers began to nod and murmur among themselves, their own perceptions thrown into doubt. Boris took a step back, and then another, as even Danny scratched his head.
“Yeah,” he said. “He’s exactly like I pictured him, too. That’s really weird. How can that be?”
“STOP IT,” Boris rumbled, his booming voice suddenly beginning to fade as the outlines of his body started to blur into black smoke. “I AM BORIS. I AM STRONG. I WILL DESTROY YOU.”
“Oh, no. No, no, no,” Drake snarled, shaking his head vehemently as Hector and Craig began to get in on the act.
“I think the slackers might be right about Boris, boss. He is kind of tough to, you know, believe in and stuff.”
“I know, right?” said Jack, overhearing them. “I mean, come on. How is this guy even for real? Good try, but you have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool me. Okay, like, five at night. But you know what I mean.”
With a final howl of rage, Boris’s body flickered and completely dissolved into oily smoke, which evaporated with a puff and vanished into the air. All the campers nearby either breathed a sigh of relief or simply stared at the empty space on the grass, dumbfounded. Leo was one of them.
“Did I just have a stroke or something? You all saw that, right? A giant mountain of a dude just up and vanished right when he was about to slaughter Jack. Or is this just another one of my disappointing dreams again?”
“That sentence explains so much about you that I never really wanted to know, Leo,” said Tessa, pushing her way out of the throng of scouts behind them that were now crowding forward in awe. “But it’s not a dream. Actually, I think Jack was sort of right.”
“Hey, thanks, Tessa,” said Jack, flashing a sickly sweet smile that made the Centaur girl grimace.
“Uhh—yeah. Well, in a really wrong kind of way. I did a little reading on this randomly a while back, and I think Big Boris might have been a tulpa.”
“Tulpa? Sounds like some kind of cheap Taco Bell thing.”
“Nice try. A tulpa is a thought-form: a creature that’s created out of pure belief. If enough wizards contribute psychic energy, even when they don’t know they’re doing it, tulpas can form pretty much anywhere. I think a while back somebody must have started a rumor or something about Big Boris, and the more it spread and got used by people around here to scare other people, it kind of took on a life of its own. All of our projecting what we thought Boris might be like made him what he was. Even the people who thought he might secretly be smart and misunderstood, I guess.”
“Oh, I get it,” said Jack, snapping his fingers and grinning. “It’s like Santa Claus. Or non-fat ice cream.”
“Not really,” Tessa said hesitantly, but she was shoved aside by Leo and Oliver, who seized Jack’s arms and held them over their heads like a pro wrestler.
“Oh, yeah,” Oliver yelled. “Did you see Jack take down Big Boris like that? First Chad, now this. The guy’s the coolest kid on the block. You can be our wingman anytime, pal.”
“What he said,” Leo agreed, slapping Jack on the back as all the other scouts cheered in triumph. “Nice job killing the witch, Dorothy. And by the way, I totally believed in you the whole time.”
“No you didn’t,” Danny objected.
“Shut up, Danny,” said Leo and Oliver in unison.
“What can I say?” Jack asked, confused but good-natured. “There’s no place like home.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the field, Hector blinked and turned toward Drake, who was fuming with anger.
“Umm—boss? I don’t think it worked.”
He didn’t have a chance to say anything else because Drake immediately and without warning launched himself at the Centaur scout and latched a bony hand around his thick neck.
“I can see it didn’t work, you mentally-challenged meatball,” the Quetzal snarled, pulling out his wand and shoving it up under Hector’s chin as Craig tried in vain to pry him away. “What the spell was that? Huh? You take me to the biggest, baddest bully in this whole rotten camp, and it turns out he’s a figment of all these scrubs’ imaginations? You screwed me! You screwed me hard.” He clenched his teeth tightly for a moment, his eye twitching and his finger rubbing unstably on the grip of his wand before shoving both Centaurs away and stalking off, still ranting. “I hate this camp! Ferguson, you slacker slime. So I have to do this the hard way? Fine. Whatever it takes. I’m going to get even with you if it’s the last thing I do.”
In the midst of the celebrations, Oliver’s face suddenly went blank once again as he turned to Leo.
“I just had a thought, bro,” he said. “You were talking about the guy Boris threw, right? The one no one ever found? So if Boris was just something all of us made up, does that mean we, like, as a camp, maybe killed a guy? That’s dark. What are we supposed to do with that?”
“Same thing we do with pretty much everything else, buddy,” Leo replied, reaching around Jack to clap a hand on his best friend’s shoulder. “We take that info and just bury it way deep down in there. Bottle it up, and repress it like your life depends on it. So—lunch?”