Lunchtime, Jimmy finds an eyeball in his stew. "Cool," he says, balancing it on his spoon.
"Eat it," Frankie says.
"Yeah, eat it," Denny says. He always agrees with what Frankie says. If Frankie jumped off a cliff, Denny would follow.
Only Peter remains silent.
The boys sit at a plastic table in the cafeteria's corner. The other kids leave them alone. The cafeteria lady stands amongst the tables like a sentinel, ready to avert disaster, or at least a food fight.
"Miracle Man would eat it," Frankie says.
"No he wouldn't," Jimmy says.
"Would not. Miracle Man is a wuss."
"Mr. Muerte," Denny says, "would eat an eyeball."
Mr. Muerte is Jimmy's favorite superhero. Mr. Muerte wears black and is rarely seen in tights and a cape. He fights the Midnight Stranger and sometimes Zeus ex Machina, and never anyone lame like the Sandbagger or Al K. Traz. Mr. Muerte is supernatural. Mr. Muerte is immortal. Mr. Muerte is cool.
Jimmy moves the spoon and makes the eyeball rock in its brown bed of sauce.
"I dare you to eat it," Frankie says.
"Double dare," Denny says.
Frankie peers across the table, leaning forward over his forgotten lunch. "Double dog dare."
Jimmy studies the eyeball. It stares back at him. It's green if you ask Frankie, but blue if you ask Jimmy. Denny would say it's green because of how he feels about Frankie. Peter's eyes are brown and today they have a shadowy, haunted look like he hasn't been sleeping.
Peter likes Mr. Muerte too. He's the one who told Jimmy that Mr. Muerte is cool. Peter told Jimmy a lot of things. He told him that Miracle Man is lame. He told him to watch The Six Million Dollar Man on television long before all the other kids started running in slow motion. He told him about Fizzies and the Doberman that ate that guy's fingers. He told him about real rock and roll and they listened to the Beach Boys together, Elton John and Pink Floyd, records they borrowed from Peter's older brother when he wasn't home. Frankie and Denny like Elton John and the Beach Boys, but they think Pink Floyd is lame.
Peter doesn't tell Jimmy to eat the eyeball. But Jimmy can't deny Frankie's double dog dare. If he does, then Frankie and Denny will tell everyone that he's a wuss. Jimmy looks to Peter, but Peter only stares.
Jimmy doesn't want to be a wuss.
He chews the eyeball like he'd chew a small round potato. It's not rubbery, and nothing squirts in his mouth -- and it doesn't taste too bad. It's actually a bit mushy, like a vegetable that's been cooked too long. No worse than anything else served at the school cafeteria.
Frankie's scream cuts through the cafeteria noise: "Eeeewww!" Two girls at the next table over stop talking. They look at the boys as if they are lepers escaped from the colony. Kids at the other tables turn to look. Denny joins the yelling: "Grooosss!" Frankie announces, "Jimmy ate an eyeball!" Denny has his hands clasped at his throat, his eyes crossed, and his tongue hanging out. He's wobbling like a punching bag clown that just took one in the kisser. The girls wrinkle their noses and go back to eating. "Eyeball! Eyeball!" Denny yells. The other kids return to their lunches and interrupted conversations. Frankie quiets down and Denny follows.
"From now on," Frankie says, "your superhero name is 'The Eyeball Kid.'"
The boys have secret identities. Jimmy was Captain Justice, but now he's the Eyeball Kid. Frankie is the Crimson Streak because he runs fast. Everyone always wants him on their team for capture the flag. Denny is the Phantom Avenger. Last week he was the Mysterious Avenger. And the week before he was Captain Mystery, but he had to change it because Jimmy was Captain Justice. Peter was Matter Master until he got sick. Then he was the Radioactive Kid. Now he's the Silver Specter. He's been the Silver Specter for a while now.
In school, Jimmy and Peter sit next to one another. When Peter got sick, his parents came to class and emptied his desk. He did his work at home: spelling lists, book reports, the math book full of multiplication and division problems. Peter was good at spelling, but not as good at math. Jimmy helped him with the fractions last year.
Peter is back, but his illness has affected his memory -- he always leaves his books at home. He sits at his desk mostly quiet and listening. Jimmy doesn't like that his best friend has no school supplies so he slips pencil and paper into Peter's desk. Half an hour later, Peter is drawing Mr. Muerte. The teacher never calls on Peter anymore.
When Peter became the Radioactive Kid, he lost his hair. Jimmy didn't care, but the other kids teased him. The teacher let him wear a baseball cap in class, even though it was against the rules.
This year, Jimmy's math scores are slipping. The numbers jumble and don't make sense. If you have four apples and take away one quarter, you should have three but now the numbers swim in front of his eyes and he can't see the proper solution. One plus one isn't two anymore. This troubles Jimmy's parents, who have conferences with his teacher. He's not paying attention, she says, acting out, causing trouble. She wants them to talk to him about Peter's illness, to help him understand.
"It's hard on a boy," his mother says.
The teacher nods. She leans on her desk and clasps her hands in front of her like she's praying. "It is hard on a boy."
Jimmy's father only nods.
After school, the boys ride their bikes to Fenniman's Five and Dime. Fifty cents earned from cutting lawns buys a comic book and a candy bar with two nickels change. Thursday is the best day because that's when Nancy, who's in high school and wants to be a nurse, puts out the new comics. Whenever a new Mr. Muerte arrives, she always holds two copies behind the counter: one for Jimmy and one for Peter. She's nice in ways that Jimmy's sister isn't. He wishes he had Nancy for a sister, which would be second-best to having no sister at all. Jimmy's sister doesn't appreciate things like Creature Features, Speed Racer, or how cool Mr. Muerte is.
The boys leave their bikes on the sidewalk, leaning against the building. They feel no need to lock them up.
Jimmy waits for Peter at the door. Peter hasn't quite recovered from being sick and doesn't have the strength he once had. At least now he can ride. For a long time, Peter did nothing, and then he was in the hospital. Even now, he doesn't play capture the flag or dodgeball much. Mostly he sits on the bench by the fence, watching the games.
Frankie and Denny run right in. They go straight for the comics. Jimmy walks in with Peter. Nancy is at the counter, pricing lipsticks. She smiles -- it makes her look just like that girl in the shampoo commercial -- and waves Jimmy to the counter. "I have the new Mr. Muerte for you."
Jimmy asks, "What about Peter's?"
Nancy puts down the pricing gun. Her smile fades. She moves a strand of hair from her face to behind her ear. "Jimmy . . . ," she says. At the spinner, Frankie and Denny make excited announcements about the new titles: "G-Force, cool!" "Catman!" "The Incredible Arachnoid, excellent!"
Nancy bites her lip. She looks sad to Jimmy. Not sad like his sister looked when her boyfriend on the football team broke up with her, but sad like his mother looked when she told him Peter was going to the hospital. "I only saved one copy," she says.
Jimmy looks at Peter. He's standing to Jimmy's right, a step or two behind him. Peter's hands are in his pockets. He shrugs slowly, just moving his shoulders. "It's okay," Jimmy says. This makes Nancy smile, which Jimmy likes, but not like she smiled before, which Jimmy liked better. "We can share."
"Oh, Jimmy," she says and her smile is gone.
The new Mr. Muerte is shiny and flat and still smells of printer's ink. On the cover he is facing off against a dark woman. He is small in the foreground and his cloak waves in the wind. The woman towers over our hero. She has ten arms, each wielding a wavy sword. She is wearing a necklace of skulls. "Cool," Jimmy mutters. The cover copy reads: "In this issue, Mr. Muerte battles Kali, Goddess of Destruction!"
"Hey, Eyeball!" Frankie cries. "What you getting?" They've dropped the "Kid" part now, shortening Jimmy's superhero name to "Eyeball." Not even something mysterious and neat like "The Eyeball," which sounds like something you'd find in a Mr. Muerte story; just "Eyeball," that round thing you keep in your head.
Frankie buys G-Force and a Mars Bar. Denny also buys the new G-Force and a Mars Bar, but he buys The Incredible Arachnoid, too. Jimmy buys Mr. Muerte and a Snickers. Peter gets a copy of Intergalactic Tales and an Abba-Zaba. He'll read Jimmy's Mr. Muerte. Abba-Zaba is a strange choice. It doesn't have chocolate covering like a Mars Bar or a Snickers. It comes out of the wrapper pale and white like a ghost.
Kali normally fights the Karma Crew. But now, she is stalking the fog-shrouded streets of Bay City, leaving a trail of terror and bloody corpses. The story opens with her walking at night through the city's dangerous warehouse district. A leather- and denim-clad biker gang accosts her. What were they thinking? She's six feet tall, blue-skinned, wearing a necklace of skulls. The first guy attacks her with a chain. It wraps around her left forearm. A sword appears in her right hand and she dispatches the first attacker.
Jimmy is sitting in the clubhouse -- a converted storage shed in Denny's backyard -- reading Mr. Muerte. He read Peter's Intergalactic Tales first. The Snickers is long gone. Pepsi cans and stacks of magazines litter the floor -- comics, Ranger Ricks, some car magazines and old editions of Boys' Life left there by Denny's brother. The air smells of dust and paper.
The biker gang attacks Kali en masse. They have clubs and long bowie knives. She sprouts four more arms, each holding a sword. The next scene is Kali, two-armed again, standing amongst the prostrate bodies of the bikers. "Fools!" she says. "They should know better than to challenge the Goddess of Destruction! Now where is that museum?"
Cut to Mr. Muerte's secret hideout, a Victorian mansion at 13 Elysian Lane. Mr. Muerte is studying in his library, reading a tome thicker than a dictionary. Chang, his servant, comes to him. "Sir, there is a disturbance in the aether."
Mr. Muerte flies into action.
The museum is holding a charity event. Gowned and tuxedoed patrons fill the halls to get a preview of the new "Riches of India" exhibit. Among them are the mayor, wealthy industrialists, a famous surgeon, and a popular movie star. The exhibit's center: the Star of the Rajah, a flawless, 200-carat, oval-cut ruby.
Kali enters through a tall window. Glass flies, falling onto the crowd. A security guard goes for his gun. The goddess knocks him aside as though he were a kitten. "Where is the Star?" she asks. Another security guard fires his pistol. The bullets bounce off Kali. "Fool!" she says. "Your meager weapons cannot harm the Goddess of Destruction!"
"But," Mr. Muerte says, "my powers can!" He hovers in the window through which Kali arrived. His cloak billows behind him. His right hand is clenched in a fist; his left points at the evil goddess.
Not even an atomic bomb could move Jimmy from his seat right now.
Mr. Muerte is at a disadvantage in this battle. Kali cares nothing about the museum guests. Mr. Muerte must protect them. Kali cares nothing about the museum either -- not its walls, not its furnishings, not the priceless antiquities -- only about the Star of the Rajah.
She topples a statue of Ganesh over the mayor, the famous surgeon, and a blonde wearing a little black dress. Mr. Muerte becomes distracted. He cannot let Kali kill innocent people. He shatters the statue, saving the guests, but Kali exploits the distraction. In the next panel, she holds the ruby. "Now that I have the Star of the Rajah," she says, "its power is mine!" A red beam like a laser shoots from the stone, striking Mr. Muerte. He crumples to the floor. Kali laughs, "Foolish mortal!" and makes her escape.
The mayor kneels next to Mr. Muerte. The blonde holds her hand over her mouth. The famous surgeon touches his hand to Mr. Muerte's throat.
Jimmy turns the page. Sweat from his fingertips soaks into the comic's cover.
The surgeon says, "He's dead!" Underneath, it says, "Continued in Karma Crew #57, on sale next week!" Jimmy's hands tremble. He lowers the comic book to his lap. Mr. Muerte is dead. He can't believe it. Mr. Muerte is immortal. How can he die?
The week passes like the dark hours of Christmas morning, when the gifts are laid out but the parents are not yet awake. Thursday afternoon, the three o'clock bell rings and Jimmy is the first one out the door. He doesn't wait for Frankie or Denny, and he pedals hard all the way to Fenniman's.
He bursts through the door, nearly breathless. Nancy is kneeling in front of the wire spinner, stuffing comic books into the slots. She smiles when she sees him, but he doesn't give her time to speak. "Karma Crew #57," he says, all at once, like a starving man asking for food. She points to the comic books next to her. There's two stacks: one with bent spines and dull covers, the other with straight spines and shiny perfect covers. "We got some," she tells him. "I'll have it up in a second."
Jimmy falls to his hands and kneels next to her. "Can I get one now?"
Nancy opens her mouth to say something, but doesn't speak. He's starting to catch his breath now. She gives the spinner a quarter turn, to where there's a column of empty slots. Jimmy says, "I won't mess up your stack."
Nancy says okay.
He finds the latest Karma Crew in the middle of the pile. Kali is on the cover, facing the Karma Crew this time. Mr. Muerte's supine body floats between them on a bed of red light that emanates from the Star of the Rajah. Jimmy scrambles to lean against the magazine rack and starts reading.
Karma Crew is not a title that Jimmy reads often, but Peter bought it every once in a while. Frankie and Denny sneered at him whenever he did, because they prefer G-Force, which has better superheroes, many of whom are popular enough to star in their own titles. Jimmy, too, prefers G-Force to the Karma Crew, but whenever Peter bought Karma Crew, he read it.
Shiva is the Karma Crew's leader. He has three eyes and blue skin, and can build up superhuman reserves of strength just by staying still.
Ganesh is the strong man -- elephant-headed and a world-renowned poet. In #23, he threw an armored car at the Thuggee Master and his assassin horde, preventing them from killing President Nixon.
Hanuman is the monkey king. He can make himself big or small, human or ape. Most of the time he looks like the apes in Planet of the Apes, which Jimmy thinks is really cool, and even Frankie and Denny admit is pretty neat.
The last member of the Karma Crew is Durga, who is a woman because superhero teams always need at least one. Durga is cool, though, unlike Wallflower, who's in the G-Force. Durga is a warrior goddess who rides a tiger. In #40, she fought Captain Calcutta single-handedly and won after he imprisoned the rest of the Karma Crew in the Black Hole, from which no one ever escapes alive and the only way out is in a coffin. No way Wallflower could do that. The G-Force would have been dead.
Karma Crew #57 opens in the group's secret hideout. Ganesh is reading Shakespeare. Hanuman exercises on a jungle gym. Durga watches Hanuman. Shiva enters and calls his team to attention. "The cosmos is unbalanced!" he announces. "Kali is behind it and we must stop her!" The Karma Crew scrambles into action.
First, they travel to the astral plane, a place full of swirly lines, drippy clocks, and paths that lead nowhere. "Take care here," Ganesh says, "if we lose our way, we may be lost forever!" But being lost isn't their worst problem; Kali's minions lie in wait. Demons stream out from behind purple trees and leap from Cheshire mouths. But the battle is short and the Karma Crew is on their way again.
Jimmy skips to the end.
In Kali's fortress, the team confronts the goddess. Mr. Muerte's spirit form is being held by one of Kali's demon minions, a multiheaded creature that drools poison from its sharpened teeth. More demon minions stand between our heroes and Mr. Muerte.
The Karma Crew attacks. Durga leads the way, followed by Ganesh. Durga's tiger claws at one of the demons while Durga herself slashes at another with her sword. Three demons pile on Ganesh. He bucks, and the demons fly across the room. There is now a clear path to Kali. Ganesh lunges at her. "I am more powerful now than you can imagine!" the goddess says. A bolt of red light shoots from the ruby and knocks Ganesh to the ground.
Shiva yells, "Hanuman! The ruby!"
The monkey king goes into action. In full ape form, he jumps and somersaults across the room, bouncing off the walls and the heads of the grasping demons.
"Get him, you fools!" Kali orders her minions, but too late. Hanuman delivers Kali a flying kick, and she drops the ruby. He catches it with his feet before it hits the ground.
Without the ruby, Kali's power is reduced. Mr. Muerte breaks free from his demon captor. Shiva steps in. The battle with Kali bursts from the fortress and through the planes of existence. In the end, Shiva and Mr. Muerte prevail and send Kali down to the lowest level of hell to suffer for eternity.
Jimmy doesn't bother reading the last page. He sighs as he closes the comic. Mr. Muerte is back; that's what is important.
The boys play in the meadow between the new subdivision and the cement aqueduct. There's enough space to run around and enough trees to use as cover. Last year, the city put a chain-link fence along the aqueduct and sometimes the boys use the No Trespassing sign as a home base. They used to play Cowboys and Indians, and recently War, but they stopped that for a while after Denny's big brother didn't come home from Vietnam. Today they play Galactic Rangers. Frankie and Denny are the Earth Patrol; Jimmy and Peter, the Federation Forces. Frankie's laser blaster is a plastic rifle he got for Christmas last year. Denny uses a long stick, but his blaster is more powerful than Frankie's. Jimmy prefers his cap guns, which he keeps tucked in his waistband. The guns are better when he has caps, although for Galactic Rangers he doesn't need anything that bangs.
Galactic Rangers is harder than Cowboys and Indians or War. In Cowboys and Indians, if you get shot, it could be only a flesh wound. Maybe you can't walk or use your left arm, but you aren't dead. War is harder because Marines have machine guns. Galactic Rangers is the hardest. One shot from a blaster and you're dead. Galactic Rangers involves a lot of running and hiding.
The game lasts for hours, until Frankie and Denny ambush Jimmy and Peter near the edge of the field. Peter is incinerated by Denny's radiation blaster. Jimmy can't save him. He blasts Frankie with his laser pistols, but Denny gets Jimmy, too. They fall into the dry grass, dead. The game is over.
Jimmy stands and brushes dirt from his jeans.
"Let's go home," Frankie says. His face is flushed and a droplet of sweat slides down his temple.
Denny says, "Yeah." Jimmy looks behind him at the meadow. Red sky creeps over the aqueduct, making the water look dark. Peter is still lying in the grass. His hat came off when he fell, which makes Jimmy feel bad because Peter's hair hasn't started growing back yet.
Frankie and Denny start walking.
"Wait," Jimmy says. "Peter."
Frankie stops walking. He turns to face Jimmy. "He's dead, you wuss."
"No," Jimmy says. "He's not dead. Not anymore." The game is over.
Frankie slings his rifle over his shoulder. He heads for the subdivision. Denny tags behind him.
Jimmy scans the field. "Wait," he says. "Wait up, you guys." He wants to follow, but he can't leave Peter behind. He runs to find him.
Karma Crew © 2002 Alain Valet
Copyright © 2002 Sean Klein
Sean Klein lives in California with his wife and two cats. He is a graduate of Clarion West 2001. He is still searching for a near mint copy of Mr. Muerte #7. Contact him if you have one for sale.
The original illustration for "Mr. Muerte and the Eyeball Kid" is by Alain Valet.