His mother screwed her face up. “Oh, I hate that name he uses. Do I look like I’d name my son Bubba?” The way she said the name it sounded like the ultimate insult. “That I would gaze down upon my precious bundle that I had succored for months inside my own body and given all my devotion to and say, ‘Dear Lord, thank you for this wonderful gift. Let me call him Bubba, so that he can grow up and be mocked before he even opens his mouth.’ Did he ever tell you how he got that dang nickname?”

“No, ma’am. I didn’t even know it was a nickname. I thought his nickname was Cheese.”

“Oh, and don’t even get me started on that topic. Cheese? Really, Michael? For that I sent you to the best private school in town.” She shook her head as if to clear it. “Nah, they named him Bubba when he was in tenth grade and had gone up to Ohio State for a summer football camp program. Those snotty brats started calling my baby Bubba because of his accent that they constantly mocked him over. And instead of stomping them into the ground like he should have, he started using Bubba as a joke.”

“Mama,” Bubba said as he came out of the back. “I can’t beat up everyone in the world for being stupid. Have you seen how many of them are out there? I work retail. Trust me. The world’s eat up with it. And aren’t you the one who’s always saying, ‘you can’t fix stupid, son, so don’t try?’ Besides, I got better things to do with my time than fight every idiot I come into contact with.”

She snorted. “Please. It wouldn’t be much of a fight. Have you looked at yourself, boy?

Nick gaped at her words. He couldn’t believe she’d encourage Bubba to fight when all he did was get dogged out by his mother for even thinking about fighting.

The universe had a sick sense of humor.

Dr. Burdette shook her head, then met Nick’s gaze. “I don’t know where he gets his gargantuan size from. My entire side of the family is mutantly short. Heck, I’m taller than two of my brothers. They are truly concentrated evil which is why they’re meaner than all get out. And while his daddy is average, his daddy is average. Genes make no sense to me.”

Bubba snorted. “You know, Mama, I don’t find that comforting given the fact that you’re one of the top pediatric surgeons in the country, and have written several defining works on genetic links to diseases.” He glanced at Nick and Kody. “It’s kind of like the time she baked me cookies when I was a kid, and then came up to my room to offer them to me while I was getting dressed for Halloween.”

“Oh Lord, not that again,” his mother said under her breath.

Nick was so confused. “What’s wrong with cookies?” His mom tried to bake, but it was not her forte. They were always burnt on the outside and still raw dough on the inside.

Bubba snorted. “Nick, I’m telling you this for your own good. If a woman, even your own mother, comes up and offers you cookies while she’s wearing a black apron with a skull and crossbones on it … decline. Just saying.”

His mother laughed. “It was during Halloween. Good grief. Who knew I’d scar you for life by offering you a snickerdoodle? I can just hear that conversation with your therapist now. ‘Oh, Doctor, it was so awful. There I sat as a little innocent child, playing my video games on my little baby tummy, when all of a sudden, my mean, awful mama, who’d just come off a thirty-six-hour shift at the hospital, who had driven two and a half hours to get home so that she could finish sewing up my Gene Simmons costume for trick-or-treating after my daddy had accidentally sewed the sleeve shut, and bake me some mummy dogs and snickerdoodles, offered me one.’” She held the back of her hand to her forehead. “‘Oh the humanity, Doctor. Oh the humanity I have seen. You just don’t know my pain. You. Just. Don’t. Know.’”

She gave Kody and Nick a droll stare. “I’ll bet if you tried to give him a snickerdoodle today, he’d scream like a girl and run for cover.” She paused and narrowed her eyes. Then a wide smile broke across her face. “I know what I’m making for dinner.” She grinned at Bubba. “You got any cinnamon in your kitchen, Bugaboo? Or is it all half-empty cereal boxes and Snickers like normal?”

“I got a loaf of bread and some peanut butter, too.”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh I’m so sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to insult you.” Her voice shook with laughter and sarcasm.

Nick laughed. “I like your mama, Bubba. She’s a lot of fun.”

“That’s ’cause she’s not busting your chops. As my dad would say, she’s like a head injury. Only funny when it happens to somebody else.”

He wouldn’t argue that. No one was immune from the blistering tongue of maternal criticism. But Nick wanted to return to something Bubba’s mom had mentioned that he hadn’t known about Bubba. Something he just couldn’t wrap his mind around. “Did you really play football?”

Bubba shrugged nonchalantly. “For a little while.”

“Little while, my pink patootie.” His mama turned her attention back to Nick and Kody. “Let me tell you about my baby boy, Nick. He was a first-string linebacker. One of the best you ever saw. When he wasn’t blowing stuff up around the house conducting bizarre experiments,” she glanced sideways at Bubba, “like the time he tried to launch the TV into space for the aliens to see—”

“Mama, I was four years old, let it go already. Dang … Do something stupid around your mama, one time, when you’re four years old and you never live it down.”

She ignored his interruption. “… He had a football in his hands and was leaving everybody in his wake. No one could catch him. The people who knew better than to mock him used to call him Battleground Bulldozer Burdette or Trip B for short. He had a full-blown football and academic scholarship to MIT, where he was one of their most valued players all four years he was there. He had offers to go pro and I don’t mean one or two teams. He was the number-one draft pick and was promised everything you can imagine if he’d sign. He could have played for any NFL team, anywhere.”

Nick was completely stunned. He’d had no idea. Bubba never really talked about his past, and the fact that he was a football star.…

That absolutely shamed Nick’s Peewee Bowl Championship wins he was so proud of. “Why didn’t you go pro?”

A deep sadness creased Bubba’s brow. “I had a lot of reasons that made sense to me back then.” He swallowed hard. “It doesn’t matter anyway.… I’d have probably had a massive injury on the field that would have cut my career short. As they say, all good things come to an end. Now, moving out of the past ’cause there ain’t no reason to be there, let’s talk about this cybernut on the loose at your school. You guys got a major problem.”

“Yeah, we know.”

“No, Nick, you don’t.” He crooked his finger for him to follow into the back of the shop.

Nick headed in and as soon as he saw the monitor where Mark was working, he froze. There were all kinds of photos on the site about his classmates. Some pretty graphic. Some gross. And some were just wrong. “What the…”

Mark let out a long breath. “If this weren’t cruel, I’d be impressed by the skill level. Someone spent a lot of time and they’ve done some incredible PI work on a whole lot of people.”

“But what concerns us most is this link.” Bubba took the mouse from Mark’s hand and clicked on the word “Sources.” “They’ve named everyone who gave them information on someone else.”

Nick ground his teeth as he read over the list and saw his own name listed as an informer. “They’re absolutely lying. I never told anyone anything about Spencer. Nothing. Not even my mama.” In that moment, he wanted to find the site owner and back over them with his poor driving skills. “What’s under ‘Cyblog’?”

Mark clicked on it. “The social ramblings of a jealous lunatic—keeping in mind that the man who is making this accusation against the site owner sleeps in duck urine and rather than go to a bar to troll for dates, spends his nights in the gator-infested swamp searching for zombies with Bubba. Believe me, I know crazy when I see it.”

Shaking his head, Nick didn’t comment on that as he read the rantings against his classmates. Mark moved his hand so that Nick could take possession of the mouse.

There was a photo of some of the cheerleaders, including Casey, from the haunted house his school was sponsoring. Under the photo—These are some of the nauseating fleas I have to stomach in class. Couldn’t you just puke? Look at them, the only thing smaller than their IQs is their skirts. Vo-mit.

Nick let out a low whistle. “I’m not sure I want to know what’s under the ‘Classmates’ link.”

Mark crossed his arms over his chest. “No, you probably don’t. It’s basically pages they’ve set up with doctored photos of your classmates in sexually explicit acts, or naked.”

Nick decided to take his word for it. Until Madaug perfected his eye bleach formula, he didn’t need to see something that would disgust him. “And you can’t find anything on the person who did this?”

“Nada, buddy. Nil. Nothing.”

This was so bad.

Bubba put a comforting hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’ll keep working on it. We’re going to find out who’s responsible.”

“Thanks, Bubba.” Sickened by the kind of callous individual who could do this to someone who’d never harmed him or her, Nick faced Kody. “I’m going home before I get into any more trouble, and wait for my mom to get off work.”

“Okay. Call me if you need anything.”

Most people would hear that and think she meant for him to use a phone. But he had several ways to contact her that didn’t require anything more than his thoughts

He kissed her on the cheek before he left out the back door of the building. If ever his powers would work correctly for him, now would be the time.

Unfortunately, the only thing he could see about the future was his coming restriction that would hang over his head until graduation.

At least it didn’t take long to make it home. He went inside and locked the door, then cursed as he remembered he’d left his backpack at Sanctuary. He wouldn’t be able to finish his homework until late tonight.

You could go get it.

Yeah, and chance another severe tongue-lashing from the mothership? No, thank you.

Grumbling at his own stupidity, he went to his room. He kicked off his shoes, then threw himself across his bed and reached for the radio. He needed some loud, make-the-neighbors-hate-my-guts music to improve his dismal outlook.

But as he reached for the controls, a chill went down his spine.

Unsure of what it meant, he scanned the room and …

Every protection sign he had on his walls—signs that were never visible to the naked eye unless something inhuman was trying to get to him—was lit up like Christmas in the Quarter. His walls literally glowed bloodred …

Crap! He was under attack.

CHAPTER 6

Nick rolled off the bed and grabbed his baseball bat from the corner … yeah, okay, stupid weapon against the paranormal, but it was better than nothing.

In spite of all the symbols and Caleb’s assurances that nothing could breach the sanctity of his room, a mist appeared in the corner closest to the window.

Nick tightened his grip on the wood. Just as he was about to put out the cosmic call for help and go all Louisville Slugger on his intruder, the creature materialized. Tall, shapely, and evil to the core of her soul, she stood on the other side of his bed in a short ruffled skirt, a black leather bustier, and purple leggings. Her red and black hair was pulled into pigtails that were held in place by spiked bands that matched the collar around her neck.

“Good grief, Simi, you scared me senseless.” Nick let out an audible sound of relief as he let the bat slide out of his hands and back to the floor. “What are you doing here?”

She blew out a hard breath that made her bangs fly up as she pouted in irritation. She was even tapping her burgundy Docs on the floor. “Akri done gone off with that dumb old heifer goddess again, and the Simi done got bored sleeping all the time and started twitching, and making Akri jumpy, which makes the old cow-faced heifer grumpy. Which personally, the Simi thinks is great. Anything the Simi can do to rankle the heifer, the better. One day, the Simi gonna eat that heifer, too. No matter what Akri say. Yum. Yum. Or actually, probably more tummy ache than yummy full. But anyways, ’cause the Simi was doing the St. Vitus dance of stir-crazy impatience and thereby Akri was doing the St. Vitus Dance by default, Akri say the Simi could come and visit them bear people to get some good eats. Soooo, the Simi decided to come see her favorite blue-eyed demon boy and since he always being grounded for being stupid, Simi said, hmmm … let’s go check his room, ’cause that’s where he normally is when he’s grounded. And here you are. And now so am I. Hi, akri-Nick.”



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