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Teen becomes unlikely ‘Hero’ in Lupica’s book

A 14-year-old boy mourning his father's mysterious death gains superhero powers in Mike Lupica's new book, "Hero." Zach must learn to harness his power for good in the hopes of stopping a threat to America. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

A 14-year-old boy mourning his father's mysterious death gains superhero powers in Mike Lupica's new book, “Hero.” Zach must learn to harness his power for good in the hopes of stopping a threat to America. An excerpt. 

Zach had been in the library, getting the jump on his homework, waiting for Kate to finish with play rehearsal. Kate played sports — soccer in the fall and lacrosse in the spring. But what she really loved to do was sing. She had what Zach’s mom always described as a Broadway voice. In the fall, it seemed like she always had one of the starring roles in Parker’s annual musical. This year’s show was “High School Musical.” Zach had told her that it was just as easy for him to do homework in school, and that he’d wait for her so they could walk home together. only now Spence was the one waiting for him, saying, “What’re you doing here so late, Harriman?” Just the two of them now. No handshakes when Zach got to his locker, no fake concern. No need for Spence Warren to do the kind of acting job that Kate was doing upstairs in the Performing Arts Center.

Lie or tell the truth?

Truth, he decided. It was a way for him, at least inside, to feel like less of a wimp. Like he was standing up to Spence. “Meeting Kate here in a few minutes,” he said.

Spence nodded.

“Right,” he said.

“Play practice,” Zach said.

Spence said, “So you two can walk home together.” Not a question, just a statement of fact. Spence nodded again.

“Yeah,” Zach said, opening his locker door, trying to find a place for his books in the mess in there. Hoping the conversation was over.

Knowing it wasn’t.

Knowing the old Spence was back.

“Must be tough,” Spence said. “Being you right now. Your dad and all.”

Everybody else at school had at least stopped talking about it.

Zach kept himself busy, rearranging his locker. “Gets a little easier every day,” he said. “You know.”

“Man, I don’t see how that could be,” Spence said.

He leaned against the locker next to Zach’s, Dave Epstein’s, as if settling in for a while. “Seriously, dude? How can that be possible? I mean, if it were me? My dad dying like that? I don’t think I could ever get over it.”

Don’t let him get to you, Zach told himself. Feeling like some kind of red warning sign was flashing inside his head. Walk away. But he was stuck here, knowing he couldn’t tell Spence he had to be someplace, had already told him this was where he was supposed to be, waiting for Kate.

Leaving would just be another way of running away.

“Oh, it’s like grown-ups are always telling you,” Zach said, keeping his tone casual, not wanting to give Spence the satisfaction of knowing he was getting to him. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

“But, see, that’s what I’m trying to say,” Spence said. “This must be killing you even worse than it would somebody else.”

Zach blew out some air, feeling tired all of a sudden. “Why is that?”

“Well, if it was me, at least I’d have a lot of friends at school, having my back, so to speak. But let’s face it, you being you, all you’ve pretty much got is Kate.”

Behind that came a grin that Zach knew as well as he knew the way to school, the look of total triumph.

Why wouldn’t he feel that way? Spence Warren was starting a fight with Zach he never lost.

“And Kate pretty much has to take care of you, right?”

It always came back to her.

The words just came out of Zach now, before he had a chance to stop them.

“Shut up, Spence.”

If he wasn’t standing up to him exactly, at least he wasn’t backing down.

Spence looked confused now, as if Zach had said something to him in a foreign language. “Shut up?” he said. “Dude, I thought we were just conversing here.”

“No,” Zach said. Not just feeling tired now, feeling exhausted. “No, we weren’t. You just waited for the right time to start busting my stinking chops again. Now that must have killed you, having to wait a whole month to start up again. Did you have to go find somebody else to practice on while I was away?”

Spence still hadn’t moved, was still leaning against Dave’s locker, looking so relaxed he could fall asleep right there.

And in that moment, Zach saw himself slapping that self-satisfied look off his face, slapping him hard, then grabbing him by the front of his gray Parker hoodie and banging him hard into Dave’s locker, imagining the surprise on his face, the shock, even the pain ...

A Zach he didn’t know.

Spence said, “I’m sorry, what did you say, Harriman? I stopped listening after shut up.”

“Too bad, you missed some really good conversing.”

“You did tell me to shut up, didn’t you?”

“It’s a shame Kate’s not here, Spence,” Zach said. “So she could see just how much of a loser you really are.” Now Spence straightened up. Not grinning any longer. “You’re calling me names now?”

“Yeah,” Zach said. “I guess I am.”

Spence dropped the books he’d been carrying, got right up on Zach, slamming his locker door closed as he did, the sound echoing up and down the empty hall.

“You’re gonna need to take that back.”

“Take it back?” Zach shook his head. He felt himself grinning now. “What are you, seven years old? No kidding, Spence, for a smart guy you can sound dumber than a bag of hammers.”

One of his dad’s old expressions popping into his head, out of nowhere. Where did that come from? Where was all of this coming from? In a quiet voice, Spence said, “So let me get this straight: Now I’m dumb on top of everything else?” Zach could feel the heat of Spence’s breath on his face, like exhaust.

Spence wasn’t all that much taller than Zach. He’d just always seemed taller; Zach felt as if he’d been looking up at the guy as long as he’d known him. Like having Spence in his life had given him a permanent stiff neck.

“Stop it! Both of you! Stop it right now!”

Kate.

Zach and Spence both turned. There she was at the end of the row of lockers, hands on hips. Like a teacher.

Spence spoke first, smiling at her. His class president smile. “Stop what?”

Kate said, “How about whatever’s going on here? How would that be?”

“Nothing interesting going on here,” Spence said. “Right, Harriman?”

There was no point in getting Kate in the middle of this, even though she was always in the middle, right there between him and Spence, whether she was actually around or not.

“We were just messing around,” Zach said. “You think I’d actually pick a fight with this guy?”

“Right,” Kate said. Knowing both of them were lying, and not liking it from Zach. She looked at him carefully, then decided to let it go.

“You ready to roll?” she said.

“Yeah.”

To Spence she said, “See you tomorrow, Mr. Warren.”

“Done deal,” Spence said.

Just like that he picked up his books and was gone, around the corner, up some stairs.

Kate said, “Do I want to know?”

Zach said, “No.”

Then she looked down at her own books and said, “Idiot!” “Okay,” Zach said. “I’m sorry.” “I mean me,” she said. “I left my jacket in the auditorium.”

“Total idiot, you’re right.”

“Shut up,” she said, smiling at him for the first time. “Meet you on the bricks in five.” outside. “Yes, ma’am.” “Don’t ‘ma’am’ me,” she said. “I’m not your mother.” As she walked away, he said, “Act like you are sometimes.”

Without looking back, she said, “Heard that.”

He watched her disappear up some steps and realized he hadn’t exactly been glad she’d shown up when she had.

It was then that Zach felt something and looked down.

Looked down and saw something he’d never seen before, no matter how angry he’d gotten at Spence, no matter how badly he’d been humiliated:

Clenched fists.

His hands and his arms shaking, because that’s how hard he wanted to hit something. Practically his whole body shaking. Not with fear this time.

With something else.

Without thinking about what he was doing, or where he was going, he walked slowly down the row of lockers to one of the old brick walls at the basement level of Parker, one with old photographs on it, from sports teams out of the past.

He found an empty place in the wall and just like that started pounding his fists into it. First a right, then a left, and then no pattern — just all these wild, random punches. Zach threw them with everything he had.

The punches he’d imagined himself throwing at Spence Warren when he was still there in front of him.

When he was finally done, out of breath and dripping with sweat the way he had been when he ran home across the park the day his dad died, he looked down again, expecting to see his fists bruised, his knuckles raw and covered with blood.

Zach saw nothing.

More amazing, considering the fact that he’d just gone twelve rounds with a brick wall? He felt nothing.

Excerpted from "Hero" by Mike Lupica. Copyright © 2010. Philomel Books.