Excerpt from A Better World, a novel by Erik Grove

There were a lot of things that had to happen before June found herself held hostage in a candy store by a teenage boy with jet boots and a mohawk and his gorilla sidekick with a laser gun. 

College, obviously.  That was a mistake.  She should have majored in something more practical or just skipped it entirely for all the value a liberal arts education had in this economy.  If she’d had any idea that a bachelor of arts in comparative literature was a fast track to clerk at a candy store three blocks off of Times Square, she might have just taken the umpteen thousands in debt and absconded to Mexico for four years on the beach.  The beach.  That would be nice right now, she thought.

Jet Boot Boy tried to say something to her with his mouth full of gummy something something.  It was incomprehensible gibberish.  When June just stared with mute ironic horror, he shrugged and shoved his hand into a barrel of candy sprinkles.

Then there was New York City in its entirety.  The whole stupid metropolis was definitely not going to escape culpability for Jet Boots and Mini Kong.  It’s the center of the world, she told her brother when he repeatedly tried to convince her to move.  When things happen, they happen in New York, she said.  It was true.  But not all the things that happened were purely, technically, awesome things.  Marauding junior supervillains for one.  It was the culture, she explained.  There were a lot of good bands and cool shows, museums and ballet and opera and all that stuff that June always intended to go to but couldn’t afford because she worked at a candy store where the dress code specifically said she was allowed to dress up like her favorite candy character if she wanted to.  So, yeah, she had several obnoxious roommates and still paid more for a month’s rent than it would cost to buy a healthy baby on the black market but New York was cool.  That was her argument ender.  New York City is cool.  Fact.  Argument won.  That and to a native New Yorker, strip malls are more terrifying than an alien invasion.  June was less alarmed by the smells in the New York City subway than she was by Olive Garden.

Kid Mohawk Von Evilstein tried to say something else to June. 

“What?”  She said.  “I can’t understand you with your mouth full.”

Major Midget Mohawk swallowed whatever confection he had.  “What are you supposed to be?”  He asked her.

June stared at him.  “What?”

“What candy character are you supposed to be?”


But most presently, most directly, the cause of June’s current predicament was Ingrid and the completely made-up rampaging albino alligator men.

“Do you have the almond and coconut things?”  Jet Boots asked.  In addition to the boots he had boxing glove big robo gloves that apparently had built in flame throwers and some kind of anti-gravity beams and he was wearing plaid shorts and a Galaga t-shirt.  A Galaga T-shirt.  She was being held hostage in a candy story by a pubescent supervillain in an ironic T-shirt.  They weren’t even in Williamsburg.

“No,” June told him.  “We don’t have those.”

“The ones that are covered in chocolate,” Jet Boots clarified.  “You know.  The song.  Sometimes you feel like… coconut?”

“I know what you’re talking about,” June said.  “And we don’t have them.”

He seemed confused.  “Why not?”

“Because we don’t.”

“This is a candy store.”

“Oh, I’m aware.”

“And that’s candy.”

“Different company makes them.”

The boy tilted his mohawk head.  “What?”

“We don’t have candy from that company here.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Customer comment cards are by the register,” June told him and pointed.

Kid Evil shot a burse of flame at the comment cards.  The gorilla shook its gorilla head as if he was also unimpressed with this display of villainy.

“Yeah, we don’t really pay much attention to those anyway,” June admitted.

Half Terror fumed for a moment and then posed and then looked back at June.  “Do you have any coconut candy at all?”

“Um,” June said and looked around the store.  She looked at the different bulk dispensers and shelves behind the counter.  “No,” she concluded.  “This is a totally coconut free candy store,” she said.

That was not what Kid Destructo wanted to hear.  He was all gravity beams and flame thrower and some jet boot jumping for good measure.  A lot of innocent candy melted.  June dove for cover in the fruit flavored section.  Little hard candies dug into her knees and palms.  The store smelled like a cotton candy arsonist’s fantasy.

June took out her cell phone.  Great.  Not only was she held captive.  She was late.  No way she wasn’t going to get a hard time about that later and even if she told her brother it was just because of the super crime and the gorilla and Ingrid and the stupid absolutely not real albino alligator men he would just try to twist it around and use it as an another argument for why she should move out of the city.

It should be Ingrid hiding out and waiting for the candy high to crash.  Ingrid was certainly going to have to clean this all up and talk to the boss and the cops.  The cops.  The cops were going to want to ask her questions.  It just keeps getting better and better, June thought.

The store got quiet and June listened for flamethrowering and jet booting.  Nothing.  Maybe he’d gone.  She moved just enough to look around the corner of her cover and saw the gorilla standing right there. 

“Gah!”  June exclaimed and fell backward onto her butt.  The gorilla moved toward her and June grabbed a handful of sugar lemon candies to defend herself.

The gorilla held up his hands peacefully and let the laser gun hang by the strap on his shoulder.  “I won’t hurt you,” the gorilla signed in ASL.

You can sign?!”  June signed back to the gorilla.

“You can too?”  The gorilla signed back and smiled a gorilla smile.  “I’m GG.  Hi!”

“June,” June signed and pointed to herself.  “Can I leave please?”

GG craned his head.  “Soon.”

“Your friend is going to murder me!”

GG shook his head.  “He won’t do that.  He’s just upset.  It’s his birthday.”

June’s jaw fell open with shock.  “Seriously?”

“GG!”  The boy shouted from somewhere in the store.  “Slushy juice!”

“Gotta go,” GG signed and then moved toward the slushy juice machines.

June looked down at her cell phone.  She started to text her brother and then stopped.  She started to dial 911.

And then Ingrid showed up for her shift.  Finally.

“Sorry!”  Ingrid said as she barged into the store.  “The subway was crazy pants!  Half the trains were shut down because of lizard people or something.”  Ingrid was obviously not looking around the store at all as she talked.  She didn’t notice the destruction or the supervillain and his gorilla that speaks sign language.

June stood up.  “You said they were alligator men,” she told Ingrid.  “Albino alligator men.  That’s what you texted.”

“Alligator men, whatever,” Ingrid said.  “Anyway, it was the bug guy I guess that-“ She stopped and saw GG and Jet Boots at the slushy juice machine.   Jet Boots had red and purple slushy juice all over his face.  He was still and staring at Ingrid.  Ingrid stared at him.  GG turned off the slushy juice.  “I have to … bathroom … not here,” Ingrid said quickly and turned and ran out of the store.

“Ingrid!”  June shouted.  When it was obvious she was gone and wasn’t coming back, June’s shoulders fell.  “Stupid Ingrid,” she said and then realized GG and the kid were watching her.  The kid gave her a thumbs up.  “Yeah,” June said and sighed.  She shook her head.  Stupid Ingrid.

“How long have you worked here?”  The boy asked her.

“Way too long,” June said.

“This is a cool place to work, right?”  He asked her.  “You get to eat candy and stuff like all the time, right?”

“Pretty much,” June said.  She hated this job.  She hated candy.  “Look, do you want me to just pack up like a bunch of bags of this for you?”

“Can I take the slushy juice?”

“I guess you could just take the –“ GG tore the machine apart.  “- the syrup tanks.”

“I’m sorry about the customer comment cards,” the boy said.  “My name is Trouble.”

June was thinking about saying “seriously?!” again.  It was on the tip of her tongue and she was a little aware of how often she said it and how it sounded.  Like when someone points out how often you say “like.”  But she didn’t get a chance to say it because Ingrid came running back into the store screaming.

“Dinosaur!  Dinosaur!”  Ingrid screamed. 

 “You said albino alligator men,” June told Ingrid.  “But you lied about the alligator men, didn’t you Ingrid?”

“There’s no albino alligator men,” Trouble said.

“See,” June said.  “He would know.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  Trouble asked her.

“I don’t know,” June said.  “Supervillain meetings?”

“You think I’m a supervillain?”  Trouble asked.  He seemed halfway flattered.

Ingrid was shaking and had gone completely pale.  “Dinosaurs, you guys,” she said.  The store shook from what June had to assume was a dinosaur foot step or something.  Outside, people were screaming.

“Dinosaurs!”  Trouble perked up.  “I’ve always wanted to punch a dinosaur!”  His jet boots rumbled. “Gorilla Girl!”  He shouted and pulled on his goggles.  “It’s punching time!”

Trouble blasted off.  He used his gravity beam to hurl the doors open and rocketed out into some kind of uniquely New York super Jurassic monster melee.

We’ll protect you!”  GG signed and pulled on a helmet and readied her laser gun and bounced after Trouble.

June thought smart-ass thoughts.  That’s your catchphrase?  It’s punching time?  Yeah, you’re not going to have to worry about anyone putting that one a t-shirt.  She shook the one-liners out of her head and looked at Ingrid.  “Admit you lied about the alligator men,” she said.

Ingrid nodded.  “I did,” she said.  She started to cry. “I lied so hard.  There was a party last night and I was sleepy.”

June sighed.  “We have to get out of here,” she said.  “Now!”

Ingrid staggered to a broken barrel of candy and she climbed inside.  She wept and put candy in her mouth.  “You go,” Ingrid said.  “I’m not going to make it.”

Stupid Ingrid, June thought.  She went for the doors and out onto the street.  She had to immediately dodge several fleeing tourists before she could scan the scene and look for an escape.  She saw Trouble in the air, all flying flaming mohawk glory, and a ridiculously huge Tyrannosaurus Rex.  There were a thousand people running.  Behind them and among them were a hundred dinosaurs.  Horns and big teeth and big flat crushing dinosaur feet.  Windows shook.  There were sirens in the distance and she could see the grin on Trouble’s face from down the street.  He pulled back his mecha gloves and he did like he said was going to do and punched the T-Rex right in its dinosaur face.  The king of thunder lizards lurched to the side and staggered.  It stepped on a Prius and tripped and fell down.

“One punch!”  Trouble shouted.

“Happy birthday, Trouble,” June said.

June saw that several of the terrified bystanders were looking up in the sky and pointing.  June looked up.  Solara and the First Line and their big super spaceship, big corny super beacons of hope.  In New York superheroes will ruin traffic and sometimes accidentally blow up your crappy railroad apartment in the middle of their sprawling super battles but when things get real, when dinosaursare roaming through Manhattan, they’re definitely appreciated.

“Waitaminute,” June said as she watched First Line gather and go into the ship.  “Where are you going?” she shouted.  The ship flew east and then disappeared in an instant super hero wormhole.

She looked back at Trouble and Gorilla Girl.  Trouble used his gravity beams to scoop up a few terrified little kids that had been separated from their panicked mother and save them from a cranky stegosaurus.  Gorilla Girl jumped on a triceratops, wrangled it by the horns and rode it toward a big bitey one that June had no idea the name of.  GG fired her laser gun at pterodactyls and trampled a few raptors just for good measure.

“Figures,” June said and started to turn to look back toward the candy shop and stupid Ingrid.

“DINOSAUR ATTACK!!!”  A tourist screamed and crashed into June in his frantic path.  The tourists are always obvious in New York.  They have maps and talk to you when you’re on the subway and they overreact during things like this.  The tourists were a real downside to New York City. 

The breath shot out of June’s lips and she flew off of her feet.  She saw the whole crazy action set piece in a slow motion arc.  Gorilla Girl in her crash helmet, teeth gritted and laser gun at the ready.  Trouble, outnumbered and mobbed by ancient fantastic beasts that should not be in midtown, and loving it.  Dinosaurs and broken cars and a sea of faces.  It was a terrifying sugar fueled fever dream but honestly, if it weren’t for the incredible danger to life and limb, it was pretty cool.  This never happens in the suburbs.  Who needs a 3D blockbuster when this something that happens for free?

June hit the pavement with a crack on the back of her head and her vision pulsed red.  She saw feet and panic raining down on her and couldn’t fight back against the tide.  Seriously?, she thought.   

“Trouble!”  She shouted.  “I need you!” 

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