If you've been around a while, you know the deal. Once a year, I participate in National Novel Writing Month, taking a novel from idea to finished first draft within the month. Doing it my way, there's a twist: I post my first draft publicly here, a chapter at a time. It's a rough draft, full of flaws, but it's a fun way of inviting the world to ride shotgun with me.
This year, I almost didn't do it. But after having finished a NaNo novel for several years, it just felt like tradition. I would have been sad to skip it.
So let me introduce you to the Last Girls, publishing November second until, well, whenever it finishes. A chapter a day, remember.
When a camping trip with friends turns to a bloodbath, Kelly must face her worst fears- as well as those of the other Last Girls.
Thanks for coming on this trip with me! I hope you have as much fun with the Last Girls as I'm gonna!
“The prodigals return,” Linc said as Mayumi, Mikaela and Drake arrived, each holding a steaming drink carrier with four mugs in them.
“Is this the real reason you paid for our coffee?” Mikaela asked. “So we'd mule some back for you?”
“'Mule' makes it sounds so sordid,” Linc said.
“Also like we carried it in our butts,” Drake said.
“I prefer 'smuggled.' It makes you sound like pirates.” He took one of the coffees, peeled back the lid and drank. “Yarr!”
The frisbee game collapsed, as the players gathered around for coffee. “Creamers?” Ben asked.
“Yeah,” Drake said, balancing the drinks in one hand and reaching into his pocket. He dropped several sealed creamers into the center of the cup holder.
“So, now that you three are done running coffee for me,” Linc said, pausing to take a quick sip, “how would you feel about a quick scrimmage? It would even out our teams.”
“Hell, no,” Rox said.
“The math checks out, Rox, no matter how vehemently you disagree.”
Cris made a show of counting on his fingers, before holding up both his hands. “He's right, it'd be 5-5.”
“I meant we're not going to play with them. We're going to play against them.”
“I think seven on three is probably a little slanted, even if they're older,” Linc said. “So I'll play for their team, too.”
“What?” she asked.
“We'll give you first possession. Sound fair?”
“Good. Then get to walking.”
“What have you gotten us into?” Mikaela asked.
“Ultimate frisbee. Normal rules apply. Mostly. And you can use whatever powers you've got, provided you don't hurt the disc or the players. Except me. My powers aren't any good unless I'm willing to essentially cheat, so I'm just a normal guy, for the purposes of this game.”
“Kae?” a familiar voice said from behind them.
“Dem?” she asked, spinning around.
“You guys playing?” Demi asked.
“Room for one more?”
“Sure. And I think I can even things out just a little more.” She pulled a compact out of her purse, and looked inside. A double of her climbed out of the mirror, stretching until it was a full-sized copy standing next to her. “If anybody's got more reflective surfaces, I can pull a few more out.” She looked at Demi.
“Sorry,” she said, “I do whatever touch-ups at home. I don't primp on the go.”
She shook her head.
“Oh well, that still gets us a team of six. Four of us essentially vanilla human, but hey, at least we're prettier.” Both Mikaelas grinned at the same time.
“Anything the rest of us should know about anybody's powers?” Linc asked. Drake disappeared, only to reappear on the opposite side of him. “Teleportation. Cool. And Demi zaps things; it ain't our first rodeo together. All right. Since we're outnumbered, I think we'll have to at least partially run a zone defense. Drake will take the back field, since he can cover the most ground. At least coming up the field, we'll want to coalesce around specific players. Anyone have a preference for who they guard?”
“I'll take Roxy,” the Mikaelas said in unison.
“You've got that backwards. It's their side that has more players, so only one of you can guard her.”
“I'll take Big Thunder- Ben. Dem, you think you can keep up with Rui?”
“I can try.”
“That leaves Irene, Mira, and I'm forgetting someone, that's right, Sonya. Mayumi, you want to help Drake watch the backfield. It's likely the play is coming through one of the others, but if we give them too much leeway otherwise, they'll have an easy time of it.”
Linc reeled back with the Frisbee, and let fly. He bolted for Ben as Rox snatched the disc from the air. “Endzone,” she yelled, as she threw to Ben. The disc arrived a second before Linc, and too high for him to catch otherwise.
Ben turned and threw the disc towards the goal as Rox ran past. Fast as she was, there was almost no chance she'd catch it, until a surprise wind kicked up, giving the disc just enough hang for her to dive beneath it as it fell.
“Well, crap,” Linc said laughing. “That did not go to plan.”
“Enjoy the walk,” Rox said from the endzone, waving goodbye at them.
“My bad,” Drake said. “I thought she was going to miss it, and we'd get the turnover from where they threw it.”
“It's fine. And on the bright side,” Linc said, we were already most of the way downfield. He shoved his hands in his pockets and his keys jangled. He frowned, and fished them out. A polished chrome US Army keychain dangled off them, and he furrowed his brow. “Mikaela?” he tossed the keys in her direction. “This work?”
She caught them. “Hmm. “I'll give it a try.” Suddenly, another Mikaela crawled out of the keychain.
“So how does that work, exactly?” he asked. “What do they arrive with?”
“Usually the same kind of crap I've got on me.”
“Then maybe you should get yourself a reflective keychain, so you can pull as many as you need.”
“Might be worth doing.”
“Might it also lead to a self-replicating human virus, essentially the worst fears about nanotechnology, but made worse by the fact that it's happening on the macro and not the micro scale?” Demi asked.
“She may have a point,” Linc said. “So use with care. As for our play, I want to Trojan Horse. If they haven't been paying attention they may not know we've suddenly got another play. All the Mikaela's group on the right side in a flying V, everybody else on the left, I'll take the center. Everybody else goes about a third of the way up the field before breaking apart, Mikaelas do the same at 2/3. In the confusion they'll lose somebody.”
Rox threw the disc, which went over Linc and was caught by Demi. She threw immediately to Linc. “Go!” he yelled, and his columns advanced. Demi's group broke apart like a human firework, and Rox's group compensated. Then Drake began to teleport around the field.
“Teleporter!” Rox yelled.
“I'm on him,” Rui said, becoming larger as the space between his atoms increased, until he was invisible.
“I'm open!” Drake yelled, only for Rui to reappear in front of him. “Teleporter?” he asked.
“No, it just smells like that sometimes when I teleport,” he deadpanned.
Rox's team had enough people they thought they could easily do man to man. Ben was coming towards Linc, and he was tall enough he wasn't sure how well he'd be able to throw around him. Mikaela's group fractured apart.
“Crap, there's another one,” Rox said. She bolted for the unaccounted for Mikaela, and he threw. Ben swiped at the air, just missing the disc. It floated past Rox, past Mikaela. She dove, with her arms thrust forward, as Rox did the same. Mikaela was just enough ahead that Rox landed on her without touching the disc as she caught it.
The impact knocked the wind out of both women's lungs, but it was Mikaela who recovered fastest. “Much as I enjoy the warmth from this huddle,” Mikaela said, “you should get up and start walking.” Rox looked up, and saw that she'd caught it in the endzone.
“Pure luck,” Rox said, standing, and offered Mikaela a hand to her feet.
“I thought that was your department.”
“We'll see next play,” she said, and started to jog down field.
“Take off the gloves,” Rox said.
Linc threw, this time giving it as much hang time as possible. By the time Rox caught it he was within a few paces of her. She tried for a pass to Ben, but he knocked it out of the air. He picked it up and handed it to her. “You maintain possession,” he said.
She pivoted, looking for an open player to pass to.
“Do we have to introduce a countdown?” Linc asked.
“Little distraction, Ben?” Rox called.
Ben held his hands out to the ground, and the earth began to shake.
Mira made a run for it in the confusion. Electricity arced through Demi, and into the snow in front of Mira. She paused, then grinned, and stepped into the electricity. Then she grabbed hold of Demi's waist, and pulled her off-balance. To her surprise, Demi matched her strength, and they deadlocked. “Ladies,” Linc yelled from downfield, “this isn't a contact sport.”
Rui stepped off the snow, and floated before catching fire. He hovered above the heads of the other defenders. “Have you got him?” Linc asked.
Drake teleported in front of him, before falling back to the earth. “Kind of,” he said when he landed, then teleported in front of him again. “Ish,” he said,” landing a second time.
“Sonya?” Rox bellowed.
“Can't,” she said. “Too many people on the field, moving too quick- might actually kaboom someone.”
“Hail Mary it is, then,” Rox said.
“Crap,” Linc said. She threw over his head.
Rui saw the throw, and that it was going to pass on the opposite side of the field. He flattened his body out, and converted more of the atoms in his lower body to plasma, rocketing off in the direction of the throw. He had never flown like that, and even the slight wind buffeted him.
Drake teleported in front of him, narrowly missing the throw as it knocked into Rui's face.
Linc froze, and Rox stopped mid-step when she recognized her alternate literature teacher ducking beneath Rui as he flailed through the air with the Frisbee between his teeth.
“I caught it!” Rui said from the ground after spitting the disc out.
“In your mouth,” Ben said. “Like a dog.”
“So I'm pretty sure we dropped it in something that came from a dog not twenty minutes ago.”
“Ugh,” Rui said, spitting and making a crinkled face.
“Ms. Fessuns,” Linc said, a little out of breath. “Timmy fall in a well?”
“I think I preferred the other variant of that joke, the one where you didn't intimate I was a dog. But no. You need to see this, all of you. Now.”
“I'm still not sure why I'm here,” Drake said nervously as they passed the smoking field.
“Moral support,” Mikaela offered. “And because Demi had to work. And maybe to ogle high school girls.”
“Or possibly be exploded by ultimate Frisbee shrapnel.”
“Hey, you knew the risks going in.”
“I didn't. I'm pretty sure you made me think we were getting a pretzel, not strolling leisurely past a Vietnam War reenactment.”
“We just had pizza.”
“I had left-overs.”
“Which you didn't even finish.”
“I'm in college. If I don't have at least a few slices of pizza in my fridge at all times, I freak out the way my Great Depression surviving great grandmother did whenever there was an empty space on the shelf of her walk-in pantry. And a pretzel sounds good. You got me to leave the warmth and comfort of my apartment by hinting we'd get one.”
“We will. This is on the way to the pretzels.”
“You might think that, since you're still new here and maybe don't have a good grasp on the geography. But it's not even kind of true.”
“Hush.” Mikaela said as they approached Lincoln, who was standing on the sidelines and shaking his head. “Did we miss the Fourth of July?” she asked.
“Some of the running starters got a little... enthusiastic,” turning towards her. “But I'm glad you're here.”
“Yeah, how did you?”
“Tucker mentioned you. As did Rox. And the Dean.”
“He mentions everybody, at one point or another. He's very hands on with the student body... that came out so much more wrong than I meant it. But it's a smaller group that comes mid-year like this, so students that catch his fancy tend to get a little more attention.”
“That's all kinds of creepy. And it also doesn't tell me why you're glad I'm here.”
“Tuck mentioned you might be coming by, and there's somebody I wanted to meet you. She's a little old, to hand off to Roxy and the other running starters, and I thought, or maybe I hoped, that she'd be a better fit for you. She's an exchange student, from Japan. My exchange student, technically, as I'm her sponsor. But it's... different. I'm older enough than her that, while I'm perhaps a good mentor, there's plenty about the college experience that's as foreign to me as this whole country is to her.”
“So, uh, what would I...”
“I just want you to talk to her, maybe show her around, a little. I know you're new, but that will help, because it's all still fresh in your mind. And of course, I can see you've already got your own support system. I'm Linc, by the way,” he waved at both her and Drake. Then he pulled out his phone and checked his messages. “As luck would have it, we were going to get coffee in a bit, so she's on her way, now. Speak of the little Oni,” he said. She was just starting up the path that cut through the field, down by the snowed-over tennis courts. “I don't want to impose, and I know there's, uh, more of a ticking clock than is probably polite, but I'd be happy to buy all of you coffee, for your troubles. Presuming you don't have some place to be.”
“No,” Mikaela said. “Here was the place we had to be.” She suddenly felt a little guilty, and glanced over at Drake. “Though, pretzels, may be a part of our agenda.”
“Very cool. Mayumi, how's your day been going?” She gave him a concerned look, and her eyes dashed from Mikaela, to Drake, and back to Linc. “This is Mikaela. I sort mentioned wanting to introduce you to someone. And this is her friend...”
“Drake,” he said, and gave her a little nod.
Mayumi bit her lip, and forced herself to look up at Linc. “It's been good,” she said softly.
“I should maybe have mentioned that she's a little introverted,” Lincoln said, with a self-deprecating smile.
“Me too, mostly,” Mikaela said. “You feel like getting some coffee?”
Mayumi looked very tentatively at her. “Cocoa?”
“Cocoa would be fine too,” Mikaela said through a smile.
“Oh, here,” Linc went for his wallet, and handed several bills to Mayumi. “It's on me.”
“Thanks,” Mayumi said.
“I'll see you later, and give me a call if you need a ride.” Linc said, and walked back to the field.
“So where are we going for coffee?” Drake asked.
“I guess the kiosk over here's close,” Mikaela said. “Plus they have coffee and cocoa, and aren't afraid to mix them.”
“Sure,” Mayumi said quietly.
“I don't think that's on the way to pretzels, though,” Drake said.
“They have pretzels in the cafeteria,” Mayumi said softly.
“They do?” Drake asked.
“You didn't know that?” Mikaela asked. “You, who build your class schedule around when and where you can get snacks.”
“I didn't go for the meal plan, so I usually just eat at home.”
“Huh,” Mikaela said.
“Did you know they had pretzels in the caf?”
“No. But I've only been here a few days. And I don't fancy myself a Cuisinart.”
“That's how I heard it,” Mayumi said with a smile.
“Oh, come on, you've known me less than five minutes, and you've already turned against me?”
“You just have that effect on women,” Mikaela said. She paused to open the doors into the Franklin Arts Center. It had a small commons area, with tables, couches, and a little barrista. They walked to the coffee kiosk.
“Just a coffee with cocoa and creamer for me,” Mikaela said.
“Iced mocha,” Drake said.
“Cocoa,” Mayumi said. “With whipped cream.” Then she handed him the folded bills from Linc.
They waited for their drinks in awkward silence. After a few moments, Drake took out his phone and amused himself with some Puzzle Quest.
“Got your order,” the barrista said, and set three cups down on the counter.
“Thanks,” Drake said, and took his first. He chose a nearby couch, and sat down. Mikaela sat next to him, and Mayumi pulled a chair from a nearby table.
“We can scoot over,” Mikaela said, pushing Drake to the side.
“This is okay,” Mayumi said.
“So,” Mikaela started. “Baundslow is a long way from Japan. What brought you here?”
“Do you mean, do I belong?”
“I think you belong just fine,” Mikaela said, “abilities, or no.”
“Oh,” she said. “I think I've got some, but...”
“Yeah,” Drake said. “I know how that goes. Mine started showing up senior year, in cross country. We ran through this forest on the backside of the campus. And I started losing tracts of time. Just a few feet here, or maybe a turn there. Nothing that couldn't be explained by a running fugue or by fatigue. Then one day I was running with Iago, and for once he was keeping up.” He stood up. Mayumi barely noticed, because she was trying to take a sip from her cocoa around the swirl of whipped cream. “And then, suddenly, he was gone.” She heard a noise, the kind of rush of air that happens when a door is opened out into the cold. She looked for the source, which was where Drake had been standing, only he wasn't there anymore.
The noise came again, accompanied by a rush of cool air, this time from behind her. “Of course, it wasn't him that disappeared,” Drake said, leaning over her shoulder. The noise came again, then a fourth time, and Drake was standing where he'd been, and dropped down onto the couch.
“How did he take it?” Mayumi asked.
“He's my best friend; still is. Lives in the same apartment up here. Which I guess let's that cat out of the bag. But he was really excited. Because he'd been noticing his own abilities, and that freaked him out. But finding out he wasn't alone, it was a pretty big deal, to him. And I think that's why he accepted it so fast; I was still really confused.”
“I know that feeling,” Mayumi said. “But that's why I'm glad to be here. To belong.”
“This campus is good for that,” Drake said.
“What kind of stuff do you do for fun?” Mikaela asked.
“Stuff,” she said. “I've been watching Attack on Titan with Linc in English, to help me brush up.”
“The anime with the big fat naked dudes?” Mikaela asked.
“I've been trying to get her to watch for forever.”
“Days,” she corrected. “I've only been up here for days. Am I the only one who knows how to tell time up here?” Mayumi gave her a bemused smile. “So you'd recommend it, then?”
She pondered a moment, and took a sip from her cocoa, smudging whipped cream on her nose. “It's bleak,” she said. “But it's unique. You should try it, at least.”
“Okay,” Mikaela relented. “How's tonight work for you two?”
“I'm free,” Drake said.
“Um,” Mayumi stalled.
“Sorry,” Mikaela said. “No pressure. I'll give you my number, and you can call if you want to hang out tonight. Sound good?”
Mayumi smiled. “I'd like that.”
“All right,” Drake said, pushing up off the couch. “You two can stay here, if you want, but I need a pretzel, now.”
Mayumi and Mikaela stood. “We're coming, too,” Mayumi said.
“Yeah,” Mikaela said. “You've been talking about pretzels so damned long, I need on, too.”
“I was thinking we should try out a team-building exercise,” Lincoln said.
“I think sharing pizza is already team-building enough,” Cris said through a too-big bite.
“Maybe,” Linc said. “But now I also have to worry about all of those extra calories from the pizza. So this kills two birds with one stone.”
“Is this why you had us dress in layers?” Sonya asked.
Linc smiled while opening the door outside, picking up a red Frisbee from the top of a filing cabinet. “It is. We're going to be playing a game called ultimate Frisbee. First, rules. You can use your abilities, provided you can control their use. That means no damaging another student or property, and it includes the disc itself- damage to the Frisbee is an automatic point for the opposing team. Once a player has the Frisbee they can't move their legs except to throw;. You can guard opposing players, including making reasonable contact, but there's no tackling. You have to force them to make a bad throw, or an interception.
“Our two captains will be Rox, and Ben. Now we've got an uneven number, so I'll flip a coin.”
“Uh...” Mira said.
“Right. That won't work. Ben, number between one and ten.”
Mira shook her head.
“Okay, Ben, you can have first pick, or you can have four people, second, fourth, sixth and final pick.”
“I'll take an extra member.”
“Okay, Rox you want to go first?”
“Mira,” she said.
He looked across the remaining group, lingering particularly over Irene. Then he looked to Rox and Mira, standing opposite. “Rui.”
“And of course,” Linc said, “you get Irene, too.”
Ben flushed, realizing too late that a part of Linc's design had been to guarantee that no one had to be picked last. “Rox, do you want to receive or kick off?”
“We'll take possession to start,” she said.
“Huddle up and plan your strategy.”
Ben's team huddled around him. “I'm beginning to think I chose poorly,” he said. “Between Rox and Cris, they've got luck and religion on their side.”
“But we've got numbers,” Sonya said confidently.
“We'll run a one to one defense, except Irene. You'll stay in the back field; you're the safety net, if somebody manages to break through, you pick them up. Anybody got preferences for who they want to guard?”
“I want Roxy,” Sonya said.
“Be careful with her,” Ben said. “That probability ability of hers can be a real pain.”
“I can handle her,” she replied.
“And you better take Mira,” Rui said to Ben. “I don't think I'm tall enough to cover her. Which means I've got Cris.”
“Sounds good to me. Irene, you think you can handle he kick-off from the back field?”
She pondered a moment, then shook her head. “No, um, you do it.”
“Okay. Everybody, ignore the Frisbee. Your goal is to make it to the person you're defending against.”
They lined up on the end of the field opposite Rox's team. “You ready?” he called to her.
“Bring it,” she bellowed back.
Ben took a few big steps then loosed the Frisbee. It reminded him of learning how to throw a knife from his brother back on the reservation, and for a moment he was homesick.
Rox barely had to movie, the Frisbee seemed to come directly to her. Ben couldn't be sure if he'd spaced and thrown it to her, or if her powers were just that pervasive. He hooked to the side to cover Mira, but she was still too far down field, and caught a throw from Rox without incident.
He nearly caught a throw from Mira, but it sailed over his head to Cris. “Crap,” Sonya said from downfield. “I don't got her.”
“Irene?” Ben bellowed. But Rox was already standing further up field with the Frisbee. Irene and Sonya met to guard her, only for her to loose the Frisbee. It floated over Cris and Rui, who dove for the interception. But it was still too high, and curved its path, landing deftly in Mira's fingers.
She passed to Cris, who was standing in the goal area, open. Rui caught up to him a half-second too late.
“Losers walk,” Rox said, walking past him.
“I hate probabilities,” Ben muttered. “But we've got this. Advantage always goes to the offense, and we've got an extra player. Just take your time with your throws.”
They turned around, to face the opposing team. Cris threw the Frisbee, and Ben caught it. “Rui, go long.” He took off down field. Mira planted in front of him, either to slow him down or force him to lose momentum going around. He dispersed his atoms into a cloud, sending them shattering outward in a mini explosion, and recombined into a solid on the opposite side of her.
“The throw!” Ben yelled, and Rui glanced up. He couldn't be sure if the throw was long, or if Mira had managed to slow him, but it was going to go over his head. He wouldn't be able to dive to catch it, even.
Without thinking he found himself burning through the air. He was a plasma, using the energy of it to fly. It gave him enough of a speed boost he was going to reach the Frisbee. He realized at the last second that if he caught it while on fire, he'd scorch the Frisbee and give the other team a point, and extinguished his hands.
“Man to man,” Rox said. “He's got to throw.” Rox and her team were all over their partners.
“Do I?” Rui asked. He was still propelled on plasma, and listing towards the goal.
Rox put one foot on Ben's knee, then the other on his hip, and finally leapt of his shoulder. She reached out to Rui's ankle, which was still on fire. He realized she was going to grab onto him- and hurt herself, so he extinguished the flame on his ankle.
She latched on, and between her and not having his feet, he lost balance, and tumbled towards the field. They landed in a pile.
“Everybody okay?” Linc asked, running up to them.
“Not a scratch,” Rox said, standing.
“Me, too,” Rui said, pushing off the ground.
“That was some unnecessary roughness,” Sonya complained.
“I'd say it was reasonable contact given what you were up to, Rui,” Linc said. “But just this once, I'll allow it. And look where you fell.”
Rui checked the lines on the field. “Goal?”
“And losers walk,” Ben said.
Rox and her team started down the field.
Ben signaled for his team to come in close. “That was a lucky break. We need to shut them down.”
“I might have an idea,” Sonya said. “I could drop mines along this side. If we aren't subtle about it, they'll know there are mines there, so they'll avoid that half of the field. It concentrates them here, where our numbers will be an even more controlling factor.”
“How do they work, exactly?” Ben asked.
“Magic?” she asked. “Okay, near as I can figure, they're essentially bubbles around a select quantity of air and antimatter, keeping the two separate for a set time. When the time's up, they combine, explosively.”
“Near as you can figure?” Rui asked.
“Okay, near as my physics professor could figure.” She stuck her tongue out at him.
“Can you make it more style than substance- make it look scarier than it is?”
“I can make the biggest ones be in the front, and go off before they get there. That'd probably do the trick. And I'll need that side of the field, so I can keep peppering the ground with them; I can only do a few dozen at a time.”
“Sounds good. And Rui, you take Roxy this time. Irene take Cris. And everybody, be aware. If you're close enough to lend a hand without losing your partner, go for it. Let's do this.”
Ben threw the Frisbee, deliberately arcing it towards Mira. “Cue the fireworks,” he said to Sonya. Mines began popping loudly, shooting sparks and colorful fire into the air.
“What the hell?” asked Mira.
“Area denial,” Rox said. “They're trying to force us through a funnel.” She ran towards Sonya. Mira threw the Frisbee towards her, and Rox turned at the perfect moment to catch it. “I'll see you in the end zone,” she said, as Cris and Mira ran past.
“Two to a person,” Ben said. “We've got this.”
Rox through the disc straight ahead, into the minefield, then chased after it on foot.
“God,” Sonya said, stopping in her tracks. The mines continued to go off around Rox as she ran. She leapt, landed, and serpentined, and even rolled to the side as mines burst all around her. One sent the Frisbee spinning precariously into the air. Rox jumped straight up, and knocked the edge of the Frisbee, so it wobbled towards the end zone. Mira was there to catch it, and Cristobal caught her when she exited.
Linc was on her heels. “That was crazy,” he said, winded by his run up the field.
“I didn't think she'd run through the mines,” Sonya said.
“You didn't think, full stop,” he said. “It isn't on the rest of the world to avoid the problems you create. But, I also think making reasonable judgment calls is part of having our kind of power. I think this went too far, but I also think Rox used that. And even managed to get a free point out of it.”
“Free point?” Sonya mouthed.
Linc held out his hands for the Frisbee, and Mira tossed it to him. It was charred on one side, where a mine damaged it. “So that play was worth two points, not one.”
“But it was still an unnecessary risk,” he said, turning towards Rox.
“I have luck on my side,” she said. “And besides, I had Cris on my team, too.”
“I'm not a get out of third degree burns free card,” Cris protested.
“Not just that,” she corrected. “You're also a hell of a catcher.”
“I'm pretty sure he prefers to pitch,” Ben said.
“Yeah, who doesn't?” Rox asked. “And I shouldn't be able to hear you; you're supposed to be walking.”
“This is really good,” Demi said.
“It is,” Mikaela said, “just don't tell Drake that, or you'll never hear the end of it.”
“He loves food, but more than that, he loves to talk about food. Compare it.”
“He doesn't look the type.”
“That's because he also runs. If he wasn't a runner he'd be like a billion pounds by now, and short as he is, he'd look like a dime.” Demi laughed.
“Shit, I think I derailed.”
“You did. But I was kind of happy to have the out, really. I hate talking about Tucker. It's draining. I want to be done, the whole thing to be over. I don't even think I'd want her back,” Mikaela frowned, “or him. And it's not because the trans thing is a deal breaker. I've dated men, and women, and quite a few of them weren't wholly cis.”
“Cis?” Demi asked, around a mouthful of pizza.
“Cisgendered. It's the opposite of trans; it's people whose gender identity matches their sex. I'm one of the last people to care about traditional gender roles. But even if he walked through that door, not here to get a pizza, but because he tracked me down because he realizes he made a mistake, and apologized and... he left me. I'd never trust that wouldn't happen again. Couldn't. There's no going back.
“But when he left, he clawed his way out of my chest like an Alien zygote; I just want not to have a gaping hole in my chest anymore, and that emotional wound is tied up in my feelings for him. I think. It's tough to know anything, the way I feel. I'm just... I'm not myself. And that's all I really want anymore; I just don't know how I get back to being me.”
“Then why'd you follow him up here?”
“I didn't, exactly,” Mikaela said. “But we were together during summer classes. I was one class behind him, before I could finish my AA. And we planned to both go here together, did the application together and everything. Even drove up together to check out the campus. But at the end of the summer he broke up with me. I had friends here; it was always my plan to go to school here. And it felt like I could either dash my plans, because of him, or follow through, in spite of him.”
Demi winced. “And either way, the decision ends up tied up around him. I've been there, with my mom. For a while, everything I did was either because of or in spite of her. And it just took time and distance to not have her be such a controlling factor in my life.”
Mikaela shifted in her seat, and at the crinkle of paper in her pocket, removed Tucker's flier.
“Tucker's kind of a jerk,” Demi said. “He was wrong about most things, except that program. I participated, last semester. It's cool. And Linc's a really good influence.”
“Lincoln Martens. He was recruited directly out of special forces. He was some kind of war hero; he doesn't like to talk about the specifics, and I don't know, I guess I wanted to respect his privacy, so I never looked into it. But mentoring younger people with abilities... I grew up alone. Like really alone. For most of my life I only had my mother... and she more or less blamed me for Dad leaving, so I wouldn't say I really had any of her but resentment. But working with other kids, both giving and just hearing other people's stories, it made me feel not so alone, and connected me with our community. I don't know that I ever felt a sense of community, except when I was working- living on the streets.”
“You were homeless?” Mikaela asked. “Sorry, I'm just...”
“Don't be. I brought it up. I ran away from home. Things just got, my mom got a new boyfriend. At first he was just abusive to her, but then he turned it to me. And she didn't believe me, so she couldn't protect me; wouldn't. So I ran away, outside of the city, outside of the state. My abilities hadn't come in, or I might have been able to protect the both of us-” She glanced across the table, and accidentally caught sight of the salt shaker. Electricity arced from her fingers, and shattered it, sending a spray of salt across the table. “Shit,” Demi said, reaching across the table for the shattered shaker.
The waitress was suddenly standing over them. “It's okay, dear,” the waitress said. “Dean Kean's doing the lord's work.” She held out her hand, and moved her fingers around. The shaker reassembled itself, with about three quarters of the salt back inside it. “Keep at it,” she said. “You'll get it under control.” The waitress smiled at them, then scurried off to another of her tables.
“So I guess I know what you can do,” Mikaela said with a grin.
“Yeah. I break things.”
“With electricity. From your fingertips.”
“I can also use electricity to make myself strong.”
“You're Thor, but a lady.”
“Thor can be a lady. Thor is more of a title, like President. There's been a lady Thor in the comics.”
“You can't brag to me about your graphic novel collection one evening, then try to call me a nerd for knowing comics the next day.”
“I get very 'Nerd Pride' when I'm drinking.”
“I know. Militantly, almost. You wanted to find a jock to give a swirly to, on principal.”
“You ever get a swirly?” Mikaela asked.
“No. But I've been picked on, plenty.”
“Yeah. I didn't see much of that, growing up. But the little parts I did... I hated. I always found myself befriending people who were on that bottom social rung. But I think we derailed. You were underaged, when you ran away, so I imagine there wasn't a lot of work.”
“No. I grew up in the midwest. All of the measures that were designed to keep undocumented immigrants out of the workforce made it harder for me to find work, harder still to find a job that wasn't looking to exploit its workers. So I spent a while being homeless, staying with friends- people I met.” Rox and Linc walked through the front glass doors of the parlor. “Speak of the devil,” Demi said. Mikaela watched them walk to the counter, where he paid for an already boxed pizza.
“Is that normal?” Mikaela asked.
“Depends what you mean. It's innocent enough. He works with the satellite kids, buys them lunch as often as not.”
“Okay,” she replied.
“You sound skeptical.”
“Yeah. I had a choir teacher like that. Real friendly, real nice. Ended up on the sex offenders list.”
“Yeah, so I guess I'm extra dubious about adult men spending time with teenaged women.”
“Makes sense, though. And there is a difference between caution and being too zealous. And especially where men and sex concerned, it usually pays to be cautious.”
“So, how'd things go with Elijah?” Linc asked. He was wearing a tank top and a pair of running shorts, and was still slicked with a thin layer of sweat.
“He's a good kid,” Rox said, trying not to get caught staring at the way the moisture slicked the dark skin of the older man.
“I know. Just the kind we want here, and he is excited to start, even if he's still a couple more years away.” He dabbed his forehead with a towel. “But what about you? How'd things go with you?”
“I don't know,” she said, biting her lip. “I think I still feel...”
“Out of control?” he asked.
She exhaled. “This girl. She was, honestly she wasn't that bad, but for whatever reason, she was getting under my skin; one of those rivalries that in the moment feels justified, but in retrospect... anyway. She tripped. And I think I'm the reason why.”
“You didn't trip her?”
“No. But bad things happen to people I'm not happy with.”
“Or who want to hurt you.”
“Yeah, but that's... different. You know, I don't care if somebody on his way to mug me gets hit by a car. That's karma. But some girl who basically just got on my nerves.”
“Nerves you're aware are at least a tad touchy.”
“Yeah,” she said, and looked away. She liked that he knew her as well as he did, but hated that he knew that side of her so well.
“But she's okay?”
“Yeah. I saw it was happening, and I stopped it. But I don't like that I might hurt someone by accident.”
“Most of us might,” he said. “But that's part of being human. Normal people hurt each other by accident all the time, too.”
“Normal?” she asked.
“You know what I mean. Homo sapiens sapiens. The old breed. I know it's not okay to call them normal, because then by default we're abnormal.”
“Not better than normal?”
“Just different,” he said. “Which is why I'm not crazy about 'Homo posse.' In my experience, we're better off with wise people, than powerful ones.”
“Technically, we're a subspecies, homo sapiens posse, wise and powerful humans,” she said with a smile.
“I think maybe they should have called us wise-ass humans,” he said, smiling back. “I think of all of them, I like transhuman, evolving into something beyond what we are now. But my original point was that homo sapiens hurt each other all time. Making a mistake in a car, misjudging something at work. Accidental harm is a part of being human. I screwed up in Syria a dozen times or more. Sometimes I even got somebody killed.”
“Except you didn't,” she said.
“Just because I could restart my day, doesn't mean I didn't get anybody hurt. It just meant I was fortunate enough I could fix it. It's our responsibility to work hard at not hurting people, but we're human. We will. And a part of that is learning to forgive ourselves for our mistakes. But I need to hit the showers. If you want to stick around, we can try working on more drills. I'm not sure if your ability is one you'll ever have complete control over, but I at least want to see if we can get you confidence over when to trust it, along with experience enough to know when you'll have to fight it.”
“I don't have any plans,” she said.
“Good. I'm getting hungry. I'll get us pizza.”
Mikaela shuffled anxiously. It was cold enough she didn't want to be standing around outside her apartment. But on the phone, Tucker refused to come to her door. It seemed petty, on the surface, but she suspected Tucker didn't trust either of them to be alone together. In his screwed up way, it was him trying to protect them both.
But the anticipation was getting to her. And it wasn't helped by the fact that her chaperon still hadn't showed, either.
“You look nervous,” Demi said from behind her, and she jumped.
“Oh my god I peed a little,” Mikaela said.
“Here, turn this way.”
She faced towards Demi, who was sucking down an orange-yellow smoothy.
“The good news, is it's not super obvious you soiled yourself.”
“Do I want to know the bad?”
“Your socks don't match. And few things in life scream, 'I can't keep my shit together without you' quite so loudly as mismatched socks.” Demi grinned.
“You suck at moral support.”
“That's what this is for,” Demi said, and pushed her smoothie into Mikaela's hands.
“Well, it was supposed to be all for you. But it's apparently a longer trip from the smoothie place to here, so I finished mine, and yours looked so good... I promise I don't have mono anymore.”
Mikaela sucked some of it through the straw.
“Wait, how long is mono supposed to last?”
Mikaela shivered. “And why did you bring me a smoothie? It's winter, and cold.”
“Because I didn't realize you're ingrate who doesn't deserve a smoothie...” Demi reached for the cup.
“Withdrawn,” Mikaela said, and batted her hand away. “It is good. And thanks, for the smoothie, and for being here. It's...”
“Oh, I know. We had a lot of this conversation last night. Though I don't know how much you'll remember. You did finish like half of Iago's shots.”
“He's a light-weight, and somebody had to pick up the slack.”
“Yeah,” Demi said. “Though if that's who I think it is, I think we both might need another shot.”
Mikaela turned. Tucker was walking towards her. His apartment was one floor and half a dozen rooms down. “Hey,” he said. He was bundled up, enough that he looked much larger than he was.
“Hey,” Mikaela said.
“I, uh, I know we talked about lunch, but I'm not feeling very hungry, and something kind of came up.”
“Oh, we were going to lunch, anyway,” Demi said, and threaded her arm around Mikaela's at the elbow.
“Oh,” Tucker said, raising an eyebrow.
“So if you want,” Mikaela said, “I'll just sign whatever, and you can take care of your thing.”
“Yeah. Cool,” Tucker said. He pulled a small stack of papers from the back pocket of his jeans and unfolded them, and handed them and a pen to Mikaela. “Signature on the front page, initial at the top of the last and sign and date at the bottom.”
“Mind if I read it?” she asked.
“Not at all.” Tucker shared an awkward glance with Demi, then turned back towards the apartment. “It really isn't a bad place; I just got stuck in a bad position. It was screwed up before I started to transition. My roommate doesn't believe in locking the door. Like, the entire apartment is unlocked, 24/7. And she gets pissed, and screams at me if I lock it when I leave, because what if she doesn't have her key. And I just, I can't ever feel safe like that.
“I'm not sure the landlord would have let me go, but the transition helped. The girls I was rooming with weren't exactly comfortable with it, and when the landlady floated it to some guys who had an open room they weren't too keen on the idea, either. ”
Mikaela sighed hotly. It all looked boilerplate enough, and she wanted to be done, so she scratched out her signatures, and handed the bundle back.
“Thanks,” Tucker said. “And look, I've been talking to one of my girl friends, and she thinks you might be codependent.”
“Stay out of my head,” Mikaela said.
“It wasn't telepathy, just, an observation.”
“Using psychology on me amounts to the same- so my objection's the same.”
“Okay. But look, I, wasn't bringing it up to attack you. I think it might help, if you looked into the program they've got. It's community outreach, mentoring kids here from the satellite programs.” He pulled a flier from his back pocket. “I think it would help, get you out of your shell, out of your funk.”
Mikaela narrowed her eyes, but took the piece of canary yellow paper.
“I'm sure I'll see you around the campus.” Tucker glanced again at Demi, who squeezed still tighter onto Mikaela's arm, then he shrugged and walked away.
“So, are you done molesting my arm?” Mikaela asked. “Or would you like to buy it lunch, see what the two of you might have in common?”
“Sorry about that. Instinct kind of took hold,” Demi said, unraveling their arms.
“It's okay. I appreciate not having to look pathetic in front of the ex. Though I suspect her gaydar is better than that. I know mine is.”
“I'm not completely straight. I can appreciate how a woman looks. It's just kind of sexless.”
“That's still like 90% straight.” Mikaela turned, and started walking towards the downward slope of the hill, towards downtown. “You coming?” she asked. “I seem to remember you promising me lunch.”
Rox watched the thin brunette instructor walk between desks. Her hair was tied into a tight bun, and her thick-rimmed glasses made her look like a librarian.
The bell had rung nearly a minute before, but she was still waiting. She glanced at her watch, “missing one last person,” Cristobal walked in with his binder held tightly to his chest. He mouthed an apology and slid into a seat beside Rox.
“Welcome to the first day of class for the semester,” the instructor began. “You can call me Anita, or Ms. Fessuns. As some of you may not know, your very first class has some special significance, because that instructor will be your mentor for the semester. It's basically an initiative to take some of the burden off the school counselors, while also building rapport with students. So if you have anything to ask me about, my office hours are on the syllabus online, or you can find me before or after class.
“But I'm far more eager to tell you about me. I kill people for a living. All writers do. They torture, maim, mutilate and murder their characters for the amusement of a not infrequently cold and jaded audience. It's actually kind of fun.
“But enough about me, you need to know about this course Many of my colleagues focus on the text as it exists. Since this is a literature class focused on composition, I'm far more fascinated with literature as it nearly was, or could have been, and exploring the reasons why it formed the way it did. A famous example is Ernest Hemingway, who wrote 47 different endings to A Farewell to Arms, though I find that misleading. He was reworking the wording, largely. It's not as though the endings fluctuated, so in one, everybody met a grisly, horror movie end, and in another they win the war by prematurely going to space and pushing asteroids down on the Central Powers.
“Perhaps a better example would be drawn from Poe. Clearly, his early orphaning, and the nature of the family that adopted him, shaped his fiction profoundly. But imagine a Poe instead adopted into a poor but loving family, denying him the extravagance that hastened his downfall, while providing the affection whose lack drove him to so many varied brinks. Or think more finitely. Without the European trips, what does a Poe who's never crossed the ocean do with Arthur Gordon Pym?
“The one area where this philosophy won't help you? Your own work. I'll be grading your assignments on the choices you do end up making with your fiction, not the the paths untaken. If you want a little advice? Writing is about finding the interesting in the midst of the mundane, or when that doesn't work, replacing the mundane with something that isn't. Beyond that, read the syllabus, get your texts and keep up with the reading, and I'm sure you'll have a good time.”
A hand went up at the back of the class. “Go ahead,” she said, “starting with your name.”
“Rui da Silva. I've heard that many of the instructors have special abilities of their own. Is that true, and if so, what's yours?”
“I'll address your questions sequentially. Yes, many of the faculty have abilities, though it's a smaller percentage than the student body, as there are fewer older people with powers. We don't understand where most of these abilities come from, but it does seem clear that whatever the process is, it's accelerating.
“And you're clearly new, because you shouldn't ask that, especially not of teachers. It's like asking a professor their political affiliation. The polite thing is to wait until someone volunteers it, because it's personal, and can make some people either defensive or even hostile. But, as it's actually relevant to the course, in this case, and as it will come up, I don't see any harm in telling you. I can see different drafts of reality. As an example, in one of my 'other' classes, you were a girl, from birth, born with another x chromosome instead of a y; you made a very cute girl.
“Obviously, that ability has led to my personal fixation on alternate literature, and shaped the way I've designed this course. Your own abilities, as well as your own experiences, will likewise shape your own work, as well as how you respond to the work of others. Approach things with an open mind. A healthier Poe would largely have been a less interesting Poe, but the insights we missed out on might have led to a different understanding of our own humanity.
“It's only going to get stranger from here. Enjoy the ride, or find another roller coaster.”
“I'm sorry about your car,” Drake said through the open door.
“I got my stuff back,” Mikaela said.
“I know. But I also know that isn't the point. Having someone in your space, it's a violation. You can stay over here, tonight, if you want.”
She grinned. “Yeah, I'm sure the crime rate is much lower all of what, a block up my street?”
“You'd be surprised. We've been pretty thoroughly gentrified here. I mean, I'm pretty sure they're thinking about putting a Trump Tower across the way. But, you know, if it would be a little less intimidating, being in a new, demonstrably unstable space, knowing you have friends under the same roof.”
“I'd say that depends entirely on whether or not I get too sloshed to walk back to my place from here.”
“Sounds good to me. Iago, you ready?”
“I can't find my clean pants,” he said, wandering out of the kitchen.
“They wouldn't have been in the kitchen; any pants you find in the kitchen are all but guaranteed not to be clean. And this is why most adults have more than one pair of clean pants at a time.”
“Pft, adults,” he said, mounting the stairs towards the bedrooms.
Drake shut the front door behind himself.
“You, um, heard from Tucker yet?”
“Nope,” Mikaela said. “Kind of dreading it, actually. Though I have to meet him tomorrow. I'm taking over his lease.”
“I'm still having trouble with that.”
“It's pretty standard. So long as the landlord gets to keep one worm wriggling on the end of the hook.”
“No, the 'him' part, I meant. Not that I begrudge 'him' his gender, it's just, I've been friends with Kaileen since eighth grade. We talked about going to our first Homecoming together if we couldn't get dates. When I came up here to go to school, we lost touch, but I didn't expect to see 'him' two years later as a dude named Tucker. And if I'm honest, I think the thing I stumble hardest on is that he's not a he- and has no plans to be. Physically. It doesn't feel like he's different; he's Kaileen with some shorter hair.”
“This is going to get weird, isn't it?” Santiago asked, closing the door behind him.
“It doesn't have to,” Drake said.
“No, I just hadn't put it together before right now. But I'm going drinking with a dude who dated my sister, a dude who really kind of wanted to date her, and a girl who practically gay-married my sister.”
“I did not,” Mikaela said.
“Yeah...” Iago said. “Or have you forgotten we shared a room at the time? I mean, I'm pretty sure I walked in on you two defiling my bunk at least once.”
“Bunk?” Drake asked.
“We shared a bunk bed.”
“When you were both eight?”
“It was a small room, dude. But it is. It's going to be super weird. And I'm laying down ground rules, now. Each time one of you makes it weird for me, you buy me a shot.”
“We are going to get you so awkwardly hammered,” Drake said, and slapped him on the back.
“Oh, God, what have I done?”
“It sounded like you just gave your friends a license to make awkward comments about your sibling while torturing you with booze,” Mikaela said with a smile.
“Sweet, sweet booze torture,” Iago said. “And where the hell is Pete?”
“Across the street.” Drake snapped. “I probably should call him.”
“I don't know, we could all try concentrating really hard,” Mikaela offered. “Maybe we could will him out of his apartment.”
Drake pulled out a phone and dialed. Peter picked up quickly. “You want to tap out?” Drake asked. “Well, you can't. You're our ride. No, we're taking advantage of the fact that you're a teetotaler to have a designated driver, without the rest of us having to miss out on the fun. You just get to have lesser sober fun.”
“I don't think you're selling it to me as well as you seem to think you are,” Peter said over the speaker phone.
“Peter, it's my first night in town, and you said you'd buy me a drink if I moved up here.”
“I'm pretty sure that text was meant for somebody with a penis. I'm sure of it.”
“Maybe so, but a promise is a promise. And you can play Smash Brothers whenever.”
“Okay,” he sighed. “But next time, you bring the booze to me.”
“You don't drink.”
“I didn't want to drink it. I just wanted you drinking it where I am, so I don't have to go somewhere else.”
A moment later, they saw his blue sedan descending slowly down the steep drive to his apartment building. When he reached the end, his bumper scraped against the street because of the incline. He pulled over to their sidewalk and popped the locks, so they could climb inside.
Mikaela took the front seat. “So,” Peter asked, “how are you liking Bellingham?”
“My car got robbed,” she offered.
He grimaced. “Yeah. I think it's the locals. Like, the college folk seem to be genuinely pretty nice. But the locals are pissed off that their community's been co-opted by the college- especially one so welcoming of people like us. They can be real anus tarts about it, sometimes. But speaking of infiltrating local culture, where are we going?”
“Opposite side of the campus,” Drake said.
“Otherwise known as the terrible crappy bars district,” Pete said. He drove down the hill, around to the back side of the campus, because there weren't roads that went all the way through it. Bellingham was a small enough town it didn't take long at all to circumscribe it. “Okay, what's your poison?”
“Whichever sounds and looks the least likely to give us hepatitis.”
“Prude,” Pete said, and pulled over to the curb. He led them inside. There was a small dance floor along one side, and seating on the other. Mikaela started towards the booths, while Pete began gravitating towards the flashing lights and pulsing music.
“Fight the beat, Pete,” Drake said, “at least until the rest of us are liquored up enough to join you.”
“Feh,” Pete said, and followed them to a table. A waitress came by and took their orders and cash.
Then the crowd parted as one song ended and another started up, signaling a good chunk of dancers to cool their heels. Mikaela spotted him immediately, grinding on a woman who looked about as disinterested as she could without walking away.
Drake followed her eyes to the floor. “Shit,” he said.
“Yeah,” Iago agreed. “Not what you want to see.”
“That's a hell of a way to greet a lady,” Demi said, sliding into the booth beside Drake.
“You made it,” Pete said. “Um, also, everybody this is Demi, she's one of my lab-”
“Partners,” Demi said.
“This is Iago, Drake's roommate, who you met already. Mikaela. And lanky Patrick Swayze is her ex, which is the thing she did not want to see tonight.”
“Oh. Crap. Sorry,” she said.
“You know, Iago's right. This is a little incestuous.”
“Hey,” Iago said, “I'm on the half of this table that never had a thing for my sister.”
“And it isn't my fault you wanted my sloppy seconds,” Peter said with a grin.
“And I'm pretty sure you two barely made it to first base,” Mikaela said.
“Yeah, but it was sloppy.”
“I believe you; I've seen you eat a burger. Way too much tongue.”
“Okay, I'm not drunk yet,” Demi said, “I just feel like it. Peter dated Patrick Swayze when she was a straight girl and he was at least testing the straight guy waters. Mika dated her when she was a lesbian. Now he's presumably still into women. So who was who's beard?”
Pete dropped back in the booth, looking thoughtfully at the ceiling. “That is a very good, if deeply, deeply complex naval-gazey question.”
“That's my wheelhouse,” Demi said.
“And that's why she should chaperon you tomorrow,” he said to Mikaela.
“So this was a set-up,” Mikaela replied. “But, if you were planning on meeting her here to introduce us, why did you pretend like you wanted to stay in?”
“Isn't that obvious?” Demi asked. “He wanted to feel like you needed him to come out.”
Pete turned red, but Mikaela took pity on him. “I could use the back-up, with Tucker. Things are still pretty...”
“You're still fucked up over him?”
“Yeah. I mean, I'm not even sure I'd want him back, at this point. But the way he left, or she, since that it was Kaileen who broke up with me, but... it feels like emotionally I'm standing in the bombed-out wreckage of myself. I know it's all screwed up and wrong, I just don't know how to get things back to normal, or to adjust to this new normal.”
The waitress came back with their drinks. “Could we also get a couple rounds of tequila shots?” Mikaela asked.
“Shots?” Iago's ears perked up.
“Well, we've spent the better part of our first half-hour talking about your brother. I figure that means we all owe you shots.”
“Oh god,” Iago said, and his stomach gurgled. “That's a lot of shots.”
“Implied in the agreement was that you would drink every time we infracted. You wouldn't waste all that precious, precious liquor, would you?”
“It's so wrong of you, manipulating my deep sense of alcohol appreciation.”
“I think it's symbiotic. We have fun torturing you, while you have fun getting tortured.”
“Man, that'd be awesome. Chinese liquor torture. Just a drip-feed of booze, directly onto my tongue. Mmm...”
“So at what point do we start to worry that our friend's becoming an alcoholic?” Pete asked.
“When he actually gets himself an alcohol drip-feed,” Mikaela said.
“When he finds his clean pants in with the booze,” Drake said.
“When I murder you all for beer money,” Iago said.
The waitress came with ten shots. “Line them all up in front of that lucky man right there.”
“Um, I'm not cleaning it up if he gets sick.”
“We'll take care of him if he does,” Demi said.
“You better,” the waitress said.
“Drink up, sailor,” Mikaela said, “get your sealegs.”
Iago took the first shot, and grimaced, then chased it with a second. “Okay, that was a bad idea,” he said, coughing. He washed it down with his drink, a rum and coke.
“So don't anyone take this the wrong way,” Demi started, “but you've got a very gay group of friends. Peter, Mikaela, Tucker, who's also trans, I mean, that's just statistically kind of...”
“Improbable,” Pete said.
“Yeah. And that's not even counting Chester.”
“Oh, Chest-Hair,” Drake said. “And let's not forget Torey, whose whole family seemed like they were overcompensating.”
“I think anyone, gay or straight, ought to be terrified of having sex with that man,” Iago said. “Just like a scary amount of strength and energy, like it wouldn't just be rough, gritty sex, but like too hard, too fast, just too... why is everyone looking at me like that?”
“Well,” Pete said. “For one, you stopped drinking. And two, it sounds like you've spent way more time thinking about having sex with a man than I ever have, and I really like having sex with men.”
“Dude made a pass at me once. I mean, he was clearly joking, but ever since I've kind of been convinced that he wouldn't have said no if I'd said yes.”
“I think he's just a sexual omnivore,” Pete said. “Not gay, not straight, but he's like a bear. If it wants to eat nuts, it'll eat nuts. If it wants to eat fish, it'll eat fish.. If it wants to push down a tree and try to eat that- well just try and stop it, it's a damn bear. But imagine instead of eat I'd said fuck.”
“So many dick-splinters,” Drake said.
“But I'm pretty sure even dick-splinters wouldn't slow Torey down.”
“Might even make him stronger,” Iago said. “Like he'd make a joke about it just adding more wood to his wood.”
“He's clearly had enough,” Mikaela said, moving the tray of shots away from him. “Statistics be damned, we also have a high percentage of people with abilities, too. All of us at this table. And even those who weren't that kind of special, or weren't some degree of not straight, we were all just a little different. It was a small enough town it was kind of odd that I'm biracial.”
“Ahem,” Iago said.
“Ahem,” Drake said.
“But that only further proves my point. Seriously, how many other multiracial or even nonwhite kids were in our school? Not that I'm patting us on the backs, just, we were an odd group, but I think that worked for us.”
Rox glared at Mikaela. “What?” she asked, as Hamilton stepped away from the podium to a round of polite applause. Rox didn't respond, just kept staring. “It was an example of a slippery slope fallacy, falsely asserting that a small action in the present will result in a catastrophic reaction in the future, without logically linking the cause and consequence.”
“Ignore my friend,” Mira said, leaning around Rox. “She's wound a little tight. I'm Mira.”
“And this is Elijah. We're showing him around campus. If you think you'd want to come with.”
“Sure,” Mikaela said “That'd be cool.”
The dean took to the stage one more time. “Head of campus security has asked me to make an announcement. We've had a few incidents with stalking on this campus, often late at night, students being followed by an individual who keeps to the shadows. If you see anyone suspicious on the campus, you can reach the campus police by calling 911. We also have these stations around the campus.” He gestured to a pole with a blue light on top, stationed between two of the buildings. “They're a direct line to the police, and they're always within a couple of minutes of anywhere on the campus. Your safety is one of our top priorities. If you can think of anything that will make you feel safer, don't hesitate to tell us.
“I want to thank you all for coming. And I want you to look to your right.” Mikaela followed Rox's eyes to a second set of chairs, faced as much towards them as the stage. In particular she was staring at a black man with high and tight hair. “These staff are here to help you. Lincoln Martens is the head of our counseling department, and he takes pride in making sure students get whatever help they need on campus.” The man gave a little wave. “All of the staff flanking him are advisors, or have some training in that capacity. Lean on them, that's why they're here. None of us are meant to be islands, and we're stronger linked in a chain.”
He gave a little nod, and walked off the stage. Mira and Elijah started to pull on bags. Rox continued glaring, but Mikaela tried to ignore her and stood with the others.
Rox continued ignoring Mikaela as they walked north, along the cobbled courtyard. Mikaela had been in similar situations, and she hoped she could head this off before it became a long-term issue. “Look, I know we got off on kind of the wrong foot,” Mikaela said. At that moment, her foot caught on a slightly uneven stone, and she went tumbling to the ground.
“Rox!” Mira yelled, as the other woman caught Mikaela's bag by the strap; since it was still around Mikaela's shoulder, it stopped her a moment before her face hit the cobbles.
Mira bent to help her up. “It's okay,” Mikaela said, standing. “She wasn't anywhere near me.”
“She wouldn't have to be,” Mira muttered.
“It was my own clumsiness, and she stopped me from a pretty nasty impact.” Rox handed Mikaela her bag, and she slung it over her shoulder. “Thanks,” she said. “And I'm sorry. I was late, and on top of that I was mumbling while Hamilton was giving his little speech thing.”
“It's okay,” Rox said, though it was tough for Mikaela to know if she meant it because her tone was relatively flat.
She sighed. She knew she should leave it alone, but the talk still rubbed her wrong, and she couldn't resist the urge to scratch it. “I'm not sure what you see in him, though. I think it's messed up, telling a bunch of women to screw around without birth control.”
“Why women?” Rox asked.
“Oh, crap,” Mira whispered.
“Because it impacts women differently. You tell college guys to screw around without condoms, and that's year-long Mardi Gras; the only overlap is both men and women have an even shot at getting an STI. But pregnancy hits a woman differently. Not only do all familial responsibilities de facto fall on the woman, including costs, but she's got to cope with being pregnant for nine months. It can be hard to deal with if you're an established woman, in a career where you can actually get away with taking maternity leave. But it's an entirely different- and irresponsible- thing for middle-aged man to encourage women to chuck their futures to incubate the next generation of super-babies. And that's why women.”
“Whew,” Mira said.
“That's an odd response to that,” Mikaela said.
“We're part of the running start program, still technically seniors in the local high school. Our classes are filled with the same, mostly, and you get a lot of sixteen year olds into a Feminism 101 class and you end up with girls who internalize the wrong kinds of messages, a lot of times boiled down to essentially, 'Men are bad, right?' And it's another in a long line of subjects about which Rox has zero sense of humor.”
“But she's got to have a fun side, right?” Mikaela asked. “A hobby, or anything.”
“Oh, sure. You just have to know her for about a season before she gets comfortable showing it.”
“I'm right here,” Rox complained.
“We know.” Mira grinned. But the humor slid from her face when she noticed Elijah. He was standing away from them, looking at the horizon. “Everything okay?”
“I don't know,” he said.
“You want to talk about it?” Rox asked.
“I've been doing a lot of thinking, about registration. Not just what Hamilton said, but more generally, it's been on my mind for a while. And I meant what I said, earlier. People are really afraid. Most only know us from the accidents that happen, although most don't buy that they're accidents. What I've come to realize, though is we aren't going to convince people that we're just normal if we're hiding in the shadows, if we can't stand up and tell them we're their neighbors, their friends, sometimes their family. Registration absolutely makes me sick to my stomach... but I think it's something I have to do, anyway. Somebody has to stop being afraid. And I'm not willing to bet my life it'll be them. And I think we are barreling towards that point, where it will be a war, us and them, if one side doesn't turn away.”
“I don't know,” Mikaela said.
“That's okay,” Elijah said. “I'm looking for converts. It's a deeply personal question. And one I don't think anybody has a right to ask someone else for. But the decision is right for me, for the kind of man I want to be.”
“Once you hit puberty?” Mira asked with a grin. “I'm just teasing you, because you're making me feel immature.”
“I suspect I'm older enough than all of you that I don't want to cop to an age,” Mikaela said, “but yeah. I probably would have done the same, if she hadn't beat me to it. I'm still not ready to pull that trigger, but I do respect the decision you're making.”
“Thanks,” he said, without looking away from the horizon.
Mikaela's phone alarm went off. Her doubles had helped her put together her bed frame, so she wasn't sitting on the floor like she had been earlier.
She rolled out of bed. She was still dressed, and sniffed at her shirt. It wasn't exactly clean, but it was orientation, and she wasn't planning on slow-dancing with anybody, so it would do.
She grabbed her sweater and her laptop bag, and left out the front door. She was still half asleep, so when she glanced at her phone she wasn't surprised that she was running late.
She started to jog, down the paved path, through the newer campus buildings, and past the track and field. The campus sloped downhill for a ways after opening to cobbled stones, and once Mikaela reached the courtyard where the ground evened out, she found several rows of folding chairs. Applause covered her approach, and she slid into one of the last remaining beside a young looking Latina with black hair cut above her jawline, and a badge on her shirt that said her name was 'Rox.'
Mikaela set her bag down at her feet, and squared in the direction of a temporary stage in front of a fountain. A small, unassuming man in a well-tailored suit was standing at a podium in the center of the stage, adjusting his glasses while glancing down at a notecard.
“Good morning, students,” he said, looking up. “My name is Danny Kean. I'm the Dean, as well as one of the founders of this school. Now, at most institutes of higher learning, students never see their dean, know him only by reputation and possibly his portrait in the school paper. I don't want this to be that kind of school.
“You are all here because you are special. You are the future. I believe that. So without further ado, I'd like to introduce Professor Hamilton, our resident expert in the kind of special that most of you are, what he's taken to calling humanity's new breed.”
The slight man gave a shallow nod, and took a seat beside the podium. A man who had been seated in a chair opposite his rose. He was taller, heavier-set, and with a full, bushy head of hair and a thick bear took his place.
“Thank you, Dr. Kean. The future of mankind rests on your shoulders and in your hands. Let that idea sink in for a moment.
“You are a new breed, as Dr. Kean said. Not a distinct species, at least not yet. Instead, you are a bridge to humanity's potential. But unfortunately for all of us, we're running out of time to cross that bridge. Climate change, pollution, food and water shortage, epidemics that will make the Spanish Flu look like chicken pox. The dominoes have already been positioned, and if you listen, I believe you can hear them beginning to fall.
“My generation has failed you. We punted for too long, and most if not all of these problems are happening- no longer potential. They will happen in your lifetimes, and with even a little luck- provided I beat my family's spread,” he self-consciously touched his paunch, “inside mine. But my generation, we are not up to handling them, in the same way that we were not up to the task of preventing them.
“So I agree with the dean, wholeheartedly, when he says you children are the future. But I'd go a step further, and say without you, there is no future. You have been gifted with abilities that will shame our greatest scientific breakthroughs, with intellect that will eclipse the greatest minds our species has ever produced, all within a generation. You will do great things, and elevate the species with your accomplishments and your abilities. But that isn't enough, either.
“Incumbent upon you is another task, one with which our species has no right to burden you. Because your numbers aren't enough. They can't be. The challenges facing you are farther reaching than that. I could show you population graphs, how all western populations are declining at a pace to cripple economies, at a time when potential outweighs the risks and the cost of expansion.
“Among your ranks are the best and brightest stock humanity has ever and may ever know. But even that population will decline if we don't reverse the demographic trend. This might be the last time someone has the spine to stand before you and say it, young and fragile as your lives are now, but you need to breed. Not for the joy of it, but because there aren't enough of you to save us, not yet.
“I hate to interrupt,” Kean said, pushing his way to the microphone. “But I would like to remind everyone here that as part of your tuition, you have access to the school's clinic, which includes, dental, vision, and family planning services, as well as more general medical services, and we encourage all students to avail themselves of said services. And I'd also ask Professor Hamilton to move on.”
“Right,” Hamilton said. “The dean and I may not exactly see eye to eye on that last point. But we do share another concern, that we wanted to broach with all of you, here today. Registration. Not for classes, but with the newly minted Bureau of Breed Relations. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it is a branch of the Homeland Security Department. They claim that registration is voluntary, but that it will provide registrants with access to government services.
“I can't tell you not to register; legally, Congress has made it a felony to urge anyone not to register. But what I can ask is that you consider, very carefully, how far you trust this or any government. If you're a liberal, do you trust this information in the hands of a conservative government, a conservative with a liberal one. Because you aren't just trusting the government you know, but every one that comes after.
“It may seem innocuous, the first reasonable step in making sure we don't hurt people. But the yellow badges in Nazi occupied territories didn't seem like much of an imposition, either.”
Mikaela sighed heavily. “Because it just isn't the afternoon without a Nazi metaphor,” she said.
“What's wrong with him again?” Mira asked quietly, watching Elijah take in the large, blocky buildings flanking the paved path through the school's field. Rox glared at her. “You know what I mean.”
“He's on the autism spectrum,” Rox whispered.
“I can get overwhelmed, and miss social signals,” Elijah said, without turning away from the communications building.
“Sorry,” Mira said, looking down at the ground.
“Don't be,” he said softly. “I have trouble holding people's social ineptitude against them, you know, living in the glass house that I do.” Mira smiled. “I just called you socially inept, didn't I? See, that's why I can't hold it against you.”
“Still, though,” she said. “So what brings you here?”
“Is it that obvious I'm too young to be here?” he asked. “I'm on track to graduate in a couple of years, at 16. But once you graduate, you 'age out' of most of the programs and supports designed for people with autism. And even with my folks in Seattle, that's close, but it's still more than an hour away- it's preparing to live without the supports I've grown up with. So I'm working on my transition, now, preparing.”
“That's cool,” Rox said. “I haven't graduated, yet, technically, but I'm taking all of my classes here at the college. I'll graduate high school with an Associates Degree.”
“Hmm,” he said. “That might work, if I lived here. And my mom wants me to go to Seattle Central, the community college closest to her. But I want- no, I need, to go this school. I'm not just autistic, I'm,” he lowered his voice, “I'm special. Part of what Professor Hamilton calls the new breed.”
“Oh,” Mira said. “Us, too.” Rox glared again. “I mean me, too.”
Rox sighed. “Most of us here, are. I don't think they turn away people without abilities, but I think everybody knows now that this is the only campus actively recruiting people like us, even if it's still kind of kept quiet.”
“What can you do?” Mira asked.
“Mira!” Rox bellowed.
“What? I'll show him mine...”
“Okay, that is not appropriate.”
“I didn't mean it like that.”
“It's really no big deal,” Elijah said, “but, okay, it is to me. Because I kind of frequently don't understand people myself, so it's kind of revelatory, but it's not impressive, is what I mean. But I can understand people. Like, in aggregate. That's why I have to be here. Because I can feel the way most people feel about us, the fear, the anxiety, even in a relatively progressive place like Seattle. But it's not like that here. This place is, it's so full of energy, and, and hope. The people here really honest and truly believe that the future is going to better than today. Most of the rest of the world I can feel the post-apocalypse building- just preparing for all out war, with their friends, and neighbors and siblings; there are people actively building towards that world. But here, it's like, collectively, the people here are just waiting for the sun to set on this crappy day, because they know tomorrow's going to be better.”
“That actually sounds pretty cool,” Mira said.
“For me it can be a lifeline. You know, feeling disconnected, and then being able to reach out and connect with not just a person but thousands, feeling like I know all of them, that I can understand all of them. But I showed you mine...”
“Okay, I'm going to forgive that phrasing, since I was the one who introduced it in the first place, and you might not get how it's coming across-”
He tried to hide a smile.
Mira continued anyways. “Though I suspect that isn't true, in this case. Energy can't be created or destroyed, right? But it can be converted. That's what I do. Rox, hit me.”
“Wait,” Elijah said, putting up his hand. Rox was used to the display, and backhanded Mira before he could protest. “I don't get it,” he said.
“Here,” Mira said, and put up her hand. Energy arced from her fingertips into the sky. “I mean, that was just one little punch, so, you know, not much energy to it. But I can store up a lot more energy than that.”
“How much?” he asked.
“Upper level? I don't know. I mean, I've never really tried to push my limits. But I got hit by a car, once, walking to school, knocked me clear into an intersection, where I got hit by a city bus. I didn't know what I was, then. My ability happened automatically, absorbed the impacts, then redirected the energy. It cut the bus in half, like literally, one side fell this way, the other traveled another twenty feet and tipped the other way. I mean, thank God both sides collapsed outward, or people could have gotten seriously hurt, but...”
“That's neat. Terrifying, but neat. Makes me kind of glad, too.”
“Because my power kind of scares people, just because they don't understand, so it's easier to be afraid. But by comparison mine's way, way less scary.”
“Thanks,” Mira said, frowning.
He winced. “Sorry.”
“I know what you mean. And I'm glad that it's not a burden you have to shoulder. I mean, I don't get hit by buses every day, so, you know, it hasn't been too bad on me.”
“Twice,” he said.
“I been hit by a car twice. It's my own fault. I, sometimes I get overwhelmed, and it can be hard to let all the stimuli back in. If I have a fight with my parents, or friends, or a teacher, you know, you get so focused on that one thing, that I can't see the cars coming right at me. I think that's the most scary thing about it, knowing that when push comes to shove, I can't trust myself, not completely. So I'm glad that at least if I get hit by another car, or probably when, I'm not getting anybody killed except maybe myself.”
“Crap,” Rox said. “We're going to be late to orientation if we don't book it.”
“Was that an education joke?” Mira asked with a grin.
“No, it was an invitation to make fewer stupid jokes and pump your legs.”
“Don't mind her,” Mira said. “She has a tragic back story. She was raised by a father who was fun-deaf, by a mother who was fun-mute. She never learned how to have any fun.”
Normally it would have been a point of pride that Mikaela packed up everything she had in a day and moved it up the West Coast alone. But she know it wasn't pride motivating her, it was shame. Her father grew up black when that was reason enough for the world to isolate him, attack him, do everything it could to grind him down. So when he worried that she was 'different,' she knew he wanted to protect her, that when he told her that the tallest grass got cut the worst, he just wanted the best for her.
Her bones ached. Her muscles throbbed. She'd been awake for nearly forty hours, now. She knew she should sleep, at least a nap, but all she could do was hold her knees to her chest and try not to cry as her father's last words before she left echoed in her head: “You're a freak.”
It was an accusation, more than a statement. They were fighting, because it was already late at night, and they both knew that even with him helping, it was going to take well into the morning to finish. Unless she used her powers.
He hated them. And she usually deferred to him, tried not to use them at home, or in front of people. And he was pissed off, because he thought she had planned this whole thing, so that the time crunch would necessitate she use them. Of course, if he hadn't spent the last several hours lecturing her over that fact, it was possible they would have finished earlier. Mentioning that only escalated the fight to the point where she was finished packing alone, so late she didn't get a chance to even nap before she had to drive north with her packed moving truck.
“You're a freak.” The words cut her again, and she glanced at the mirror in the corner of her room, still not attached to her dresser, whose drawers were spread across the shared front room. When she was a kid, she would have pulled a double through the mirror, and comforted herself. But she knew that wasn't normal, that it would have been proof that her father was right.
She kicked off her bed. It was snowing outside. It was going to take some getting used to that.
Everything was coated in a thin layer of the stuff, making the world a blank canvas. It should have made her feel like she was off to a new start, at her new school, but she was preoccupied with her old life in Portland.
She glanced at her car, an Accord nearly as old as she was. It was the only thing of any real value she had in the world, and only then because she was going to need it to drive to work. She hadn't finished unpacking it. It was all she could do to get home after dropping off the moving truck. She practically crawled back inside, and flopped onto her mattress laying inside of her still disassembled bed.
She could see her door was ajar, and she rolled her eyes. It was going to be an inauspicious start if she had to beg her new neighbors for a jump on her second day in town. Then she saw movement inside her car, and tensed. On her first day- in her first few hours in town.
She went out onto the balcony overlooking the parking lot. She was maybe ten feet above her car, and thought about dropping on the thief. “Stop!” she yelled, and his head shot up like a prairie dog's. He fixed her with a glare from underneath a gray hooded sweatshirt, then bolted. She recognized her laptop bag hanging off his shoulder.
She knew she couldn't let him get away with it. She jumped over the railing, and landed painfully. But she was angry, and that anger gave her more fuel than she'd had in over twenty-four hours.
At least for a block. But he had a head start, and she could feel the cold air biting into her lungs, and all of the other aches creeping back into her body.
The only way she was catching him was her ability, and she cringed when she heard her father's voice. But she couldn't imagine it going better when she tried to explain to him why she needed a new laptop- not that it was likely either of them could afford to buy one. As he passed a parked car, her double leapt out of the driver's side mirror, tackling him to the ground. “The fu-” he started to say, but was cut off when another double pinned his face to the street with her knee. There were four doubles, total, one securing each limb as she approached him.
“Let me go!” he yelped like a wounded animal. She took her bag from him. It was two-thirds full of other crap stolen out of the car, mostly bric-a-brac, things that hadn't quite fit in boxes and wouldn't stack well in the truck. She patted his pockets, but it seemed everything he'd taken was in the laptop bag.
She patted her own pockets, trying to figure out if she had her phone with her. He stared at her from the corner of his eye. She couldn't be sure, but she felt her father's voice in her head again. He knew she was a freak, and if she ratted him out to the cops, he was going to tell them about her. She balled her fist, but knew she couldn't hit him for her insecurities. So she shoved him to the ground, and reached into his pocket. He tried to sit up, and fight, but one of her doubles put her heel against his shoulder to hold him in place.
She removed his ID. The address was in Anacortes, and something told her that he wasn't doing an hour commute for petty larceny. “I take it this isn't your current address.”
He swears quietly to himself. “Are you a cop?”
“Shut up. It doesn't matter if it's current. As you can, see,” she made a sweeping gesture towards her doubles, “I've got the resources to track you down, if I need to. Don't make me need to. Stop preying on people. Or I will find you again, and it will be the last time I do it.” She dropped his wallet on his chest, then pocketed the ID.
The double let him up, and he ran awkwardly through the snow.
Mikaela turned on her heels, back towards the apartment. She heard footsteps behind her, and realized the doubles were following. Before she could turn to question them, one put her hand on Mikaela's shoulder. “We'll help unpack the car,” she said. “You can get yourself some cocoa.”
Mikaela let out a heavy sigh, halfway to a sob. “It'll be okay,” the double told her, and guided her head onto her own shoulder. For the first time in the better part of a day she felt warm.
I've been busy cooking up new projects, and cleaning up old ones. I'm really excited to share some of them with you, starting with Breed.
For those of you who're new to the site and my work, I do a yearly tradition during November. November is National Novel Writing Month, a beautiful and harrowing time in which life falls to the side to allow fledgling writers to challenge themselves to produce, produce, PRODUCE. The goal being to draft a novel (About 50,000 words) in a month. It's grueling, and a whole heap of fun.
And just to add a masochistic element to it, I flaunt my first drafts like stained skivvies. Coming shortly, you can check back every day for a new chapter, in effect reading my novel as I write it. Updates will be posted here, and on Wattpad.
A little about Breed, although I don't have a full blurb for it:
Superpowered teenagers cope with their first semester at college, including homework, bigotry, and a government that wants to lock them all up in Guantanamo Bay.
Breed's gonna have many more parts to come, as I really like writing this sort of thing. Comic nerd and all that.