There are secret powers that might get you locked up or spirited away. And then there are the secrets that get you shunned. The first kind are surprisingly un-useful at helping with the second.
This short story contains transphobic language and discussion of hate crimes, which some readers may find upsetting.
I remember a mobile hanging over my crib. It was a cardboard carousel of flying horses, with little animals—teddy bears, bunnies, cats—riding on their backs. One of my parents would set the mobile in motion, then they’d shut me in and leave me alone. But that was okay because the mobile would stay in motion until I was asleep.
Babies don’t wonder why a thing doesn’t need batteries. To them, the world is filled with magic. It isn’t until you get older that the adults begin to dispel the magical things, one by one, for your own good. It’s their duty, they say, to prepare you for reality.
Sometimes their reality turns out not to be yours. That’s what happened to me.
Things were just always there. If I was drawing, I didn’t have to look up to grab my scissors or eraser or another pen. I reached, and picked it up.
Who knows if I ever would have noticed, if it hadn’t been for my getting sick halfway through summer, just after we moved to San Diego. I woke up one morning and couldn’t swallow past the spikes in my throat. Mom Gwen took one look, deployed the thermometer, then banished me to bed.
The next three or four days aren’t worth talking about. Dad set up the TV in my room—a big concession in our family—but I was so sick that opening my eyes gave me a headache.
By the end of the week the fever was gone, I’d watched all my favorite DVDs a million times, and I got restless. Getting up still made me light-headed, but I wanted to look through my sketchbook and mess with a drawing or two. The sketchbook was on my nightstand, where I’d left it the night before I got sick, but my pencils still lay on my desk.
I sat up in bed. The headache pounded. I flopped back, sighing as I stretched my hand toward my desk a mile away . . . and my fingers closed around the smooth shape of a drawing pencil.
I brought it up to my face. A perfectly ordinary pencil. Huh?
I flung the pencil to the end of my bed. It sat on the duvet beside the hump of my foot. When I wiggled my toes, the pencil began sliding off the bed. Again I reached without thinking, and there it was, in my fingers again.
My heart started thumping. Was the pencil, like, alive? I laid it on my stomach, stretched out my hand nearby, and waited. Nothing happened. I made grabbing motions with my fingers, and again nothing happened. I poked the pencil, which began to roll off. This time I was aware of the little zap in my arm muscle—the twitch just before you move—a tiny light flared blue-white and the pencil smacked into my palm.
So I tried to reach without actually reaching for the other pencils on my desk. One by one they flashed into my fingers like they were on an invisible yoyo string.
Half an hour later my head was buzzing strangely, but on my bed lay a bunch of little stuff: an eraser, rubber bands, paper clips, and more pencils. I even tried to move my sketchbook, but that one made my head go whish-whoom like some kind of drum, and the sketchbook sat where it was.
Maybe this was just a flu dream. I grabbed my phone to search on flu+“side effects.” I got more than I wanted to know about influenza (written in a jumble of scary medicalese) but nowhere did it say anything about zapping stuff with your mind.
I thought about yelling for one of my parents, but hesitated. Both my moms are cool, and so is my dad, but they are all practical people. They really like Normal. I figured out by the time I was five that having three parents wasn’t Normal to some people, and as I got older, I found that it was important to my parents that we all be Normal to outsiders.
This stuff with the pencils was definitely not Normal.
Who else was there to ask? My younger brothers would be thrilled, but no way would they keep it to themselves. They’d be running all over shouting “Abracadabra,” or whatever secret power words they’d learned from cartoons or video games, trying to fly or turn invisible or shoot laser beams out of their eyes. So I decided to keep it to myself. It wasn’t hurting anybody. I’d experiment in the safety of my room while I recovered.
I found that it was easy to zap things to my hand, but it was a lot harder to zap them back. My tries were so wild I had to laugh.
Practice, I knew about. It had taken lots of practice to learn how to draw manga and anime figures, which was my favorite thing to do. After a day of tries, I perceived a kind of whisper inside my head, though I couldn’t tell you the actual spell. But I could zap paper clips and rubber bands to my desk blotter.
The rest of the summer I spent biking down to the beach to explore, drawing, and—when no one was around—zapping little stuff around.
The first day of school came. There I was again, in a sea of strangers, only now it was high school, bigger and scarier than middle school had been. At least there was a Gay-Straight Student Alliance. I wasn’t sure yet who or what I liked, but as our many moves pretty much guaranteed little luck in finding and keeping friends, my parents had said that if a school had a version of the Alliance, it would probably be a safe place to hang out and eat lunch. Way better than finding myself totally alone in a crowd of three thousand.
The rest of school was school, and at least it was the first day in high school for all the ninth graders, not just me.
Meanwhile, I kept experimenting, and I was able to zap paper clips to land near, then in, a water glass on my desk. As the days turned into a week, the objects got a little bigger. Paper was tricky, because of the way it bent and fluttered in the air. If I moved it too fast it crumpled, and once even tore. Learning how to zap paper made me aware of stuff like air currents.
I kept my experiments to myself, either in my room or at the beach when I was alone. At school, I used my well-honed skills at blending in, like always sitting in the middle of the room if there was a choice. Front, you were too exposed, under the teacher’s eye. The back was where the troublemakers like to hide from the teacher’s eye.
One day in math class, I heard a guy in the back row behind me sniggering while the teacher was at the door, talking to somebody in the hall.
Our family has been moving every two years, whenever Mom Gwen was reassigned to some other military base, so I didn’t make much effort to learn people’s names at every new school. But you don’t start over every two years without learning how to spot the bullies who go after anyone nerdy, alone, who can’t fight back.
To identify possible danger, I knocked my math book off my desk. As I picked it up, I snuck a peek behind me—just as this moose of a boy tossed a spitball at a skinny girl with enormous glasses, who sat two desks away from me.
Anger boiled in my stomach. The girl wasn’t doing anything. She was bent over her work, her shoulder blades poking like wing stubs at the back of her oversized tie-dye t-shirt. The spitwad was about to land in her pale, frizzy hair, unless . . .
I flexed my zap muscle, and zinged the spitball right back at the boy. It landed on his cheek with a splat.
The boy jerked like he’d sat on cactus, and the entire back row broke into snickers. The teacher whirled around, her eyes going straight to the boy, who was wiping the spitball off his face, and said, “Lunch detention, Kyle Moore.”
“But I didn’t do anything!”
“Would you like after-school detention as well?”
I bent over my notebook, my heart pounding.
I’d broken my promise to never use my power outside my room, but zapping a bully had felt good.
So good that I couldn’t resist another opportunity to try my power.
When I look in my mirror in the morning, I see a plain girl with brown hair and a round face and a duck body. Normal. Normal for my parents means well-adjusted, successfully fitting in. At school, it means you’re boring. The only way to popularity, if you aren’t pretty or rich, is being good at sports, or having some kind of other talent.
All the P.E. classes had begun a basketball unit while the coaches tried to scout players for school sports. Like most of the girls who weren’t athletic, basketball for me meant trying to remember all the rules and staying out of the way of the knees and elbows of the bigger, more aggressive girls.
The second day, near the end of the period, the score was tied, and the swarm of girls somehow surrounded me. A fierce red-haired junior yelled, “Hey, you, wake up!”
“Ibberts!” bellowed the teacher, who was also the referee.
My hands came up defensively in front of me and I found myself holding the ball.
“Shoot!” everybody screamed.
I didn’t think, I just tossed the ball up and then zapped it straight to the basket to get it away from me.
My teammates shrieked, the bell rang, and we headed for the locker room, everyone yelling “Great shot!” and “That was awesome!” at me. The fierce girl said, “Whoa, how did you get that spin on it? That was amazing.”
I felt good. I felt as good as I had when I zapped that spitwad back at Kyle Whoever—who, I noticed, hadn’t thrown another spitwad in that class.
The next day, the ball got passed to me twice, and both times I zapped it. Again the praise, which really felt great. Especially since they didn’t seem to see that little flare of light, or maybe they thought it was a reflection.
After that, when the ball got passed to me, I zapped it every time. I never tried to go after it. I didn’t like being knocked into and shoved, but if the ball got to my hands, I made sure it went straight to the basket.
“You’re a natural, kid,” Coach Albert said, giving me a hearty thump on the back. Like most P.E. teachers, Ms. Albert was terrifyingly athletic. She looked at me like I’d sprouted feathers, then said, “I want you to start coming to after-school practice. You might go straight into varsity.”
I didn’t know what to say. When I told the parents, they all looked as surprised as the coach had, but Mom Tate said, “Awesome! I used to love volleyball,” Mom Gwen said, “Of course you can stay after school, just make sure you have your phone with you for the bus ride home,” and Dad said, “Why not give it a try?” Like why not give boiled turnips a try? He definitely did not have the sports gene.
I showed up after school the next day, nervous and scared, and Coach Albert put me into a one on one with that fierce redhead, who everyone called Ginger. I already knew she was the star player of the varsity team.
At first it was self defense to use my zap power to pull the ball to me, and then to send it to the basket, in spite of the fact that she could run circles around me. Ginger turned into a kind of human machine, bouncing, bobbing, weaving, trying even harder, but as soon as that ball was in the air, I yanked it and zap!
When the teacher blew the whistle, Ginger hadn’t scored once. She came up to me, breathing hard, and stuck out her hand. “You’re really good, Laurel,” she said, wheezing from her efforts. I looked into her face, and saw a kind of hurt in the way her eyebrows puckered. There was even a little sheen in her eyes, like tears that weren’t going to fall. You’ve seen people trying hard not to cry, right? “Will you practice with me, and show me some stuff?” she asked.
That look whomped me right in the guts. I knew I wasn’t any good moving on the court. I scored because I cheated.
“I think I was just lucky,” I said, edging away.
“Lucky? You’re hot,” Ginger said. “Hotter than both my brothers in college. Would you come over to my place on Saturday? We turned our backyard into a court.”
“I’ll ask at home,” I said, feeling like the slimiest worm who ever slimed.
After a sleepless night, I made a resolution: no more basketball star. This resolution was hard to keep, especially after I threw the ball normally the next day, and of course missed by a mile. My team groaned and shrieked in disbelief. I zapped the next shot, but then made myself throw the third normally. Miss. Then the fourth.
And so it went, for the rest of the week. The guilt turned to a kind of sick boil in my stomach when Ginger’s disbelief turned into lip-curled contempt. Did she think I was screwing up on purpose?
The next time I zapped the ball, not into the basket, but just above it, then zapped it again so it ricocheted into the coach’s chair, knocking it over. After that, I did two more ricochet zaps, thumping the ball out of bounds both times. People stopped throwing it to me as often, but when a third throw came my way, I ricocheted it off the rim and made the ball crash onto the table holding people’s water bottles.
“You’re trying too hard, Ibberts,” the coach said kindly. “We’ll bench you for a few days. Rest your arms.”
I nodded, but the next week, did even worse, and gradually they forgot about me.
Or so it seemed.
I meant to keep my head down, my attention on my schoolwork, but I couldn’t help noticing that skinny little nerd from math—Mercy Lund, I learned when the teacher called roll—scurrying from class to class, her big eyes goggling frog-like behind those glasses, her yellow-white hair fluffing out like duck down around her head. Mercy clutched her books tight against her skinny chest with her knobby hands, like some kind of armor.
A couple months into the year, it was time for auditions for the holiday assembly. I had signed up for art as an elective, which, I found out, meant set painting for the productions. So I was there for the auditions, as we measured and cut and hammered to build flats. The auditions started out with the usual sort of stuff I’d seen at every school: terrible garage bands who thought if you played loud enough, no one would notice you’d never taken any lessons, lip-synching to popular songs while hip-bumping around the stage, the stand-up comedians who repeated jokes they got off the comedy channel.
I froze when Mercy walked out, wearing a baggy, faded pink track suit with this white tunic thing over it that looked like a pillowcase with armholes cut out. She’d taken off her glasses, which made her eyes look like pale marbles. The kids in the audience waiting for their turns to try out rustled even more than usual; a bunch of boys started a coughing context, and giggles and laughs came from the back row.
The music started, something classical, the noise from the audience almost drowning the speakers. But then Mercy lifted her arms, twirled around on one foot, took a few light steps and leaped high in the air, toes pointed, arms arched. She floated down like a swan in flight, the tunic rippling almost like feathers.
“Whoa!” someone in the front yelled, followed by laughter. My stomach clenched, my toes bunched up in my shoes, and I nearly dropped my paintbrush, I felt so sorry for that girl. Why did she have to try out? It was like she was inviting the mean kids to be mean.
But as the music rose, Mercy danced on, twirling faster until she was a blur of pink and white, her leaps high, landing as lightly as a bird. The auditorium had gone quiet.
I let out my breath and turned on my stool so I could watch her, and noticed that everybody else backstage was also watching. I’d never seen anything so graceful, not even the girls who had been taking ballet since they were five. This was different from ballet, it was a wild kind of dance, strong and free. She reminded me of the egrets and cormorants I’d seen along Coronado Beach, the ones diving out of the sky, then snapping out broad wings before zooming up against the clouds, so graceful that your heart catches at the sight.
When the music ended, Mercy took a quick little bow, skinny and knobby again, but there was loud, genuine applause.
“You are in,” said the teacher in charge.
Mercy ducked her head, and though I was barely twenty feet away, I scarcely heard her “Thank you.”
“You’ll need a costume,” the teacher said.
“I know. I’ll have one,” Mercy replied.
The next day in math class, Kyle acted the way the really angry bullies act, like it’s a personal insult when someone they’ve pushed to the bottom doesn’t stay there. He walked by Mercy’s desk and knocked all her books to the floor, then kicked her notebook to the back row.
The teacher looked up sharply, and Kyle said in a fake voice, “Sorry, Mercy.” He sneered her name, then said with exaggerated politeness, “I’ll pick it up.” He bent to pick up her notebook, managed to open it so all her papers spilled all over, and with his back to the teacher, hawked a loogie into the papers.
His buddies in the back row nearly died with laughter. Half the class looked like they were going to laugh. Some looked away. He set the mess down on Mercy’s desk with exaggerated care, and turned away, smirking and making a covert thumbs up.
Instinct made me act. I zapped a pencil to the floor just before he took a step. His foot came down on it, and he began to slide. I zapped the pencil my hardest, which was just enough torque to turn the slide into a total pratfall.
Everyone in the class burst out laughing.
“Whose pencil is that?” Kyle muttered as he got up. “I’m gonna kill you.”
“Care to speak up, Kyle?” the teacher asked. “Have you any more entertainment for the class, or may we get to work?”
Kyle looked around furiously. I sat where I was, feeling his gaze go right past me. At the end of class, he said to the boy who sat behind me, “Michael, you suck-meister—”
Michael cut in. “Wasn’t me. I never use anything but these.” At the edge of my vision, I saw a scrawny hand holding out a mechanical pencil.
Kyle loomed over him. “You were laughing the loudest.”
“Because it was funny,” Michael said. “Everybody else thought so, too.”
Kyle shoved past Michael and practically leaned across my desk to glare at the blond boy with the peeling nose who sat at my right. Before Kyle could even speak, the kid protested, “Hey, it wasn’t me. I was texting under my desk.”
Kyle grunted. “Did you see who did it, Jason?” And when the blond kid shook his head, Kyle finally moved away from my desk to glower at the rest of the boys in the back. “Who saw? Anyone?”
I got out of there. Obviously girls were invisible in Kyle-Land, except as targets.
I gloated to myself the rest of the day. Until the next morning, when I got to math class, and there were two empty seats: Kyle’s and the seat right behind mine. The atmosphere in the room was really creepy, kind of tense, with people whispering excitedly the way they do when something terrible happens.
Mercy sat at her seat, her head so low it was like she was bowed over her notebook, as behind me, someone whispered to the kid I’d followed in, “Did you hear what happened to Michael Abrams?”
“Someone jumped him after school. He’s in the hospital.”
“In a coma, that’s what I heard,” someone else put in.
One of the boys said, “And Kyle is in juvie, being questioned—“
The door opened, and the teacher walked in. Everyone fell silent.
She looked around, then said in a terse, low voice, “If any of you witnessed the altercation, please go to the office, or you can call the police directly. No! I don’t want to hear your comments, and I am not taking questions. Now get out your homework . . .”
I sat there, listening to my heartbeat whoosh in my ears. All I could think was, It’s my fault.
I knew better. I kept thinking that as my body went through the rest of the school day like a robot. This was ten times worse than cheating at basketball.
I knew what bullies were like. Dad had warned me in fourth grade that bullies were another name for angry people, and angry people just get angrier. It’s not like the movies, where they learn their lesson. “The only lesson they learn is how not to get caught,” Dad had warned, and he’d taught me bully-avoidance blending in.
I fell into such a fog of gloom that I forgot to copy down the homework assignment in biology, ran back to snap it with my phone, discovered the teacher had already erased the whiteboard, so I had to chase a classmate, with the result that I was late to the one class where the teacher was a dragon about lateness.
And so, I, Laurel Ibberts, the careful good student, landed in after-school detention.
At least I got all my homework done, and when I left, the hot autumn winds had died down a little. I wasn’t used to the white-hot glare of a Southern California autumn.
When I got to the top of the palisade where the bus bench was located, I turned to look at the hammered silver-blue glitter of the ocean as the sun began to set. I’d been told not to be out after dark, as the school was in an older part of the neighborhood and not all that safe.
Movement caught my eye: somebody walking fast on the other side of the street, glancing over her shoulder. Fuzzy pale hair swung above an extra large sky blue t-shirt and baggy jeans: it was Mercy. She was being followed by a bunch of older teenage girls. I saw gang-banger tats on one girl’s arms, and another was swinging a crowbar.
My stomach instantly started boiling. What should I do? But when I looked back, Mercy had ducked around the side of a pawn shop maybe fifty yards away from my bus stop. And then—from my angle, I was the only one could see her between the pawn shop and the liquor store next to it—a twinkle of light made me blink. Through that twinkle Mercy leaped about twenty feet, straight into the air. She landed lightly on the roof of the car repair shop.
Magic? Energy torqueing weirdly? I knew that twinkle.
While I goggled in total amazement, the gang-bangers rounded the corner of the pawn shop, looked around, and hustled down the street, right beneath Mercy, who watched them from above.
She lifted her head, and I would have sworn she stared right at me, though it was hard to tell, the way her glasses flashed, reflecting the low sun. Another tiny flash and she leaped down from the roof, landed like she was a feather, and half-lifted a hand to me.
Then she ran up the street in the other direction, until she was out of view.
The bus rumbled up and stopped with a hiss. I climbed on like a robot.
People used to ask me these weird little questions about my parents, until I figured out that they wanted to know how it works, with three.
Mom Gwen and Mom Tate have been together since they were roommates in college. If they could have gotten married back then, they would have. Mom Tate took art, and Mom Gwen studied pre-med, then went into the Navy so she wouldn’t end up with a student debt of a quarter of a million bucks. She liked the Navy, so she stayed in as a doctor, working Naval medical centers as a pediatrician.
They met my dad when he was just getting out of the Navy—he also went in so he could go to college debt free—but when he finished his eight years, he quit the high-stress world of analysis to get a job as a math teacher.
Around that same time, my bio mom dumped him and vanished when I was about a year old. Dad met Mom Gwen at the Navy base when he took me in for baby well care, they fell in love, and somehow the three of them worked it out so they had a handfasting marriage on the summer solstice.
For legal purposes Mom Gwen and Dad married so we kids would have coverage, as she was pregnant with Josh by then. Mom Tate gave up her crummy job behind a counter and took over childcare during the day, the others covering at nights so she can paint. They never celebrate that courthouse wedding for only two, which they call the ‘signing.’ Their anniversary is the summer solstice.
“Mom,” I said that evening. “I have a question.”
They were both there, Mom Tate cooking dinner and Mom Gwen sorting the mail, but somehow they always know who we mean. Or else they both answer. “Yes?”
“So there’s this assignment. A kind of what if scenario. Like, what if people turned out to have powers?”
“Like . . .” My voice slid around my zap. “Like the X-Men, or Harry Potter.”
“Nobody has any kind of powers. There are a lot of frauds out there, and seriously disturbed people.”
“But if they did. What would happen to them?” And when Mom Gwen looked at me as if I’d painted my face green and began hooting like an owl, I said quickly, “For this what-if essay.”
“It sounds to me like they want you to write science fiction,” she said disapprovingly.
“Or fantasy,” Mom Tate put in over her shoulder. “Hey, you could write your own manga. Use your drawing skills!”
“Um, this is about learning about alternative viewpoints and cultures,” I lied frantically. “So let’s say someone discovered that magical powers really exist.”
“Oh! Well. First bona fides would have to be established. Tests, blind studies, and of course it would depend on what these powers were. If they could harm anyone. The government would probably demand oversight, at the very least, especially if you’re talking about Fairy Godmother powers, instead of someone who can, I don’t know, say ‘Alakazam’ and blow bubbles from their belly button.”
“The politicians would want a piece of them, of course,” Mom Tate put in, as she stirred something delicious-smelling in a pot on the stove. “Think of the growth industry in magic!”
They took off with that idea, straying into politics like adults love to do. As soon as I heard “Yeah, but the Republicans . . .” and “But the Democrats . . .” I tuned out.
I’d heard what I needed to: tests, blind studies, governmental oversight.
I didn’t dare tell anyone. I was on my own with this.
The next day at school, I got to math as early as I could. All night I’d tossed and turned, imagining what Mercy would say, what I would say. What would happen.
Though we both took Japanese, I was a year ahead, having been able to take it in middle school in Hawai’i. So we only had math class together.
I got a real jolt when I walked in and there was Kyle in the back row, his chair tipping back dangerously. Everybody talked around him, like there was a force field circling his chair, except for two buddies sitting on either side of him. I slunk to my seat and sat down, not daring to look back.
When Mercy finally appeared, she barely looked at me. Just sat down, opened her books like usual, and bent over her work.
The teacher came in and pointed at the first row, the seat directly in front of her desk. Kyle sauntered up, his pants sagging so low they were nearly around his knees, and slammed his books down on the desk, the noise like a rifle shot.
The teacher said, “Do you really want a trip to the vice principal’s office? Because we can get that over with right now. Everyone else is here to learn.”
“I’m sitting, I’m sitting,” Kyle said, and dropped into the chair, his long legs reaching out into the aisle between the seats. He hunched over, the way his gaze shifted around making him look so guilty it was like he was already in jail. After class, I got stuck behind a clot of students, and lost sight of Mercy.
At lunch, I ate at the Alliance room as usual. When the bell rang and I walked into the stream of people going to class, suddenly Mercy was there beside me, her fluffy hair framing dangling earrings that matched the light blue of her eyes.
We walked a few steps. It felt like about a mile, I was so uncomfortable, like, was she going to bring powers up or should I? So I said, “You’re really a really good dancer.”
“Thanks.” Her expression lightened for about a nanosecond. “I love dance. More than anything.” Then she was serious. “You didn’t blab.” Her voice was so soft I almost couldn’t hear her.
I looked at her in surprise. We were exactly the same height, so I gazed right into wide, expectant pale blue eyes behind those glasses. My gaze dropped, because I’d learned that though you’re crammed in with a million kids, you don’t look directly at anyone else unless you’re popular, or want trouble. “Nobody’s business,” I said, wondering where this was going.
Then ice jolted through every nerve in my body when she said, “I saw you flash that pencil. And everybody was talking about the amazing basketball star who lasted a week.”
If it had been anyone else, I would have said, “What?” But there was that twenty foot leap.
I said, “He had it coming.”
“Michael didn’t,” she replied. She grimaced and waved a hand as if to erase her words, then said quickly, “There are others.”
My heart nearly exploded in my chest. I gulped for air, unable to say anything.
She didn’t wait for me to react. “We meet at the gazebo at Embarcadero Marina Park. Tomorrow, at four. You can get there easy if you have a bike.”
Then we reached an intersection, and she turned off to another hallway without another word.
I took my bike to school the next day, and afterwards, used my phone to guide me. The park was located on a narrow finger of land that stuck out into the bay.
I found the gazebo, and spotted Mercy’s frizzy hair and oversized buttercup yellow tunic tee, with golden dangling earrings to match. With her, to my total surprise, was Harper, the vice president of the Alliance. Tall, thin, and awesome-looking, she wore her black hair in a kind of crazy pixie style. Her heavy make-up emphasized her Asian eyes. She always wore black lace fingerless gloves, and silver snake armbands. Her goth style was what you’d expect to see from someone who did not want, ever, from any angle, to be overlooked as Normal. She was cool, she was popular, and she was a junior.
I’d tried to draw her.
So here she was now, sitting at the other end of a bench from a guy whose sideways cap hid his eyes. He slumped down, his saggy pants halfway to his knees. Sitting across from them, on the same bench as Mercy, was a girl even scrawnier than Mercy, wearing a Catholic school uniform.
Harper said to me abruptly, “You’re Laurel Ibberts? Supposedly you have a talent?” She sounded almost hostile, but then she leaned forward a little, eyeing me, then her tone got about five levels friendlier as she said, “Haven’t I seen you at Rainbow?”
“You mean the Alliance?” I said. “I joined the first day of school.”
“We used to call it Rainbow, but that got voted out,” Harper said, still friendly. “Keep forgetting. So you have a talent?” She waved at the others. “We meet here partly so nobody can nose in, but also in case we have to prove ourselves to someone new. Fletch, tell her what you can do.”
The guy tapped his nose. “Give me something you’ve touched. Then give me half an hour while you run. I’ll find you.”
Harper held up her gloved hands. “You could call mine psychometry. I see memories. Bec there turns unnoticeable, as long as you look with both eyes. And don’t touch her. “ Bec looked at me then looked away as she chewed on a hangnail. Eugh.
“So, Laurel, what’s yours?” Harper asked me.
I looked around. Some slob had littered a soda can on the walkway. I zapped it to my hand, and then to the trashcan by the gazebo entrance; when I did the zap, I saw all their eyes widen at the tiny flash of light.
Fletch sat up a little straighter. “That one is seriously cool.” He turned to Harper. “I sure hope you can figure out if, and how, we can learn other people’s talents.”
I am pretty sure my mouth was hanging open as Harper said to me, “Does anyone in your family have a talent?”
I shook my head.
“Where were you born?”
“Hawai’i. Naval base.”
Harper leaned forward and said, “Did you know there were others?”
“Not until yesterday, when she showed me her leap,” I said, nodding at Mercy.
Harper shot a dead fish eye in Mercy’s direction, then lifted her chin as if tossing something away. She said flatly, “Okay, good find.” And to me, “You probably have a lot of questions, but first let me ask one more. Have you ever heard of Sorsam?” And when I shook my head, she pulled from her purse a glittering silver chain necklace, with a peculiar charm, shaped like a very fancy S, only made with three intertwined almond blossoms.
“Wait,” I said. “I think . . . I think I’ve seen something like that. On a picture my dad has, of my bio-mom. We only have a couple photos. But in one, she’s wearing it. She was pregnant with me.”
That hit them all, and Harper nodded. “We think that ‘Sorsam’ is some kind of investigative body, or scientific group, or maybe a group of talents. Whoever runs it, or recruits for it, is keeping it a dead secret.”
“The operative word here,” Fletch said, “being dead. As far as we know. Which is why nobody wants to do a serious net-search on Sorsam.”
Harper shot him a look, and he sighed and slumped back again, as she went on. “Something happened around fifteen years ago. We all had a parent or a relative who was part of Sorsam, and who disappeared. My uncle, Bec’s mom—”
“My grandmother,” Mercy said.
“—Fletcher’s dad. They must have done something, or something was done to them, before they disappeared, but we all were born with talents. I think I’ve found a few others on the Net. But I have to be careful in searching for them.”
“Why?” I asked, looking around as if spies would pop up in flashes of light. “Oh. Right. Because those people disappeared?” Was it possible my bio-mom didn’t dump me, that she got taken away?
Fletch said, “Would you want to meet whatever made them go . . .” He snapped his fingers.
My shoulders tightened. “No.”
“So far, it’s all kids under eighteen, and all had a family connected with Sorsam. That’s all we know so far.”
“In the meantime, we four have agreed on two rules. One, whoever else we tell about our own talents, we don’t share anything about anyone else.” She gave Mercy this snaky look, and raised her voice a little as she said, “I haven’t even told my girlfriend Avery. Not about this. None of us want to end up as governmental lab rats, even if Sorsam come looking for us.”
I nodded. “Ahead of you there.”
Harper went on, “Our second rule is: do no harm. We’ve only been meeting since spring semester. But we all agree we should pool our talents to help the community in some way. Michael Abrams is gay, so I think what happened to him is a hate crime. I intend to find out who did that to him, and if it was Kyle Moore—who swears he didn’t, and his brother swears Kyle was with him all afternoon that day—if it was him, whoever it was, I will get justice.”
Everybody agreed, with me nodding fervently.
Harper went on. “I’ve tried twice to get close enough to Kyle Moore to read his memories, but I have to have skin to skin contact for my talent to work, and he’s all covered up in those flannels and saggers, plus he hangs out in the middle of a crowd. And his mother has been right outside school to pick him up at the last bell. So Michael is the next best thing. I need to get into Balboa Hospital.” She turned to Bec. “Would you be willing to hide me?”
Bec looked terrified, her lips moving, “I’ll try.” I could barely hear her.
“Hey, my mom does rounds there,” I said. “She’s a doctor.”
Harper’s lips parted. “This is awesome. Could you get me in? All I need is five seconds.” She pulled her glove off and flashed her palm.
“If we can convince her that it’s something for school, I think I can,” I said. “I don’t know about getting in his room. I know they are strict about that. But I can get you to his floor.”
“Just get me in the door. We can do the rest.” Harper nodded at Bec and Fletch, then gave me a smile of approval.
Fletch said, “That it? I’ve gotta run. Text me when you’ve got a plan.” And in my direction, “If you ever go out for any sport, I’ll bet on you. Just kidding, just kidding,” he said, holding up his hands as he grinned at Harper.
Everybody split up then. I walked to my bike, and got out my phone to lead me back home. I saw Mercy a little ways ahead, also on a bike. When she looked back, I waved my hand for her to wait, and she did.
“What’s Bec’s issue?” I asked. “I mean, is it me, or does she always give people the silent treatment?”
Mercy said, “She and Fletcher go to other schools, so I don’t really know them. She told us that she’s in a foster home. Her talent helped her keep away from her abusive dad, until Child Protective Services got in the case.”
What would have happened if she hadn’t had her talent? I got that crawly feeling in my neck, and felt sorry for the girl. No wonder she bit her fingers raw. “You guys say ‘talent.’ I’ve been calling mine the zap. I think I always had it, but I discovered it this summer. How about you?”
“Same deal,” Mercy said as we pedaled out of the park and onto the street. “I guess I always had it, but I didn’t like getting ahead of my twin sister, Dom—”
“You’ve got a twin sister?” I interrupted, and couldn’t help exclaiming, “I always wanted a twin sister. Does she have a talent, too?”
“Does she know about yours?”
“Nope.” Mercy looked away, her fingers tightening on the bike handles, and I realized belatedly how many times she’d probably heard that same stupid thing about twins.
I said quickly, “Sorry I cut in like that.”
Mercy turned my way, her smile flaring, then she said, “Well, anyway, I kept pushing at Dom when we were really little, especially when the parents got us started in sports. We used to play in this park below our house, just the two of us. She tried to keep up. Really hard. Maybe that’s why she’s a soccer star now.” Mercy’s grin went crooked. “When I figured out she couldn’t spring like me, and it was making her feel bad, I hid it. Except . . .” She looked away again. “When I’m running alone. Hey,” she interrupted herself, noticing me trying to steer the bike, look at her, and at my phone map. “I can give you directions.”
“Thanks.” I threw my phone in my backpack, then said, “So how did you guys all find each other? I take it there was no Facebook invite for people with mysterious powers.”
“So far, all by accident. Fletch met Bec at a church thing. Harper found Fletch through her brother a few months ago, when Fletch won some award at a sports camp they both were sent to. She found a way to get close enough to touch him. Saw his memory using his talent. She found out my talent the same way. Totally by accident.” She made a face, then looked away.
Then she went on. “Harper is trying to figure out how to use social networks to find others, and to learn what might be out there. Causes, ways to train. Her mom is a software engineer.”
I thought about all the fundraisers for good causes, marches, dances, and other stuff Harper was doing with the Alliance. If anyone could figure out how to find secret superheroes, she could.
But that reminded me of Kyle and Michael. “I’m afraid it was my fault. Michael, I mean. If I hadn’t done that with the pencil . . .”
“Kyle says he didn’t do it,” Mercy reminded me. “He can be a real jerk, but he’s always been the loud, shoving kind. Spitting on your stuff, not spilling your blood. Until now.” She shrugged sharply. “Look, there’s no use guessing. If Michael saw his attacker, Harper will see the memory. She can’t see everything, only stuff that really stands out. Recent memories, especially adrenaline ones.”
“That would definitely be an adrenaline memory,” I said, still with that sick sense of guilt boiling in my stomach.
“When she finds out who did it, we’ll figure out what to do. So, have you always lived in Hawai’i? What was it like?”
“No, I was born there, and we went back two years ago. Before that we were in Texas, and before that, West Virginia. Hawai’i is awesome . . .”
The rest of our conversation started with the typical, boring just-met-you stuff. Mostly about traveling and never knowing anyone (me) versus living in one place so you go to school forever with people you’d love to get away from (her).
But from there we got into anime, and how much we both loved Miyazaki films. After we argued about which was the best, we went on to name our top favorite anime, and from there, favorite shows—turned out her mom loves Buffy as much as Mom Tate. I stumbled, mentioning both moms, but she didn’t ask any of the usual stupid questions. Not one.
So when I found out that she and her sister collect manga, I said, “Wow, am I jealous. We move a lot. Don’t have a lot of books, and some libraries are better than others.”
She said, “If you want to borrow any, feel free.”
“Sure. If you want to come over after school and take a look . . .” She stopped there.
“Yes!” I was thrilled. Then I recognized the boulevard we were riding down, and said, “Hey, I know where I am! My house is three blocks that way.”
“I’m five blocks down here, and two over. I can text you tomorrow.”
“Or tell me at lunch?” I got a brilliant idea. “I always eat at the Alliance.”
“Alliance, oh, Harper called it the Rainbow.”
And Mercy’s face closed over. “I don’t belong. See you tomorrow.”
She rode off, leaving me with such a sharp sense of disappointment, it was like she’d kicked me. Mercy, the first friend I’d made in San Diego, a bigot?
As I turned the bike toward home, I had to remind myself of what Grandma Trish always says, “Judge not lest you be judged,” and Mom Tate always says, “Give people a chance.” But all the fun had gone out of the prospective visit to Mercy’s house.
I found out that Mom Gwen would be doing her rounds on Thursday, and when I asked if I could bring a friend from school who was planning to become a doctor, she looked surprised but pleased, and agreed.
I was in a great mood when I reported that to Harper the next day at Alliance. She pulled me out into the hall so we could talk alone. She listened, nodded, and in a lower voice, “Michael woke up. Avery’s cousin’s mom is a nurse there. They’ve got him sedated because they had to wire his jaw shut. But he acted like he doesn’t remember what happened. I definitely need to get there.” She gave me a big smile. “I’m so glad you came to this school, Laurel,” she said as we went back inside, where her equally cool girlfriend Avery, with bright red hair, was leading a team in designing Pride posters.
So that was lunch, leaving me the rest of the afternoon to dread Mercy’s house. I remembered that look Harper had given her in the park, when she mentioned Avery. Add that to Mercy not belonging to Alliance, and, well, by the time I was biking to Mercy’s, I was half expecting her house to have Hitler posters all over, and her parents to be file-toothed skinheads.
I found an ordinary house with ordinary people. The kids even had their own den. A little brother lay on the floor watching cartoons on TV, with headphones, so the noise didn’t disturb Mercy’s twin, who was busy at a big-screened computer in one corner. The entire wall opposite the TV was floor to ceiling bookshelves, and in the corner was a martial arts kick post with a costume on it. It had to be Mercy’s costume for the winter talent show. It had long floaty streamers tie-dyed in scarlet and gold, with long pointed sleeves that looked kind of like wings.
The only bad moment was one I caused myself, after Dom put down her headphones, and got up. She looked a lot like Mercy, with her frizzy pale hair skinned back into a ponytail. They seemed to dress to emphasize differences. Or maybe it was just that Dom was totally into the sports look, from her soccer clothes to her high-endurance glasses.
Mercy said, “Laurel, this is Dom.”
“I love your name,” I said.
“Short for Dominika.” Dom’s voice was clear, not as soft as Mercy’s.
They’d worked so hard on their differences that I felt the impulse to display my new high school social skills with a compliment. “I bet you’re glad you didn’t get those twin names, you know, like Julian and Jordan, or Emily and Eleanor.” I named two sets of twins I’d gone to school with, and was going to go on about twin clothes when I noticed a weird look pass between the sisters, and I got that feeling like I’d stepped in it.
Dom flipped her floaty blond ponytail back and said, “Off to practice. Bye.” She picked up a gear bag and left. Relief.
Mercy indicated the bookshelf. “Here’s Subaru Sumaraji, and over here is Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou . . .”
I looked the manga over, spotting at least a dozen yaoi. I thought, how could anyone love these and be anti-gay? Something else had to be going on—a conviction that became certainty when I left, and in getting my bike, noticed a car in the garage with a weather-worn Marriage Equality bumper sticker.
At lunch time the next day, I was heading for Alliance like usual, but impulse made me veer. By this time I knew where most of Mercy’s classes were, besides math and Japanese. Where did she go at lunch? Surely she didn’t hang out in the usual lunch area, where all the cliques existed like islands, or like dad said once, interlocking demilitarized zones. He’d been a math nerd as a teen, before nerds were cool.
I spotted her coming out of math. Mercy bypassed the lunch area and headed for the gym. The gym? I slowed my steps, feeling a little stalkery, but I wasn’t going to do anything. I just wanted to know.
I almost lost her while searching fruitlessly through the girls’ locker room. I decided to leave through the other door, when I heard faint music coming from the dance studio opposite the indoor basketball court. I went up to the door, which had one of those little square windows, like all the classroom doors, and there was Mercy in those old pink sweats, whirling and dancing all alone. The music was a shortened version of the “Inferno Dance” in Stravinsky’s Firebird—a piece Mom Tate loves. I watched as Mercy’s bird tried to escape, fell back, tried to escape and fell back again, and then finally soared.
I had to tear myself away. I was definitely being a stalker. But all afternoon I kept seeing after-images of that whirling, flying figure, more bird than human. After school, I waited around on my bike in case she appeared, and when she did, and saw me, she smiled.
We talked about the manga I’d borrowed, we even stumbled through a conversation in Japanese—very short, because this was her first semester—then talked about myths we’d found in manga, about Korean webtoons and bands we liked and hated, but three subjects never came up: Alliance, twins, and talents.
The next day was Thursday. At lunch I went back to Alliance. When I got there, I headed toward my usual corner, but Harper stopped me. “Haven’t I seen you working on the sets in the aud?” she asked, as if we’d never met. “You can do art, right? Would you like to help with these Pride posters?”
Would I! So I found myself, for the very first time ever, surrounded by people I liked while I did something I liked. And none of it had to do with magic.
At the end of lunch, she whispered, “Meet you after school.”
At three, Harper was waiting beside a car. She had a college-age brother who drove. He dropped us off at the hospital, where we found Fletch and Bec waiting.
My first reaction was disappointment. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get all those people inside, but when we went to the front desk, Fletch and Bec were nowhere to be seen. Harper and I signed in, and sat down to wait for Mom Gwen.
And here’s where things went off the rails.
I said, to make conversation, “Too bad Mercy can’t be here, too. Though I guess her talent isn’t really needed here.”
“His talent.” Harper flushed.
“Huh?” I said. “Mercy. You know, blonde. Jumps.” I flung my hand upward.
Harper’s lips curled with disgust. “His real name is Metri. Demetri, I think. Something Norwegian—I knew them back when they were Dem and Dom, he and she, only she was the one with all the smarts, who should have got the talent. He was an obnoxious turd who belongs—belonged,” she corrected herself, like she was forcing the word out. “In juvie.”
Have you ever gotten that ice-down-the-backbone feel? I always thought it was stupid when I read it in books, until I felt it that day. “Excuse me, but are you telling me that one of the twin sisters is . . .” What was the right way to say it? “Transitioning?”
Harper flushed even redder. She folded her arms across her chest. “It’s a total scam. To get out of doing time. He’s still definitely a he under those clothes. He doesn’t even have to do P.E. because they can’t let him into the gym on the girls’ side, and his parents got him an excuse not to go on the boys’.”
Mercy was . . . ? My head actually reeled. I couldn’t help myself from whispering, “The T in LGB . . .”
Harper shot me such an angry look the last letter dried right there in my mouth. She breathed in a hiss a couple times, then said, “You weren’t here. I know he’s really a boy. Which is so vile. I mean, look at you, totally fooled. How dishonest is that? What if he starts dating someone, and they find out the real truth? What’s that going to do to them?” She glanced at me then said in a quick unconvincing tone, “Of course it’ll be completely different if he really goes through with the surgery. . . But until then, I will work with that person on talent projects, because it’s important. But don’t expect me to go along with a lie because it’s politically correct. Then I’m as big a phony as he is.”
The tap of heels interrupted. There was Mom Gwen.
I don’t know what it is, but when I see her in her doctor bun and white coat, somehow she looks taller and bigger. Now I was so unsettled she zoomed to mecha size. I shot to my feet and started gabbling an introduction, making it way too complicated.
“Whoa, slow down.” Mom Gwen put her hand on my shoulder, and peered into my face. “Are you all right?”
We were there for Michael, I reminded myself. “Sure. I’m fine! Totally! I’m just excited. About this tour.”
“Well, then, let’s get started,” Mom Gwen said, shaking Harper’s hand. “I’m Dr. Jones. Welcome to the hospital . . .” And she started the tour.
I hung back, my thoughts bumbling around like flies in a window that can’t get past the glass. Mercy, a boy? Mercy wasn’t a boy. Or maybe she was part he, sort of?
A cascade of little stuff now made sense: that stupid thing I’d said about twin names. How Harper had talked at Mercy, without ever using her name. Or a pronoun. That lunchtime dancing, all alone.
A hard glance back from Harper woke me up, and I said as naturally as I could, “So, Mom, after a trauma. Where do they keep the patient’s clothes?”
Mom Gwen looked startled, but answered; I was aware of a flicker on the edge of my vision. I closed one eye—and there was Bec, with Fletch walking right behind her, matching steps. When I looked with both eyes, there was a kind of glittery blur that made my gaze slide away. They vanished into a service elevator.
Mom Gwen and Harper kept walking along the pediatric ICU, until Mom Gwen nodded at a door. “One of your schoolmates is in there.”
I barely kept myself from looking at Harper. “We heard,” I said. “Do they know who attacked him?”
“You know we can’t talk about our cases, but in this situation, I’m afraid there isn’t much to be known.” Mom Gwen shook her head. “Anger is such a terrible weapon. Worse than drugs or guns, because it’s free to everyone, yet nearly impossible to use wisely or well.”
I was now supposed to keep Mom Gwen busy with questions, so she wouldn’t notice Harper going into the room. I’d prepared questions. I’d rehearsed the questions. But they’d all vanished from my brain.
Harper was standing there, looking at me, so I said, “Can anyone use anger wisely?” as I walked a step or two away.
Mom Gwen followed me, talking about flight or fight, and how adrenaline spurts enable people to do amazing things when protecting loved ones, all stuff I know. She had her back to Harper, who motioned to me keep talking, then looked around. Nobody else was in sight.
Mom Gwen paused, and in desperation, I lowered my voice. “About sex changes.”
“What?” Mom Gwen asked, looking surprised.
I’d already used for school as an excuse twice. “Someone. At Alliance. Was talking.”
Mom Gwen nodded slowly. “Well, you’re in high school now. I guess the bigger questions are bound to come up. What do you want to know?”
“How old do you have to be to make it permanent?”
“That depends on the person.”
“Let’s say my age,” I said desperately, as behind Mom Gwen, Harper eased the door open to Michael’s room. My looking almost caused Mom Gwen to look so I said desperately. “If I told you I wanted a sex change, what would you say?”
“I would talk it over with Tate and Rob, of course. And with you.” She gave me a funny look, then said, “But I know what they would probably say: let’s give it time.”
“Is that true for all teens?”
“It depends on the teen,” she began. “When did the teen feel firm about their identity being different from their birth gender? If it’s been a lifelong issue, I believe hormones can be started around your age. Some do it earlier, though there have been adverse effects due to drug reaction. Surgery—so far—comes later. If the decision was yesterday, well, remember when you desperately wanted a tattoo of your favorite Korean boy band, and we said you had to wait until you were sixteen, and you hated us for that, your life was ruined?”
I grimaced. At thirteen, sixteen seems forever in the distance.
“That was only two years ago. Would you like that tattoo on you now?”
“No,” I said. “Okay, so if I suddenly decided this week, I get you’d want me to wait.”
The door to Michael’s room snicked shut, and Mom Gwen whirled, but Harper was standing at the wall, intently studying a boring piece of art bolted there.
Though this conversation had that told me absolutely nothing about Mercy, I said quickly, “Thanks, Mom.”
“Sure,” she said. “Harper, excuse me for keeping you waiting. Shall we continue the tour?’
Harper was quiet as Mom Gwen continued to talk about intensive care and PT and other stuff, then when we turned the corner, she whispered, “He didn’t see who hit him.”
Luckily, she turned back to Mom Gwen before she could see the pulse of hatred I couldn’t hide. As the three of us walked up to the maternity ward, which Mom Gwen cheerfully said, always ended tours on an upbeat note, I struggled with that sick feeling that the first person I’d liked in San Diego had been turned into someone else, and Harper had ruined my friendship for me.
Or was that what Harper wanted me to think? What did I think?
I don’t care what’s Mercy’s got in her jeans, I thought angrily as I looked at all those little babies. You couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls. They didn’t care if they were boys or girls. What was gender anyway, really? I mean, do you think about what’s inside anyone’s jeans, if you aren’t actually wanting to have sex with them?
If I was about to have sex with Mercy, would I care? So far in my life, all I’d had were two crushes. Two very distant crushes. I’d never gotten close enough to anybody to even think about sex, but I knew that people weren’t completely one thing or the other. Mom Gwen had said when we had The Talk that she’d always thought she was a lesbian only, until she met my dad. You fall in love with a person. Then you love all the person, whatever kind of body they have.
“ . . . Laurel?” Mom Gwen said. “Elevator’s here.”
I turned away from the babies, my eyes burning. Why was there so much hate? What was hate going to do to those babies when they met it? Their parents were supposed to be happy to have them, but how long would that happiness last? Who among them would get bullied or abused . . . or dumped?
Harper shook hands with Mom Gwen again, thanking her profusely for the wonderful tour, then we walked out, to where we found Bec and Fletch waiting.
The second Harper and I reached them, Fletch said, “Found Michael’s clothes.” He looked grim. “Don’t know if anyone knows this, but Michael was whacked by a baseball bat. I will recognize the wood, the varnish, the resin, and the sweat on it. Definitely guy sweat. His hands were all over that bat before he used it.” I remembered those girls chasing Mercy, and for the first time considered that Michael could have been attacked by girls. Then I remembered despising Kyle for his assumptions, and grimaced, thoroughly depressed. “And I also know what Michael’s blood smells like,” Fletch went on. My stomach boiled even more.
He turned to Harper. “The easy way is if someone can get me something your suspect has touched. Everybody has a distinct scent. If the scent on the bat matches his, then we’re done.”
“I’ll get it,” I said.
Fletch nodded. “If the scents don’t match, you’ll have to get me to the place where Michael was jumped. I can take it from there. The jerkwad has to have let that bat hit the ground or a fence or a wall sometime, or maybe even stepped in the blood. All it takes is a drop, and I’ll have a trail.”
“Everybody in school knows where it happened,” Harper said. “And has been there, looking around and oohing at the blood splatters. Will all those people mess up the scent?”
“For mundane noses,” Fletch said. “Not for my magical sniffer.”
Harper’s brother drove up right then. Nobody spoke on the way back.
I continued to worry about my bio-mom, like, did she dump me because I had a talent, or had something happened to her because she had one?
My life seemed to be filling up with questions I couldn’t ask, because there were personal secrets to be kept as well as the weird ones.
But this question, at least, I could ask, I thought when I got home and found dad on the couch, reading the news on his tablet. “Did my mom decide she hated me, or is there some other reason why she dumped me?” My heart thundered. “Or did she just vanish, leaving me behind?”
“No.” Dad sighed, his eyes closing. A little vein beat in his eyelid, and somehow, seeing that made me go hollow behind my ribs. “As for her choice to give you up, it wasn’t that clearcut. Life seldom is.” He gave me a tentative smile, and I could tell he hoped we were done.
Magic seemed to be out, but still I had to know. “And?”
“Having you was my idea. She went along with it, though she never wanted children. Our marriage already had problems. I thought, if there was a child—more people to love—that love would strengthen. I still believe that. But I guess there are different kinds of love. And you can’t force your kind on someone else.”
He shifted, and sighed. “She fell in love with someone else. One day I came home. Found a note saying she’d sign any papers I wanted, but she was going off to a new place, to start a new life. She ended it by saying that she loved us both, but love wasn’t enough.”
Love wasn’t enough. So her disappearance wasn’t because of some mystery group, or because of secret powers, it was because she hadn’t wanted me or Dad. All those babies back in that hospital, was that the lesson they were heading for, love isn’t enough?
The hollow place inside me filled with an ache that no talent could fix, crowding right up into my throat. I leaned into Dad, smelling coffee, the soap he uses to wash his hands, a whiff of felt tip pen.
The couch creaked, and Mom Tate dropped on my other side, her hip bumping against mine, and I put my head on her shoulder. She smelled like vanilla, and sliced onion, and herbal shampoo.
Then cool fingers pressed gently against my neck. Mom Gwen had come up behind the couch and began to knead with scientific expertise, sending little zings through me as all the knots began to melt. Footsteps announced the arrival of Noah, my youngest brother, who promptly launched into a full dive, and as he landed across the laps of us on the couch, shouted, “Tickle me!”
“Here come the tickles, buddy,” Mom Tate said. She and dad made hand spiders to attack all of Noah’s favorite tickle places, as he writhed and giggled, and Mom Gwen just kept kneading my shoulders until all the sick drained away.
One time she’d told me how, in the old days, the preemies that no one thought had chance, survived way more often if they got skin to skin touch, what she called tenderness. Tenderness, I thought sleepily. It’s a real power, one anybody can have.
When Kyle slammed his notebook onto his desk the next day, it was so easy to zap it I almost didn’t have to pull. But I did pull, hard, sending his papers spilling.
Half the class thought it an excellent opportunity to get up and kick the papers all over the room, making noise chasing them. Safe in the bobbing, milling crowd, I nipped up two test papers that should have his scent on them, since I wasn’t sure who actually did his homework.
I slipped them into a waiting folder, and the folder into my backpack as the teacher scowled everyone back into their seats. Mercy never looked my way—until after class, when our eyes met, I did a brief thumbs up.
When the dismissal bell rang, there she was, waiting with her bike to ride with me to the park.
She eyed me for about two seconds, then said, “Let me guess. Harper got her hate on, and you got to hear it.” She looked away, then back. “Well, I kinda asked for it.”
“How?” Zoom. There was the anger again. I tried to bat it down. “How could . . . making the decision you made be asking for it?”
“It is when you set fire to the school, and nearly kill someone’s brother,” Mercy said, and I shut up. “You really want to hear this?”
I grimaced. “Yes. No. I don’t know.”
“Then stop me if it gets too much.” She paused, as if hoping I’d say too much.
But I didn’t.
She said slowly, “I’d hoped to meet people as me. Now. But you don’t get to escape your past.” Mercy looked away again. “Dom and I knew we were two girls from the time we were born. The one difference didn’t mean anything to us. As soon as I noticed how clothes marked gender, I was always putting on hers. Why should she get to wear girl clothes when they made me wear boy’s? At first everybody thought it was cute. They said stuff like how it was good I was exploring my feminine side. But when I kept saying that I was a girl . . .” She shrugged.
“Did they punish you for it?” I asked, slimily remembering my stupid comment about twins. Never again, I promised myself. Never.
“No. My parents aren’t like that, but, well, my grandfather is this important admiral. He kind of pressured them. ‘We don’t have any history of that kind of thing in our family,’ I remember him saying that. What kind of ‘thing’? Mostly they offered me bribes. If I did boy stuff, I got rewards. They signed me up for every kind of boy activity there is. I told you about the soccer.”
“How you could leap high and your sister couldn’t.”
“I knew that had nothing to do with girls or boys, because nobody on any of the little kid teams could spring any more than Dom could. So I stopped doing sports. Then I stopped doing schoolwork. I almost stopped springing—you call yours the zap, I call mine the spring—but I really wanted to dance, to fly.”
She pedaled faster. I kept pace, and she talked to her handlebars. “So one day I was alone at the palisades, springing as high as I could. I can get pretty high. Especially when I’m, um, intense. I was almost ready to spring right off a cliff, and end it all, and then I thought, why should I end me? It was their fault. I was a girl, but they were making me be a boy because it was right for them, and so . . . well, I tried to destroy all their stuff.”
“That fire you mentioned?”
“Yup. I leaped up on the school roof with burning newspapers, starting with my classroom. Kyle Moore got the blame, at first. Even when I told them I did it. They didn’t believe me because Dom and I were such good kids. Kyle had been in trouble from first grade. So he got the blame, he even got stuck in juvie overnight, until they believed me.”
A quick look, her earring hitting her cheek, then away. “That was after I was bribed to go on this scouting thing. Harper’s big brother Phil was the Eagle Scout in charge of us. Well, I set fire to his tent. I really thought he was gone, but he’d come back and fallen asleep . . . well, anyway, the short version is, I got put in counseling, and when I told them everything, they told my parents that gender identity usually begins young, blah blah.”
I nodded, remembering what Mom Gwen had said.
“Actually, the therapist was pretty awesome. My parents were told to let me express my preferred gender. Even change my name, if I wanted. So I picked my great-grandmother Mercy’s name. The mother of my grandmother who disappeared. I always thought she just wanted to get away.”
Like you did, I thought. And my bio mom.
“But maybe she was into something secret. Maybe her mother was, too, but if she was, mysterious talents—whether it’s magic or some kind of blip in the laws of physics—aren’t very strong, or evil power is really strong, because look how hard it was to bring down the Nazis. Great-Grandma Mercy was a Jew in Lithuania during World War II, and went underground when they invaded her town. She managed to save a bunch of people before the Gestapo caught her group and killed them.”
“She sounds really awesome,” I said. “But that reminds me of something I read, that the Nazis were into researching magic and weird science. The thought that those guys might have gotten any kind of powers is really, really creepy.”
“I know! Which is why I am totally happy with keeping our talents secret until we know more. Anyway, Great-Grandma Mercy is my hero, whether she had a talent or not. Okay, back to my stupid story, so I can get it over with. I got my own clothes. I started doing schoolwork again. But some people think I got away with murder. Next to murder.” She shrugged tightly.
I’d already stepped in it a million times, so I was determined not to now. I could tell by her tension that she’d hate pity, and anyway we only had a few block left. There was the long blue line of the bay.
So I said, “I kinda get why Harper holds a grudge.” Then I remembered what she’d actually said, and got that sick feeling again. To hide it, I asked, “How exactly did she discover your talent?”
Mercy hunched her shoulders. “At juvenile court, after I nearly toasted Phil. Both families were there. She always tests out anyone she thinks might possibly have a talent, though she was expecting my talent to be pyromania, because of the school fire. She bumped against me. She saw my spring, along with all the anger and hate.”
I couldn’t help shivering, though the wind was hot and dry.
“I’m not going to say I know all her issues. I’ve had too many people telling me what I’m supposed to think. She kept my secret for three years. I thought I was the only one in the world who had a talent. She waited until she figured out that I keep secrets. She knows I work every summer to pay for the damage I did. She knows I don’t get in trouble now.”
Mercy’s voice sped up, and I could tell she was bothered, though she was trying to sound normal. “So when she appeared as one of the student representatives at my middle school last year, and got me alone long enough to say that she knew my secret, and what did I plan to do about it, and I said nothing—nothing bad—I was done with being a brat because I was now Mercy, she said she didn’t believe me. But then, last spring, she called. Told me there are others, and did I want to meet them.” She glanced ahead, where the gazebo sat in the distance.
There was time for one more question. “Those girls chasing you?”
Mercy’s grin flared. “At the other end of the street where the bus stops, there’s a car repair shop that everyone knows is a chop shop. They sell drugs, too. The guys who run it have their girlfriends hanging out there, so I took a bunch of the free clinic diversity flyers, and asked those girls if any of them wanted counseling. I figured if they ran me off, you’d see, and that was better than telling Harper and having her read your memories without your knowing. I hate that she saw mine at my worst. Without telling me.” She grimaced. “But I’m okay with her using her talent on Kyle, or whoever did it. Is that what they call conveniently adjustable ethics?”
I had no idea how to answer that, and was glad there was no time as we rolled down the last of the bike path to the gazebo.
Everybody was there, so I took the folder out of my backpack, and gave it to Fletch, who sniffed Kyle’s test papers. Tiny weird sparkles fluoresced around the papers, then Fletch looked up. “This isn’t the guy.”
“He’s not?” Harper exclaimed.
I couldn’t help saying, “He sure acts guilty.”
Mercy said, “I think so, too. I think he might know who did it.”
“All right, let’s go to the place where it happened,” Harper said.
She’d gotten a senior friend to drive herself and Fletch and Bec, giving the excuse that she was going to write an article on hate crimes for the school newspaper. She’d already written the article, but wanted to visit the place where Michael was attacked for visual corroboration.
There was no place in the car for Mercy and me, but as we had our bikes, this was fine. By the time we reached the corner where Michael was attacked, Harper and Bec were alone, Fletch nowhere in sight.
Harper said, “Whoever did it stepped in Michael’s blood, tried to wipe it off, but didn’t get it all. Fletch said it’s easier if we wait here, as he’s faster when no one distracts him.” She turned to Bec. “I meant to thank you in person for helping out at the hospital. Fletch told me there was no chance he would have got into the storage area without you.”
Bec had been biting her thumb. She yanked it down. “This is what we agreed to.” Her voice got softer. “And I like helping. It makes me feel . . .” She whispered the word, “Stronger.” Then, “But what do we do if we find him? We can’t tell anybody how we did it.”
Harper crossed her arms. “If Fletch finds the bat, we could confront Kyle with the evidence, and demand the truth.”
Mercy said. “How? Threats won’t work. Not with him.”
Harper eyed her, then said in that challenging tone, “I didn’t think you were friends.”
“We aren’t,” Mercy said. “I hate Kyle Moore as much as he hates me, but I think threats are something he hears every day. The last touch football game I played, it ended at night. I was walking out to the parking lot. He and his dad were ahead of me. His dad kept smacking him on the side of the head. Saying stuff like ‘Why didn’t you catch that pass, dimbulb? Think a scout is going to want you sitting on the bench?’ and the last thing I heard before they got in the car was, ‘Stop sniveling like a girl or I’ll really give you something to snivel about.’”
Harper turned away. Bec looked like she was going to throw up.
Then we heard running feet and Fletch appeared, his face crimson, the chain on the side of his jeans slapping his thigh. “Found the bat,” he said, leaning his hands on his knees.
“Let me guess,” Harper said. “It got thrown down one of the palisades.”
“Got it in one. Whoever threw the bat got a bit of blood on their shoes, and the trail leads straight to a house.” He named the address.
Bec took over, then. I didn’t see her leave, she was just gone. We all stood around awkwardly, Harper checking her e-mail on her phone, Fletch catching his breath, and Mercy and I waiting in silence.
Then Bec was back. I nearly jumped out of my skin. “No name on their mail slot. So I checked their recycle bin.” She wrinkled her nose. “Bill stubs made out to Jason Davies, Sr.”
Mercy’s eyes rounded behind her glasses. “Jason Davies’ dad. I don’t get it. Jason Davies isn’t even part of Kyle’s gang.” She turned to me. “You sit right next to him in math.”
“The blond guy? With the peeling nose?”
She nodded twice.
I couldn’t believe it. Just a boring, everyday kid, who sat there doing his work like nothing had happened.
Fletch wiped his face on his sleeve. Bec gnawed a finger.
Harper looked from Mercy to me, and back again, then said slowly, “How does this sound? An anonymous tip from the school computer to the police, saying where the bat is, and that it belongs to Jason Davies. If it turns out to belong to some other Jason Davies Junior, they should be able to figure it out, and find any other evidence, but all that is police business. Does anyone disagree?”
Bec said, so softly I almost couldn’t hear her. “It’s not going to fix Michael. But at least he’ll know.”
And nobody would know about us.
Fletch said, “And how’s that going to make him feel? This whole thing is a total downer.”
Bec murmured, “I hope the next project is us finding out how we got talents.”
“As long as,” Harper said, “someone really powerful doesn’t find us.”
That pretty much killed the conversation. The three of them headed back toward their car in a gloomy silence.
Mercy rode next to me. We were also silent.
When we reached the intersection where I usually went one way and she the other, she slowed, and I slowed too. She burst out, “Here’s what gets me. Jason was always hanging around Kyle during middle school. If he really did it, I bet anything it was to butter up Kyle. And I bet Kyle is acting guilty because he feels sick about it.”
I looked down at my bike, totally depressed. I had been thinking about my expectations—that we’d all use our powers in some grand climax that would uncover the villain, that justice would somehow make things okay for Michael Abrams, but instead, if anything, there were more questions than before. About everything.
“Mystery talents or not, people suck,” I said.
Mercy looked around at the mini-mall, the gas stations, the palm trees, the hard, bright blue sky overhead, as if seeking an answer. Or waiting for a question? Then she said, “I found out when I was little that my great-grandmother Mercy had a saying. It’s from a Roman called Seneca: Non est ad astra mollis e terris via.”
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“‘There is no easy way to the stars from earth.’ When I first started dancing, I really thought that if I sprang high enough, my talent would take me to the stars.”
“That’s kind of cool,” I said.
“I think it’s pretty dorky.” Mercy made a face. “I mean, I love dance. I love to soar, just high enough so people feel that lift in here, because then it’s art.” She smacked her ribs. “But not too high, so they think it’s not normal. Like anyone knows what normal is.”
Her smile went crooked, and she looked at the palm tree. “Anyway, I got it wrong.” She looked at the mini-mall. “I think the saying is really about how you have to try more to overcome the suck.” She looked at the ground. “That’s what the group is really for, after all. Even if Harper thinks I’m a freak.” She glanced skyward, the crystals in her earrings winking and dancing in the bright sunlight. “Harper trusts me this much, at least.” She held up one hand, her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart.
The sun blasted the side of my face as we stood there in the hot wind, midway between our houses, and I thought, she doesn’t want to go anymore than I do. I was waiting for her to invite me over again, but it was my turn. Was she waiting for an invitation?
If you have a friend, you invite them over. It sounds so simple, but it was a big deal for me, almost too big.
Almost. “Want some limeade?” I asked, trying to sound cool. My voice squeaked in my own ears. I coughed. “My Mom Tate always makes it fresh.”
She didn’t look at me weird, or exclaim ‘Mom’ Tate? in a voice like Dracula? She said, “I love limeade.”
“It’s not actually just limeade,” I said as we started riding again. “It’s limeade and ginger ale and some other healthy stuff, but it doesn’t taste like a health drink . . .” I babbled stupidly all the way.
It was so late in the afternoon that they were all there.
“Dad, this is Mercy, from school.”
Dad looked up from reading the news on his tablet. “Hi, Mercy.” He added hopefully, “I don’t suppose you love math?”
“Math’s okay,” she said cautiously, turning to me.
“Family joke,” I gabbled. “Dad keeps hoping one of us will turn into a math geek. Like him. She’s a dancer,” I told Dad.
“Cool!” Mom Tate said as she brought out the jug and a bunch of mismatched glasses.
She and Mercy went from dance to manga art, which got into scanlation translations that were so bad they were a crackup. Mom Gwen bustled around getting ready for a night shift, putting in a couple comments about how much she loved the art in Miyazaki’s films, and the boys ran in and out again, impatient for dinner.
It was all boring little stuff. Everyday stuff. But somehow every bit of everydayness chipped at the ache I still felt about those big questions no one could answer.
It wasn’t like the big questions went away. Or the little ones—I expected that Mercy would probably ask about how I had two moms in the same house—but the way they were all talking, I figured she’d be okay with the answer.
And I began to feel okay, even a little dizzy, the way you get when at least some of those big questions turn into possibilities, and the ones that don’t are slightly less painful because maybe you’ve found a friend to share them with.
“C’mon,” I said. “Let’s go up to my room. I’ve got links to a couple new webtoons I don’t think you’ve seen . . .”
“Zapped” copyright © 2015 by Sherwood Smith
Art copyright © 2015 by Junyi Wu