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The Flight of Morpho Girl

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The Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years, and “The Flight of Morpho Girl” conjures up an adventurous new tale from the imaginations of acclaimed sci-fi writers Caroline Spector and Bradley Denton.

Adesina, known as “Morpho Girl,” is used to handling the weird that is her everyday, but life has dealt her a tricky new hand. First, her mom, the crimefighter Amazing Bubbles, has been off since her last mission. Second, Adesina recently aged from ten to sixteen, making everyone think she’s even weirder than she already is. On top of everything else, her best friend goes missing. What’s a newly-teenaged joker need to do to catch a break?

 

 

Yesterday, the day Ghost was kidnapped, Mom came into my bedroom after breakfast and jumped out the window.

I’d gone out that way before dawn, and I’d come back in the same way. Like, it was super practical and, bonus, Mom didn’t know—which was hella best for both of us. There was no way I was telling her I’d been flying.

We’re on the eighth floor, and I heard a sick thud as she slammed into the concrete below. I ran over to the window and looked down. Mom got to her feet and waved. She was fatter now.

“I love you, honey!” she called in this weird, peppy voice. I was thinking, like, please don’t do that—because it was giving me the sick willies. “Have a good Monday!” Then she jogged away, and the people on the sidewalk parted for her like water.

She’s been doing that a lot lately. Jumping out my window, I mean. She used to use her bedroom window when she wanted to put on fat, but ever since she came back from Kazakhstan she’s been different. As in, so not normal.

Of course, “normal” for us isn’t normal at all. After all, Mom’s an ace. She’s a totes famous ace. Between her modeling (she’s been a model since she was a kid, even before her card changed) and her work with the Committee, she’s either on the front page of every political website, or she’s selling cosmetics and stuff like that to all the nats. She’s always filled with the fabu—even when she’s heavy. Maybe especially then.

But me, I’m a joker. I couldn’t pass for a nat no matter what. My iridescent cobalt-colored wings—the same color as a morpho butterfly—make sure of that. And I still have four vestigial insect legs on my torso from when I was a little girl. Oh, yeah, did I mention that until four weeks ago I was a little girl? Overnight I went from being, like, ten to being, like, sixteen. See, the bad stuff that happened in Kazakhstan, well, my little-girl self was so frightened by what she saw in her dreams that she went into a cocoon. When I came out, I came out as something the size of a teenager. And my wings, well, they aren’t just pretty anymore. They’re awesome.

So Mom and I both emerged from that whole Kazakhstan thing… changed. And I think my changes have been freaking her out. But then, freaking her out isn’t a difficult thing to do these days. Like, she went noodley over the fact that our water has started to turn a gross color kinda like orange Gatorade. Okay, so anyone would be grossed out because, ew. But she got crazy noodley when the super said to tell the city about it, not him. She threatened to make him drink it. Also, our HBO keeps switching to Spanish for no reason, and we’ve had to buy a new remote control because she got pissed about that and bubbled the old one into powder. Not pieces. Powder.

I guess that’s why she’s gone into full-blown Mom-of-the-Year mode. It probably makes her feel like she’s in control of something. So she cooks. She cleans. She even tries to help me with my homework. Which is amazeballs, but in a bad way. For one thing, she’s even worse at algebra than I am. But I have to pretend that I couldn’t do it without her.

And she’s pretty much gone wild with the cooking. Like, she’s been channeling Martha Stewart, except Mom doesn’t have a prehensile tail.

Yesterday morning, before the window thing, she made eggs, bacon, toast, pancakes, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. It used to be, when it came to breakfast, she could barely put cereal in a bowl. So most of the time we’d just grab a bagel with a schmear at the deli at 14th Street and Avenue A. The deli crowd were all used to me when I was a little girl, and some of them even smiled at me once in a while. But now, if we go there at all, everyone avoids making eye contact.

Sure, I look like a teenager now, and my wings are a lot bigger than they used to be. So maybe I knock a few things off a table when I walk past. But I’m still me.

I mean, I’m mostly still me. I haven’t told anyone this… but how I think is different now. It’s like I got smarter and dumber at the same time. I know things I didn’t know before, and I can do things I didn’t do before. (I can play the bass! Really!) But I cry, like, at the drop of a hat. At stupid stuff. Like, tragic love scenes in movies. It’s mega embarrassing.

“Adesina, eat up, honey,” Mom said. “You’re too thin.” Which should have been hilarious, coming from her.

I gave a groan and pushed away my plate. “Mom, I’ll be in Snoozeville, like, all day if I have any more.”

As usual, she didn’t seem to hear me. But she swept away the dishes and loaded them into the dishwasher. Then she polished the sink faucets for, like, the sixth time. As if that would make them any shinier.

“Mom,” I said. I wanted to tell her she didn’t have to do all this stuff—that it would be fine by me if she just went back to being like she used to be. But she still didn’t seem to hear me. And I hated the look on her face. It was blank, and her head was cocked to one side as if she were hearing something. Something bad. But the only sounds were the usual noises coming up from the street. The taxis honking, the exhausted sigh of buses, and people yelling at each other. Nothing that would make Mom blank out like that. It was the worst.

I got up and went to my room. Leaving Mom alone when she got like this, I’d decided, was the only thing to do. She couldn’t hear me, and getting her attention by touching her would only freak her all the hells out. I knew this because about a week before, I’d tried to get her attention that way. Just by touching her shoulder. And she had almost bubbled me.

Oh, she used to make a lot of bubbles for me. When I was a little kid. But they’d always be soft bubbles. We’d play with them in the park or knock them around the bathtub. Or she’d encase me in a bubble for a few minutes and I’d roll around in it. Stuff like that.

But there are other things she can do with her bubbles, and those just aren’t funny. She can shoot iron-hard bubbles as if they were bullets. She can even make them explode. Put it all together, and she’s one of the most powerful aces in the world.

Which is cool. Except when it’s not.

She’s my mother, but she’s done… things. In particular, things for the Committee. Ugly things. And she tries really hard to make up for all of that. But dead is dead. You know?

So when I touched her shoulder, and she turned on me with that terrible look on her face and a bubble half-formed in her hand, it about scared the pee out of me. Not just because of the danger in her hand, but because she didn’t know me. For a moment, I was whatever she’d been thinking of. And whatever it was, she wanted to kill it.

Then, suddenly, she was back to being Mom. Well, not exactly Mom, but that weird version of Mom that cooks and cleans. And occasionally almost blows me up.

So, yeah. We’ve both changed.

But I’ve only changed on the outside. Mostly. Mom, though, has changed on the inside.

And I just want her to be herself again. Like, the way that I’m still me.

Which is what I was thinking while I was getting my school stuff from my room, and she walked in. “I’m doing a job for the Committee today,” she said. “They’re jetting me down to Panama.”

“Is it a… dangerous job?” I asked. I really didn’t like the idea of her doing anything more for the Committee just yet—especially not if it might remind her of Kazakhstan.

Mom shrugged. “The idea is that if I make an appearance, certain people will re-think their positions. I might only need to be there a few hours, so I could be home this evening. If I’m not, Mrs. Lehman from down the hall will come over about ten o’clock, and she’ll stay the night. Either way—the leftover beef Stroganoff is in the fridge. And the broccoli, too.” She paused. “No. I should make you something for dinner besides leftovers.”

“Leftovers are fine!” I said in a loud voice. “And I don’t need Mrs. Lehman to stay with me.”

For once, Mom seemed to hear me. “You might look like you’re all grown-up, but we both know better. Text me as soon as you get home from school. And deadbolt the door.”

“I know, Mom.”

Then she jumped out the window. Which really irked me.

I mean, jeez. It’s my room, isn’t it?

Well. Two can play at that game.

 

I had a little time before I had to go to school, so I thought about heading to the roof for more flying practice. But it was daylight now, and there are taller buildings surrounding ours. And I wasn’t ready to display my aerial skills to the whole world yet. For one thing, my landings weren’t always pretty. More like crash-and-tumbles. But when that happened, I just wrapped my wings around myself and rolled. My wings are hella tough, so it didn’t hurt. But that didn’t mean I wanted anyone to see me bouncing across the roof like a lumpy soccer ball.

So instead, I went into Mom’s bedroom, reached under the bed, and pulled out the box I’d found there when she’d been at a photo shoot. Inside was a denim-covered diary.

I’d found the diary by accident. Okay, maybe not completely by accident. More like an accident when I had been searching her room. After the incident when she had almost bubbled me, I had decided I needed to get to know this new version of my mother a little better. Even if I had to be kinda sneaky about it.

I had read the whole thing immediately. But now I kept going back over certain entries, as if they would unlock some secret. Of course, if she’d dated anything or kept up with it all the time, it might have been easier to figure her out.

But Mom isn’t really about making things easy.

She might say that I’m not, either. But I’m a teenager now. So, you know. I have an excuse.

 

Mom’s Diary

I wish Mommy wouldn’t just drop me off at shoots. But today she said she had other errands to run and I’d be fine. After all, I’m ten and that’s practically a teenager. At least that’s what she said.

There was a new photographer today. I like Mr. B, but they said Mr. B was sick and this new man would be doing the photos. He told me to call him Tony, and then the wardrobe crew got me into the new clothes for Fall. It’s Spring now, and Fall clothes are heavy and hot under the lights.

Mommy and Daddy said I had to make these ads really good because we’re having money problems. But I always try my best when I work. And I don’t want Mommy and Daddy to have to worry about money.

Mommy said we can’t afford to have me out of work again. I guess things got bad when OshKosh B’gosh didn’t renew my contract. They kept me after their usual cut-off because I look younger than I am. And because I was popular. But just before I turned eight I got too tall, and a lady from Osh Kosh said she was sorry, but no one would believe I was six anymore.

That was two years ago. Daddy was mad because he started having trouble booking me. But I knew why. I was famous as the Osh Kosh B’gosh girl. So who else would want me?

But Daddy found someone who did. So today I did the shoot with Tony.

I didn’t like him. He kept asking me to look sexy. That’s just gross. But I did my best because I’m a professional.

They dressed me up in all these grownup clothes. Four other girls were there, too. They were like me. When they were younger, they were known for selling kids’ stuff. But now no one wanted us. Not as kids, anyway.

The make-up girls seemed angry. I heard one of them say Rudolph was going too far with this new campaign. Rudolph makes these really pretty clothes and he uses all kinds of models. Most are nats like me. But he’s used some aces with cool powers. Once he used jokers, but that didn’t work out so well.

Peregrine posed naked for his perfume line. Her wings hid everything, but you could tell she didn’t have any clothes on. Mommy said it was disgusting. Right up until Daddy said it probably paid her a fortune.

 

Who leaves their little kid alone with strangers? I was glad I’d never met Gramma and Grampa, or whatever I would have called them. Nothing nice, I don’t think.

I pulled out my phone, went on the Internet, and looked up that campaign for Rudolph Haute Couture Atelier in Vogue.

Mom had been right. It was pukesville.

There she was all pouty-faced and made up like an adult. The clothes are gorgeous, but the way Mom and the other girls are posed—gah. I mean, it’s yucky. It’s a world of yuck. Did I mention the high yuck factor?

I shut the journal and put it back in the box. Then I slid the box under the bed, back into the dark, where it belonged.

 

I wouldn’t say my day at school was bad. Not exactly. The week before, and the week before that, hadn’t been bad, either. Not exactly.

I mean, the high-school work isn’t as hard as I thought it might be. And the teachers are okay. Also, shock of shocks, none of the other kids—I mean, teenagers—have been mean to me. For the first few days, some of them even showed me around. Being a joker probably helped my cred, since most of them are jokers, too.

But just because they haven’t been jerks to me, well, that doesn’t mean they’re my friends. Not yet, anyway.

So yesterday, when the final bell rang, I decided to blow down to the Jerusha Carter Development Center. My actual friend, Ghost, goes to the Carter School, and I wanted to see her. Maybe I could walk home with her.

See, I used to be at Carter with Ghost. Then things got messed up because I got big. So now they’ve sent me to the Xavier Desmond High School, which is a few blocks away from the Carter School in Jokertown. But it might as well be on the Moon. I miss Carter, and I especially miss Yerodin—who we call “Ghost” because of her ace power.

She and I were both adopted after our cards turned. She was adopted by Wally Gunderson. You know, Rustbelt, who was on American Hero with Mom. Wally is a joker like me. Well, not like me. His skin is iron, he has bright yellow eyes, and he’s about the size of one and a half professional wrestlers. And he’s strong. Mom says he can hit hella hard, but that’s what Mom would focus on. She’s always into taking the damage.

Anyway, the Committee sent him and Mom to the People’s Paradise of Africa—it seems like a lifetime ago, now—and that was where they found me and Yerodin. In the PPA, the both of us, along with a lot of other kids, had been injected with the wild card virus. Some of those kids became aces, like Ghost, and some, like me, turned into jokers. But the people—bad people, not that I want to be all judgy, but I really do—who were injecting us didn’t want jokers. Just aces. So they either killed us jokers or left us to die. Then Mom saved me from the pit where they’d dumped me. I guess the bad people thought I’d drawn a Black Queen, because I was in my cocoon when they tossed me in. But really, I was just becoming my little insect-girl self.

Just like, a month ago, I would become my new insect-teenager self. The wild card virus, besides the other things it did, had been slowing down the growth of both me and Ghost, keeping us as little kids. But when Kazakhstan happened, I changed. Fast.

My first day back at Carter after my transformation, when I met Yerodin on the sidewalk, she freaked out. She went all non-corporeal, and then she ran into the building. Through the wall. And she wouldn’t come near me for the next two days. She wouldn’t even talk to me during gameplay on Ocelot 9. She did respond a few times via text, but even then, she only answered with emojis. Like, you know, steaming poops with unhappy faces.

Then I was transferred to high school.

But yesterday, I hoped that maybe enough time had passed. Maybe Ghost was feeling less weird now, and might even be glad to see me. I had to try, anyway.

To my surprise, when I got to the Carter School, Wally was there. He was lumbering out of the gate behind a gaggle of kids, but Ghost wasn’t one of them. And he looked as if someone had just punched him in the gut. Assuming anyone could do that to a gut made of iron.

“Hey Wally,” I said as the kids streamed past me. “Is Yerodin still inside?”

“Oh gosh, she sure isn’t,” he replied. His voice was thick with his Minnesota accent. Minnah-SO-dah. His shoulders were all hunched up, and he was hugging his arms to his chest as if it were winter instead of fall. And his clothes were rumpled. “We had a fight this morning about—aw, it doesn’t matter. But she was mad as heck. So I thought I’d come pick her up and take her for an ice cream. But I can’t find her. Mrs. Teasdale says she was here before her music class, but the music teacher says she didn’t show up for it. And I know she didn’t come home then, because I was there. She isn’t home now, either, because our neighbor Bob has a key, and I just now called him to check.” He looked up and down the street. “It was dumb to let her leave the apartment while she was mad. But I thought if she walked to school, same as every day, it might blow off some steam.” He shook his huge head. “Now she won’t answer her cell phone. So I don’t know where she is. Or even if she’s okay.”

I was stunned. Wally and Ghost never argue. Wally is too nice, and Ghost, well, she just worships him. So what he was saying made me feel as if I were about to have a freak-out storm. Like a category 5. I couldn’t even imagine what they would fight about.

“I’m sure she’s all right,” I said, trying to keep my voice from quavering. And I wanted to believe it. After all, Ghost can go all non-corporeal and escape pretty much anything. Also, she had been trained in the PPA as an assassin, and that made her scary as hell sometimes. What could happen to someone like her?

But Wally was beyond worried. And I didn’t need him having a freak-out storm, too. Like, there’s only room for one of those at a time. Besides, a guy like Wally shouldn’t be scared. I mean, he’s—you know, Rustbelt, for crying out loud.

“Neighbor Bob says he’ll stick around and call me if she shows up,” Wally said. “But, gosh, if she isn’t there already—”

“I bet she’s just taking the long way home,” I said. I patted Wally’s back. It made a dull thunk and kinda hurt my hand. I never would have done that before my transformation, but it seemed like a semi-grownup thing to do. I felt stupid doing it, though.

Wally gave a shuddering sigh. “I could go home and wait, but I feel like I should be looking for her. Or calling the police. But Mrs. Teasdale says the police won’t do anything about an angry child who’s only been missing an hour.” He grabbed the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the school, and it started turning to rust. He can do that, make iron rust. He jerked his hand back, but a three-foot section had already poofed away.

“It’s going to be okay,” I said. I patted his back again, and it felt a little less stupid this time. “Look, Yerodin and I have a place we like to go when we ditch class. We can check there.”

Wally’s mouth hinges pulled down. “You ditch class?” He sounded astonished.

All of a sudden my tongue felt thick. “Um, just a little, sometimes, during last period.” Except that sometimes we snuck out during fourth period, too, because Mrs. Teasdale never did roll call after lunch. Mrs. Teasdale was a joker, sporting wiggly face and neck tentacles, and I think she was supposed to be a role model for us joker kids. But she mostly napped in the afternoon while we were supposed to be doing the day’s reading on our tablets.

And that so didn’t happen. Most of the time, Yerodin and I played the Ocelot 9 battle version in friend mode. She beat me almost every game.

But some days, we’d sneak out of class while Mrs. Teasdale snoozed. We’d head down the street to Jinka’s Juice and grab smoothies, then walk a few blocks over to our favorite game shop.

“It’s called the Tumbling Dice,” I said. “Ghost and I get all our Ocelot 9 stuff there. Come on, I’ll take you.”

Wally’s forehead crimped. The creases in his forehead had a dull sheen. If he doesn’t Brillo himself now and then, he gets all cruddy and rusty. Yesterday afternoon, though, he was spotless. At least, he was at first.

“Aren’t you supposed to go straight home after school?” he asked. “Your mother will wonder where you are.”

“I’ll text Mom,” I said. “She’s working late today anyhow.” Wally didn’t seem to know that Mom was in Panama. But I didn’t see any reason to mention it. And I also didn’t see any reason to mention what I would text to her.

Wally was still frowning. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe you can just tell me how to get to this Dice place.”

“No!” I hadn’t meant to shout, but that’s how it came out. “Until four weeks ago, Yerodin and I were the same age, and we did everything together. And now—” I gestured at my teenage body. “I have to go to high school, and everyone acts weird around me. Even Ghost. But she is always going to be my best friend.” I stared up at Wally’s face and tried to beat his iron scowl with one of my own. “So I’m not going home ’til I know she’s okay. Period.”

Wally’s frown smoothed a little. “I see. Uff-da.” Then he looked up and down the street again, as if Ghost might magically appear… which, given her ace power, she very well could. “Let’s go, then.”

“Follow me.” I turned to head down the sidewalk.

Then my wings began to unfurl. I tried to get them to collapse again, but it wasn’t easy. I wished they would just snuggle against my back the way they did when I was little. Now it was like they had a will of their own. For example, six days after my transformation, I got all excited playing Ocelot 9 solo, and I jumped up from the couch. At which point my head bumped the ceiling, because my wings had spread open and flapped without my even thinking about it.

So I started sneaking up to the roof to practice flying. Which got easier once I discovered I could flap up there from my bedroom window. And luckily, Mom hasn’t noticed the dent in the living-room ceiling.

So, yeah. Flying. That’s something. But as Wally and I headed out from the Carter School, all I knew was that we had a mission and that my big, pretty wings were trying to get in the way.

“Right behind you,” Wally said, and then his jaw clanged as the upper edge of my left wing whapped him.

I looked back and started to apologize, but he hadn’t even noticed. Tiny specks of rust were starting to appear on his forehead and at the corners of his mouth.

I picked up the pace and headed for the Tumbling Dice.

 

Ever since Mom and Wally saved me and Ghost from the PPA, we’ve been doing our best to become normal kids.

Well, okay. Like with me and Mom, “normal” isn’t an option.

But being kids should be. As in, not a discarded freak, and not a non-corporeal assassin. Just, you know… kids. Living the way kids are supposed to live.

For me and Ghost, in our new life in Jokertown, New York City, USA, playing games has been a huge part of that. Because that’s what American kids do, right?

Besides, it’s hella fun. And the most hella fun game of all is Ocelot 9. Which is what we were playing the day before I changed into a teenager.

“I call Baby Ocelot,” Yerodin said. She had a wicked grin on her face. We were sitting on the couch at my house.

“Oh, that’s so not fair!” I said with fake annoyance. She always dibbed Baby Ocelot. Usually, I just let her have it because she really liked winning.

“Watch out for my adorableness!” she cackled. You wouldn’t have thought that sound could come out of the mouth of such a little girl.

“That attack is totes o.p.!” I said with indignation. “Even Tulip Ralph says so!” The Adorable Attack could stun or enchant an enemy, and no matter which ocelot I was playing, Baby and its AA were hard to beat.

“Hey, I’ve won against you when you’ve played the Baby,” Ghost said. “And Ralph just likes teasing us. But I’m immune to it. Too bad you aren’t immune to the Adorable Attack!”

I loved trash talking with her. “Then bring it on, doomed Baby!”

I chose Ninja Ocelot, went stealth, and started sneaking around behind her. Then, just when I came out of stealth to wallop her, she spun and hit me with the AA. It took but a few Perfume Bolts for her to finish me off.

“Boom!” She raised her hand and opened it, pretending to drop a bomb.

I reached over and tickled her. “Next time I get Baby!” She giggled, then started tickling me, too.

Our tablets fell to the floor, and we kept at it until Ghost cried “Uncle.” Revenge was mine.

 

If Wally hadn’t been so worried, it might have been a nice walk. In late September, almost overnight, New York goes from smelling like melting tar and rotting garbage to crisp leaves and spiced cider. If Yerodin had been with me, we’d have been talking about what costumes we’d be wearing for Halloween.

But of course Wally didn’t notice the nice day. We went down four blocks past Jinka’s Juice, where Ghost and I buy our smoothies, and then I turned and headed three blocks west. And the farther we went, the worse the neighborhood got, which I hadn’t realized before. But now I did, because I could tell it was making Wally tense. And the more tense he got, the more his legs clanked.

“I can’t believe you and Yerodin have been skipping school,” he said.

My wings twitched. “It’s never hurt our grades,” I said. “So we’ve always figured it’s no big deal.”

Wally’s jaw made a grinding sound. “If it was no big deal,” he said, “you wouldn’t have kept it a secret from me and your mom.”

“Wally—” I said.

But Wally wasn’t finished. “And if you hadn’t started doing it at all, don’tchaknow, maybe Yerodin would have come home today instead of thinking it was okay to run around down here all by herself.” His shoulders slumped. “Gosh, she’s still just a little kid.”

And that’s when I started to cry.

 

Mom’s Diary

I tried not to cry, but when the judge said I was emancipated, it was horrible.

I don’t want to be emancipated. Not at fourteen. For one thing, it sounds like I was a slave or something. And I was never that. But I wish… I wish mommy and daddy hadn’t done what they did.

I worked whenever they said to. And it wasn’t fun most of the time. It was okay when I was a kid. But now they want me to be so skinny. I’m almost six feet tall and they’ve been trying to keep me at 115 pounds. I’m hungry all the time. I know a lot of the girls will eat Kleenex because it fills them up. But I tried it once and barfed.

They spent everything I made. I must be something horrible. Because why else would they treat me like that?

I guess I’m free now. But I feel more trapped than ever.

 

I turned my face away and managed to get control of myself. And Wally didn’t speak the rest of the way to the Tumbling Dice. I was glad of that, because if he did, I might start crying again. And I was too big for that now.

Ghost and I love the Tumbling Dice. They have a ginormous inventory of RPGs and board games. The shelves are loaded up to the ceiling. They have all the current D&D modules, of course, as well as all sorts of mainstream games and some really obscure stuff. (Seriously, who’s going to play an RPG where you’re an amoeba?) They even have a copy of The Game of Wild Cards where you go along hoping you don’t land on the Black Queen or Jokertown squares.

The owner is Tulip Ralph. Instead of hair, he has beautiful tulips growing out of his head, except in the winter when they go dormant. Then he has a head full of bulbs that look like gross warty growths.

But when Wally and I walked in, with the bell on the door making its ting sound, Ralph still had some pretty flowers left. They’re always the fancy kind, all ruffly with stripes. And they change color pretty much every day. Yesterday, they matched the orange, blue, and white of his checkered shirt. Which was untucked, as usual.

He’s never seemed to mind if Ghost and I hang out and watch his regulars play their games. Just so we’re quiet. There’s a back room set up for playing miniatures, and two tables for role-playing campaigns in the front room. At least one of those tables is always full, as it was when Wally and I came in.

“Hey, Ralph,” I said, stepping past the gamers to the scuffed black counter. I hadn’t been in since I’d changed, but everything still looked the same. The countertop was jammed with displays of collectable trading cards, with the super-rares in individual sleeves with hefty price tags. But Ocelot 9 was more fun, and cheap. “Have you seen Ghost?”

Ralph looked up from his book—a biography of Abraham Lincoln—and stared over his reading glasses. His tulips bobbed, and his eyes widened. “Who’s this in my store?” he asked in his usual gravelly voice. But he wasn’t asking me. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you must be Rustbelt. But what would Rustbelt be doing in my little dump?” He held out his hand. “I’m Tulip Ralph, by the way.”

“Aw, gosh, Mr. Tulip,” Wally said, giving Ralph’s hand a quick shake. “I’m looking for my daughter, Yerodin. This is her friend, Adesina. She might’ve looked different the last time you saw her.”

Ralph nodded. “Yeah, she was a little more compact.” He nodded toward my phone, which was jutting up from the pocket of my jean jacket. “But I recognize those Ocelot 9 stickers on her phone. That game is like crack for her and her friend.” He raised an eyebrow. “In fact, Yerodin was in here yesterday, hitting me up for a free Baby Ocelot notebook. First time she’s been here in weeks. I was surprised you weren’t with her, ‘Morpho Girl.’”

I felt a lump growing in my throat. “I wish I had been,” I said. “I wish we were here together right now.”

Ralph frowned. “Well, she was out on the sidewalk about an hour ago, slurpin’ one of those smoothies you girls always have. Thought she was waiting for you. But after a few minutes, she sort of stretched and yawned, and then left. I assumed she got tired of waiting, and decided to take advantage of my good nature another day.”

I glanced around. “That doesn’t sound like her. But she can go through walls, so maybe she popped in without you noticing.”

Ralph put down his book and took off his reading glasses. “I know what she can do. I’ve seen her zip into the back room when neither of you thought I did. You kids seem to think that just because I read books, I don’t pay attention.” He shook his head. “Punks.”

Wally’s yellow eyes widened. “Hey, fella, that’s my little girl and her friend you’re talking about!”

Tulip Ralph held up his hands. “Whoa, Rusty. ‘Punks’ is a term of affection. Like ‘knuckleheads’ for those guys over there.” He waved his hand toward the table of four role-players—a giraffe-necked joker guy, a bug-eyed joker guy with no nose at all, a nerdy-looking little nat guy, and a lizard-skinned young woman. They all shot Ralph the finger and continued their game without looking up.

“Hey, there’s a child here!” Wally said.

“Dude,” said the giraffe-necked joker, “this is the rough-and-tumble world of RPGing in Jokertown. Any kid who spends time in here has seen it all.”

Wally turned to me, aghast.

“He’s kidding, Wally,” I said, trying to give him my sweet-little-girl face. “Yerodin and I just watch the gamers play, and there’s no rough-and-tumble anything. And Tulip Ralph gets us cool Ocelot 9 stuff.”

“On account of I’m a sweetheart,” Ralph said.

Wally looked down at the checkerboard tiles on the floor. “Little kids. Running around town during school hours.” He shook his huge head. “Once I find my Yerodin, you betcha I’m never letting her out of my sight again.” He looked up. “So where else do you girls go?” He pointed a big, orange-flecked finger at me. “And if she isn’t there, I’m callin’ the police. And if they won’t do anything, I’ll call the Amazing Bubbles. Maybe a few other friends, too.” He closed one hand into a huge fist and smacked it into his palm. It sounded like a sledgehammer hitting an anvil. “We can turn Jokertown upside down if we have to, by golly.”

I stared at Wally. I’d never seen him like this. And I had no idea where to look for Yerodin next. Jinka’s Juice and the Tumbling Dice weren’t just our two main hangouts. They were our only hangouts.

Tulip Ralph picked up his book again. “Well, Mr. Rustbelt, before you give the neighborhood an atomic wedgie, maybe Adesina can log onto Ocelot 9 and check for Yerodin there.” He put his readers back on and looked at me over the tops. “You kids are almost never off that game, even when you’re watching the knuckleheads. You’re both on the Ocelot 9 teat.”

“Judas Priest!” Wally bellowed. “Watch your language!”

I snapped out of my stupor. “It’s okay, Wally,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. He was a lot less scary when he was yelling at someone who wasn’t me.

Then I pulled out my phone and opened my Ocelot 9 app. It automatically logged me, and sure enough, Ghost was on. I could have smacked myself in the head with both wings.

My hands trembled. I hoped Yerodin had calmed down and was ready to come home, because I knew she could avoid me and Wally for days if she wanted to. As well as Mom and every other ace in town. Despite what Wally thought, big physical powers wouldn’t be much use in finding a little Ghost.

I pulled up a chat window and nervously messaged her.

Morpho_Girl: Hey, found any new levels?

Ghost427: <cursor blinking>

Morpho_Girl: There’s a hidden treasure in the jungle temple. Want me to show you?

“What’s going on?” Wally leaned over my shoulder to watch, and I hunched to hide the screen. I mean, I knew he was upset, but privacy, doodle. A kid’s phone is her castle.

Morpho_Girl: Pls answer if ur there. Your dad’s super worried about u.

Ghost427: <cursor blinking>

Morpho_Girl: He’s starting to rust from anxiety.

Ghost427: He’s a big rusty dork.

I just about fell over. Ghost was answering me! Although calling Wally a “big rusty dork” didn’t sound like her.

I began thumbing my screen as fast as I could.

Morpho_Girl: Not! And we’ve been looking 4 u everywhere.

Ghost427: ?everywhere?

Morpho_Girl: U know, like the Tumb Dice. Where R U?

Ghost427: U R a dork 2!

And then she was gone.

I looked up at Wally. His metal skin was crinkling and speckling. “She won’t tell me anything,” I said. “And she sounds weird. I think she’s really mad at me.”

Wally shook his big, blocky head. “Oh, gosh, it’s not you.” His voice rasped like bad brakes. “The reason we had our dustup was because she wanted me to take her out of Carter and put her in high school. So you two could be in the same class again. But I said there was no way the schools would go for it, and that made her awful mad. She was flickering in and out of being solid. And yelling.”

Now Wally was crying.

The lump in my throat felt permanent. All of us who’d come back from the PPA were close to each other… but Ghost was my bff.

So now I knew why she was angry. It was because I had changed. And that meant we couldn’t be together anymore. Which was not something I would ever do on purpose.

But maybe… maybe she thought I had.

 

Mom’s Diary

The apartment is mine now, I guess. It’s pretty much empty except for some stuff in my room. They sold everything they could before they left.

And they took MY jewelry box! And most of that was just costume stuff. I think I maybe had a little gold chain in there, and that was it.

I’m sitting on the floor in the living room now. I can’t see the view because the balcony has a concrete wall and it’s right in front of me. I’d be out there, but the two outdoor wicker chairs are gone, too.

They’re my parents. How could they do this?

I wonder how long they’re going to survive without me paying the bills. Of course, they have whatever money of mine is left. So there’s that. For a while.

And I just now realized I can’t stay here. In this apartment, I mean. It costs too much. And I don’t have any new jobs booked. Turns out my agent really worked for Mommy and Daddy. And my court advocate is pretty much done with me now that the case is over.

So, no more high-rise city view for me. No more pretty rooms.

And next week is my birthday. I’ll be 15.

Yay me.

 

“Okay, then,” Wally said, wiping his eyes and his rust-streaked cheeks. Tiny orange flakes fell away. “Where do we look next?”

I considered. “Maybe to Jinka’s in case she went for another smoothie. If she was yawning like Ralph says, maybe she needed a sugar bump. Or we could wait to see if she comes back here. I mean, Ralph says she was outside, but she didn’t come in. And we always come in.”

“That’s sweet, kid,” Tulip Ralph said. “Of course, it’d be sweeter if you ever spent any money.”

The giraffe-necked joker made a trumpeting noise, and two of the other gamers chuckled. But the lizard-skinned lady shot out her tongue and smacked Giraffe Neck on the ear.

“Shhhhh,” she said. “Shhhtupid.”

Wally put his hands on either side of his head. “All I want is to find my little girl and bring her home.”

“Me, too,” I said. Outside, the shadows were already starting to get long. And I had the sudden panicked thought that if we didn’t find Ghost before dark, we might never see her again. So I made what Mom calls an executive decision. “Come on. We’ll go by Jinka’s and back toward Carter, and maybe we’ll spot her. Tulip Ralph can text me if she comes back here. He has my number for Ocelot 9 updates.” I looked at Ralph. “Okay?”

He shrugged. “Sure. What else have I got to do?”

Then, as I stepped toward the door, my phone vibrated. I took it from my jacket pocket and saw that I had another text message from Yerodin. Excited, I slid my thumb across the screen.

The world went gray, and I couldn’t catch my breath. It was worse than anything I could have imagined.

It was a photo of Ghost lying on a grimy mattress on a dirty concrete floor… unconscious. I recognized her orange Ocelot 9 T-shirt, her dark purple jeans, and her pink sneakers with the electric-green laces. Her ebony skin and braids were in stark contrast to the dingy fabric of the mattress.

Someone wearing a Golden Boy mask stood over her, flipping the bird to the camera the way the knuckleheads had flipped the bird to Tulip Ralph.

A text appeared after the photo.

We added somethin’ Xtra to her smoothie at Jinka’s. She don’t go thru walls so good now. She’s OK. But that can change.

Ghost hadn’t just run off. She had been kidnapped.

My legs went weak, and I thought I was going to hurl.

But I shut down that feeling as if I were shutting down a fire hydrant. Because that’s what Mom would do. At least she would have, before Kazakhstan.

“What’s wrong?” Wally asked.

I held out my phone. He took it, and it was tiny in his huge hands. I thought he’d crush it when those hands started shaking. “Oh, gosh,” he said. “Oh, gosh, no.”

I took the phone back. It vibrated again, and another text appeared.

U want her, ‘Morpho Girl?’ Come to Orchard and Stanton. Now. U alone. U get a cop, might be 1 of us anyway. But we C badges, so long Ghostie.

Also, we h8 Bubble baths. H8 them. Know Bubbles left for Panama this AM. Coz we know. But if she comes back and U get her—bye bye Ghost.

Just U. No cops. No suds. No Tin Man. Rusty shows up, we make Ghost a ghost.

And then a pic of me and Wally popped up. It showed us stepping into the Tumbling Dice. Whoever had taken it had been right across the street. It was hella creepy.

But I would have to shake that off. And I would have to get to Orchard and Stanton. Alone.

The “alone” part was going to be tricky. I knew if I told Wally what the deal was, he would never let me go by myself. Despite the kidnappers’ threats, he would probably call the cops. He might even try to get hold of Mom.

Yeah, Mom was in Panama. But she might come running back for this. In which case, either the kidnappers would kill Ghost right off the bat, or the current post-Kazakhstan version of the Amazing Bubbles might start blowing stuff up. Maybe including Ghost. After all, Mom had almost blown up me a few weeks before. Which wasn’t something Wally knew, and might not believe if I told him.

So I was going to have to do something I never would have done when I was little. I hoped my new teenage self would know how to do it right.

I was going to tell a huge, bald-faced lie to my best friend’s dad.

I stared down at my phone. “They’re sending demands,” I said.

Wally held out a massive, rusty hand. “Let me see!”

I shook my head. “No, they say we have to split up right away, and that I have to relay instructions to you. I guess they think that’ll make them harder to track down.”

Wally pulled his own phone from a back pocket. “The heck with that! I’m gonna call the police!”

I grabbed his flaking wrist. “Wally, the kidnappers are watching us, and they claim that some of them are cops.” That much, at least, was true. “And if we do anything that makes them nervous, they’ll—” I hesitated. “You know.”

Wally slumped and shuddered. Tulip Ralph and the gamers all stared. The mighty Rustbelt looked as if he were about to crumble.

I looked back down at my phone. “They want me to stay here, and they want you to go to the newsstand beside the subway stop at Union Square. When they’re sure you’re alone, they’ll have me relay a text with further orders.”

Wally’s head snapped up. “Union Square! That’s something like fifteen blocks away!”

Tulip Ralph made a throat-clearing noise. “Then you should get going, Mr. Rustbelt. And don’t count on catching a cab in this neighborhood. There’s a subway stop two blocks east, but you’ll probably go faster on foot. I’ll keep an eye on Miss Adesina.”

Wally looked back and forth between me, Ralph, and the door. He was breathing hard. And I hated myself. But I had to do what I had to do.

“Go!” I said.

Wally gave a sudden nod and lumbered to the door. The whole shop shook. “I’ll text you when I get there, Adesina,” he said. “And we’ll do whatever we have to do for Yerodin!”

I held back tears. “Yes. We will.”

Then Wally flung open the door and barreled into the street. The door closed with a ting of the bell, and I watched Wally through the window until he disappeared.

“Wow,” the giraffe-necked joker said. “That was intense.” The lizard-skinned lady whapped him with her tongue again.

I turned toward Tulip Ralph. “I just lied to one of the nicest people on earth.”

Ralph adjusted his glasses. “I know. I can tell when someone’s gaming. But sometimes, that’s the only way to get anywhere.” He jerked his head toward the curtained doorway behind him. “So if there’s anywhere you need to get, I suggest going through the back room into the alley.”

I started around the counter. “Thanks, Ralph.”

“Don’t mention it. And listen, kid—text me if I can help. I’m a pretty good gamer myself, you know.”

The kidnappers had said I had to do this by myself or Ghost would die. So I didn’t think there was any way Tulip Ralph could help. But as I pushed through the Tumbling Dice’s back door, I tried to take comfort in the fact that he wanted to.

It made me feel just a little less alone.

 

Mom’s Diary

I didn’t mean to kill him.

I was about to give him my purse. That’s how it works. They pull a weapon and you give them your money.

But he shot me. In the chest.

It hurt. It hurt worse than anything. I heard a crack and then, nothing.

Then I felt good. Really good. There was a second when it felt like my belly pooched out a little, and then the bubble shot out of my hand. It hit him in his lower left side, and bright red blood bloomed on his dirty camo-green sweatshirt.

I ran home. I guess. I mean, I know I did, but I don’t remember it. Thank God Mom and Dad don’t live with me anymore. They’ve been gone two years now, and I know what they’d do if they found out my card had turned. Probably sell tickets.

I yanked off my sweaty blouse to see if I was bleeding. But I wasn’t. I had a dollop of blood on my chest, but when I wiped it away, there wasn’t anything there. No bullet hole, no nothing. Just my own smooth pinkish-white skin.

Which seemed to be covering more of me than there was before.

It almost looked like I was getting fat.

 

I stood on the southwest corner of Stanton and Orchard as the sun dropped behind the buildings. The jokers who passed by looked me over as if they thought I was selling something, and I felt a jolt of nerves every time. Was this one of the kidnappers? Were they just going to let me stand here while they did who knows what to Ghost?

See, I sort of knew what had happened to Aunt Joey that made her card turn. And I wanted to yark when I thought about something like that happening to Yerodin.

After four or five minutes, two men—one all wiry and twitchy, the other thickset with lumpy muscles—dropped from the bottom of a fire escape across Orchard. Almost every building along Orchard has a fire escape bolted to its facade, so the men had been invisible within the shadows of the zigzagging metal stairs.

As they crossed the street, I saw that both were wearing masks that looked like Mom. Seriously. They were even wearing long, braided, platinum-blond wigs. It was just… totes creepy.

Then I remembered that the kidnapper in the photo with an unconscious Ghost had been wearing a mask, too. Of Golden Boy.

And then I realized who had Yerodin: the Werewolves.

Mom had broken up a fight between the Werewolves and the Demon Princes several years back, and she had said how weird it was that a gang called the Werewolves always wore masks… but that the masks almost never depicted, you know, werewolves.

My stomach turned, and my palms got sticky. The Werewolves had been around for a long time, and they were bad news. They had started out as your basic street gang, like, before Mom was born. But now they were up in all kinds of nasty business. Everything from mugging to embezzlement to gambling on cockroach races. And the stories about them involved payoffs to politicians and police. No wonder they’d said that any cops we called might be theirs.

The two Werewolves in the Amazing Bubbles masks stopped a foot away from me and stared. Their eyes were watery and bloodshot behind the holes in their masks. “Sorry to make you wait,” the one on the left said. “We hadda be sure you were alone.”

“Well, I am,” I said. “So where’s… where’s my friend?” My voice trembled, and I was ashamed I couldn’t stay calmer. “Is she okay?”

The one on the left, the muscular one, spoke again. “Aw, she’s fine. Fuhgeddabouddit.” He had a deep voice with a thick accent. Brooklyn. So I thought of him as “Brooksie.” That made him less intimidating, somehow.

“She’d better be.” I let my wings unfurl. They stretched across the whole breadth of the sidewalk. And they made me feel bigger. Stronger.

The twitchy Werewolf on the right laughed. It was a high-pitched chortle that set my teeth on edge. I decided to call him “Laughing Boy.”

“Why is that funny, Laughing Boy?” I asked in my snottiest tone. And I knew it might be super dumb for me to talk to him that way. But these… these poop heads had Ghost. So what I really wanted to say was, “Hey, poop head, give me back my friend before I stomp you into tomorrow.”

“It’s funny,” Laughing Boy said, “because those pretty wings are the only things that’ll keep your friend alive.” And then he chortled again.

I wasn’t sure just how hard I could hit him with the edges of my wings, but I sure wanted to find out. They jerked toward Laughing Boy’s head.

“Put those things away,” Brooksie said. “But don’t worry, you’ll need ’em soon enough.”

I glared at them both, but I folded my wings. For once, they obeyed. “What do you want?” I asked, crossing my arms.

“Well,” Brooksie said. “What we want are some special services from ‘Morpho Girl.’”

Laughing Boy snickered. “Yeah, yeah. ‘Special services.’” I could tell he was grinning behind his mask. “Like from a cute little butterfly.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

 

Mom’s Diary

I don’t know why I’m auditioning for American Hero. I mean, I’m no hero. But I guess I’d like to be one. It has to be better than being a model.

I know I’ve been lucky. The Cover Girl contract made me a lot of money. And I started getting Paris and New York runway again. I look younger than I am and they always like that. Plus I can make myself just about any size without having to diet. I just bubble the fat away and I look skinny again. And then I can jump out a window and get fat again. And it feels so good.

I don’t remember when I’ve ever felt like I do when I use my power. I tried cocaine once, but it made me jittery as hell, so I never used it again. Same thing with pot—made me eat everything in the house—which wasn’t much—and then I fell asleep for eleven hours. And all those other drugs—I don’t know why anyone does them. But when I get hit and get fat, it feels wonderful.

And the bubbles, well, I’m still figuring them out. But it feels really good when I make them, too.

No. Better than good.

Amazing.

 

“Follow us, sweetie pie,” Laughing Boy said. Then he chortled, of course. He was totes gross and lacking with the charm. He and Brooksie turned onto Stanton, and I had to go along.

They walked half a block, then ducked down an alley. I looked around, but no one was paying any attention to us.

We went down a few more alleys, turning here and there as if Laughing Boy and Brooksie wanted to throw off anyone who was following. Finally, we ended up on Rivington between Ludlow and Essex, at the front door of the old twenty-story Hotel on Rivington.

Or what was left of it. It had once been banging. But now there were a lot of broken-out windows—not a good look for a place that’s mostly glass to begin with—and stupid Devil-worship junk painted on everything that remained. 666 and whatnot. There was a pentagram carved on the door where the glass had been replaced with plywood. Plus a crude painting of some kind of bloody goat’s head.

Does anybody find that stuff scary? Now, what had happened in Kazakhstan—those things that had come out of some other place and time, those things that had driven Mom insane and me all cocoony—that stuff had been scary. A pentagram and a bad drawing of a goat didn’t even snuggle up close to it.

Brooksie turned toward me. “Okay, we’re here. So behave yourself. Any quick moves, any wing flapping, any crap, and your friend’s gonna pay. Understand?”

I nodded. “I’ll behave. But before I’ll do whatever it is you want, you need to prove that Yerodin’s okay.”

“Oh, we will,” Laughing Boy said. “But you need to remember that we ain’t on your schedule. You’re on ours.”

Then he chortled. Again. It was really starting to get old.

 

Mom’s Diary

I can’t believe it! I’m on American Hero!

I got as fat as I could before I auditioned. I also used wash-out black hair dye to hide my platinum hair. It took about five cans because my hair is so long. I hope they’ll let me bring more with me.

But even if my hair goes back to blonde, I’ll bet no one will know it’s the famous model Michelle Pond. Even though my eyes, nose, and mouth are all the same. People think fat girls are ugly, no matter what their faces and hair look like.

My power, however, is cool and visual. They’re all about the visual on TV. And maybe people can feel a little sorry for the fat girl while they’re at it, because that’s what people do. Or hate on her, because that’s what people do, too.

But for once, I want something in my life to be about something besides my looks. If it’s about how my bubbles look, though, that’s another matter.

We’ve been divided into different “suits.” I’m on the Diamonds team. There’s a girl I like called Tiffani. Unfortunately, I don’t think she’s gay. She sure is friendly, though. And pretty, too.

Sorry, diary, I’m not taking you along. They go through everything, and I don’t want them figuring out who I am.

All they need to know, for now, is that I’m the Amazing Bubbles.

And for now, that’s all I need to be.

 

The smell inside the hotel was awesome. Like someone had decided to use puke-scented air freshener. I gagged.

“Ain’t you prissy,” Brooksie said. He waved his hand, gesturing at the lobby. Trash littered the floor. There were stains on the carpet where it wasn’t torn up. The wallpaper was peeling, and an impressive amount of graffiti covered everything. “But you try keepin’ a place like this clean for thirty years. When you got other priorities.”

“Could you both please take off those masks?” I asked. Looking at the bad latex renderings of Mom was even worse than the smell. “They’re really distracting.”

Laughing Boy giggled. “Sorry, honey bucket. They’re to remind you not to try to involve Mommy Dearest.”

Brooksie pointed at me. “Besides, you ain’t in a position to make requests. You’re here to do what we say. And if you don’t, little Yerodin is dead. So I’d get over being distracted, if I were you. Capiche?”

“For all I know, she’s dead already.” The hot lead in my tummy turned cold at the thought.

Brooksie snapped his fingers, and Laughing Boy grabbed my arm. He marched me to a doorway behind the old registration desk and pulled me into a stairwell. Then he dragged me up to the second-floor landing.

And there, lying on her side on the stained mattress, lit by the sickly glow of fluorescent bulbs, was Ghost. She was breathing, but otherwise still. Her eyes and her mouth were half-open, and she was drooling a little. I didn’t know how they had managed to slip something into her smoothie—maybe one of them had gotten a job at Jinka’s—but I did know I had to get her away from them.

Or maybe, if I could just wake her up, she could vanish. Maybe even slit a few Werewolf throats, if she could take a knife from one of them. The Werewolves knew she could go non-corporeal, but they didn’t seem to be aware that she had been an assassin.

I started toward her, but Laughing Boy pulled me back. “Nope nope.” He gave a little snicker. “Just looksees.”

Bile rose in my throat. Okay, so I didn’t really want Ghost to turn into a killer again. It looked like she was too drugged to wake up anyway.

But I had been hoping I might be able to use my newfound skills to save her. I had let myself imagine that if the Werewolves were holding Yerodin somewhere with a window, I could scoop her up, protect her with my wings, plunge through the glass—and fly away. In reality, though, we were in a windowless concrete stairwell. Besides which, there were two Werewolves right next to Ghost, and the ratty sneakers of at least one more a few steps up the next flight. Laughing Boy was right beside me, and Brooksie was right behind. There was no way for me to get to Ghost, even if there had been a window to plunge through.

My newfound skills were useless.

“Now you see that we’re wolves of our word,” Brooksie said. “So here’s what you gotta do.”

 

Mom’s Diary

I’ve been voted off American Hero. And, of course, once I washed the black spray-on dye out of my hair and shrank down to my modeling size again, then who I really was hit the media. Like in blogs, and on Twitter, and then the TV picked it up, too. You’d think they’d have something better to do than talk about me.

But I’m not sure I care about all that. There’s something going down in Egypt. And a bunch of us aces are getting together to go there and help out.

This isn’t just modeling or TV anymore. This is something bigger.

This is something real.

So I’m going to try to be a real hero.

 

“It’s simple,” Brooksie said. “Once the sun sets, real soon now, you’ll fly out over the harbor. Then you’ll land on the deck of a container ship called the Shanghai Princess. It’s a big boat with shit-tons of things that look like semitruck trailers.”

I tried not to roll my eyes. “I know what a container ship is.”

“Okay, then. There’s somethin’… no, somebody we want you to pick up from this one.”

I interrupted. “Wait a minute. You want me to pick up a person? From a ship in the middle of the harbor? Are you nuts?”

Brooksie shrugged. “Maybe. But the guy you’re gonna pick up has to be taken off and snuck into Manhattan. And we can’t use a boat, ’cause it’d be stopped by the harbor cops. So, long story short, we told him we knew about a teenage girl who can fly.” Brooksie paused. “He dug that. He likes teenage girls.”

Laughing Boy started laughing like a hyena. “Especially teenage joker girls! He’s gonna make us a fortune!”

It was as if an electric jolt stiffened every muscle in my body. Now I knew what this was about. The Werewolves were smuggling in a man who was going to turn joker girls into—it was beyond gross—sex slaves. He was going to hurt them the way Aunt Joey had been hurt.

And the Werewolves wanted me to fly him into the city for them. So they had drugged and kidnapped my best friend to get me to do it.

I hadn’t thought I could hate them any more than I already did. But I had been wrong. Now I wished Ghost would wake up and slit their throats.

Brooksie looked at Laughing Boy. “Watch your mouth,” he said. “We’re only tellin’ Sunshine here as much as she needs to know.” He turned back to me. “The Shanghai Princess is bound for the Red Hook terminal in Brooklyn, but our guy needs to get off before it docks. Seeing as how there might be some federal types there, waitin’ for him.”

Laughing Boy chortled. “On account of he’s banned from the country!”

Brooksie lifted a hand as if to smack Laughing Boy, then gave a grunt and dropped it. “Lucky for us, we got a Werewolf in the harbor pilots association. He took control of the Shanghai Princess once it reached the Narrows a couple hours ago, and in a few minutes he’ll stop it dead in the water about a quarter mile south of Governors Island. He’ll say he had to reverse engines to avoid plowin’ into a kayak or somethin’. Then all you gotta do is pick up a guy who’ll be waitin’ near the bow. He’s a white guy, but he might have dark stuff smeared on his face. He’ll be wearing a dark hoodie, too. So let’s call him ‘Mr. Hoodie.’”

That set Laughing Boy off on another fit. “‘Mr. Hoodie!’ I like that!”

Brooksie shook his head, and his blond braid bounced. “It goes like this. You touch down on deck, and Mr. Hoodie signals you with a flashlight. When you approach, he’ll ask if you want to party. If he don’t ask that, he ain’t our guy. You have your cell phone?”

My already-stiff muscles tensed still more. I had silenced my phone so it wouldn’t buzz if Wally texted me from Union Square. But I needed to be able to contact him when I had a chance, and that couldn’t happen if Brooksie took my phone. “Jeez, of course. I always do.”

To my relief, Brooksie just nodded. “Good. Mr. Hoodie ain’t gonna have a phone that’ll work here, so we’re gonna use yours to make sure he’s the real deal. When he asks if you want to party, you take his picture and send it to Miss Ghost’s phone, which is in my pocket. Then, if we say it’s okay, hand your phone over to him. He’ll type in a code, and if it’s right, we’ll send a smiley face, which he’ll show you. And then he gets to keep your phone.”

“Hey!” I protested.

Brooksie waved his hand. “Ah, fuhgeddabouddit. Your famous fat mommy’ll buy you a new one. Now, after you see the smiley face, you let Mr. Hoodie grab your hands or your hair or whatever, and you fly him here to the roof of the hotel. It’ll be dark, so we won’t be able to have eyes on you until you get close—which is sorta the idea, since we don’t want you spotted. But we’re gonna give you exactly thirty minutes from the time we send the smiley face to the time when you need to have Mr. Hoodie here. If you don’t show up, or you show up late, or you show up without our guy, you know what that means for Miss Yerodin. Yeah?”

I nodded. It was all I could do.

“Terrific. So, you land him on the roof, where we’ll be waiting with your pal. You hand over Mr. Hoodie, we hand over little Ghost, and that’s it. You and Ghostie fly home. And if you never say nothin’ to nobody about this, you never hear from us again. Guaranteed.”

I stared at Brooksie and Laughing Boy, utterly monkeyed. I knew what a guarantee from the Werewolves was worth. And I also knew it didn’t matter, because what Brooksie had described was impossible.

“I—I can’t do it,” I sputtered. “I’ve never carried extra weight when I’ve flown. And I’ve never flown as far as you’re asking, either.”

Laughing Boy chortled. “First of all, we ain’t asking. You want Little Missy there to be playin’ with cartoon ocelots tomorrow instead of lyin’ on a slab? Then this is what you gotta do. And the distance ain’t so bad. I figure three and one-quarter miles, straight line from here to the ship. Hell, you can even take off from Battery Park for the first leg. That cuts off almost two miles.”

Brooksie interjected. “But if you do that, you’ll have to run to the park from here, ’cause time’s gonna be tight. The ship can’t stay dead in the water too long without the harbor cops snoopin’. So when we say move, you gotta move.”

They didn’t seem to understand the problem. “Look, I really don’t think I’m physically able to do this! What if I crash into the water and your guy and I drown?”

Laughing Boy waggled a finger. “Then you’ll be dead. And Miss Ghostie will be, too.”

Brooksie gave a sigh that made a whoof sound inside his mask. “Look, we’ve been watchin’ you practice. Didja think after what your mama did to us that we wouldn’t be keepin’ eyes on both of youse? Some days, you’ve done enough flights from your roof to add up to at least three miles.”

My wings trembled. “But what you’re talking about now is in the dark, over water. And on the way back, I’m supposed to carry someone who weighs—do you even know how much he weighs?”

“We’ve only seen pictures,” Brooksie said. “But he ain’t a tubbo. He’s maybe a buck eighty-five.”

I was dizzy now, and I almost sat down on the steps. They wanted me to carry a hundred and eighty-five pounds. Plus my own weight. For more than three miles. In the dark, over New York Harbor and Lower Manhattan. After having just flown out into the harbor, also in the dark.

There was no way. There was just no way. These yabbos were in insane clown land. It was cray-cray.

I looked at Yerodin again.

And I knew I had to try.

 

Mom’s Diary

We went to Egypt to help, and all we did was kill people. I mean, I guess we did the right thing, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.

I blew up a helicopter. I killed people.

This isn’t what I thought a hero would be.

But the U.N. thinks what I did was good. Good enough that they want me to keep doing the “hero” thing. They’ve asked, and I’ve joined the Committee on Extraordinary Interventions. We’re supposed to be sent to places where people like me are needed. People with ace powers.

I just hope that next time I’ll do better.

But I’m not so sure.

 

I took off from Battery Park, rose to about two hundred feet, and started hitting pockets of cold air. They made me drop suddenly each time, and it felt like my stomach was trying to crawl out of my throat. But I kept flying.

I was afraid I might not be able to figure out which ship was the Shanghai Princess, because it was crazy dark out over the water despite the surrounding city lights and the ones on the boats and ships. But then I saw it. It was the most massive vessel in the harbor, and it was the only one stopped dead.

I began circling downward, using the air currents to reduce speed and rest my wings. I was starting to get the hang of riding the wind. And that was kewl with awesome sauce, despite the situation. But coasting only helped a little, and my shoulder muscles were already starting to get tired. Which was considerably less kewl, with zero sauce.

Even so, I managed a pretty good landing, missing the containers and touching down on deck close to the bow. I went down to one knee, but didn’t take a tumble.

But I didn’t have time to congratulate myself. A beefy guy wearing a hoodie stood about fifteen feet away, in front of a huge stack of containers. He had a heavy beard, and sure enough, there was black stuff smeared on the rest of his face. But instead of making him less visible, it had the effect of making him look pop-eyed. And the way he stared at me made me feel as if there were ants crawling over my skin.

“You want party?” he asked in a thick Russian accent. Then he gave me a gross smile and looked me up and down.

“Sure, douche,” I replied. I pulled out my phone and took a picture of him. And at that moment, the ship gave a shudder and, very slowly, started moving.

I zapped the photo to Ghost’s phone. Meanwhile, “Mr. Hoodie” gave me that gross smile again. “You are, ah, very beautiful.” Bee-ah-yew-tee-full.

My phone buzzed: It’s him. You know what to do.

I held out my phone. His fingers brushed mine as he took it. I yanked my hand back and scrubbed it hard on my jeans.

He tapped the screen, showed me the smiley-face response, and then shoved my phone into the back pocket of his jeans. It felt as if he’d stolen a piece of my soul.

“We go now,” he said, stepping toward me and opening his arms. “For which we embrace, eh?”

I gave a quick flap of my wings and shot up above him. “I don’t know what they told you,” I said, “but I’ve never carried anyone. So it would be hella stupid of you to try to get handsy with me. I might dip too low, and that would end badly for both of us.” It occurred to me that I sounded a little like Mom just then. Totes fearless.

Of course, unlike Mom, I was faking it.

“End badly for Ghost friend, too,” he said.

Which I knew. “So I guess we’d both better behave.”

He zipped his hoodie. “I will try to resist your charms,” he said. “But Werewolves did not say you would be so… perfect.”

I tried to think of something I could do right then to make him suffer for ever messing with any joker kids. But I had nothing. At least, nothing that wouldn’t put Yerodin in worse danger. So I had to roll with it.

For now.

“Grab my ankles,” I said. “And nowhere else.”

A look of rage slid across Mr. Hoodie’s face. Then it was covered by a Velveeta smile. But I knew what was under there.

He reached up and seized my ankles, and I tried to fly upward. But I just kept flapping and flapping, and nothing happened. Except that every muscle in my shoulders and back felt as if it were shredding. So maybe I was just too tired, and the Russian was just too heavy.

A knife-edged slice of cold slid through my tummy. I had texted Wally as I had run down to Battery Park, and had also sent a few “You’d better not be hurting her!” texts to Ghost’s phone at the same time in case any Werewolves were watching me. After I’d given Wally the short version of what was really going on, we had come up with a quick plan. But the whole thing depended on me being able to pick up and carry Wally once I made it back to shore. And how could I pick up an extra-large-with-fries metal dude if I couldn’t even get Mr. Hoodie aloft?

But I had to. I had to fly the Russian from the Shanghai Princess to Battery Park, and then fly Wally to the Hotel on Rivington—where, we hoped, the Werewolves would think that Wally was Mr. Hoodie just long enough for me to drop him on them.

I grunted and strained toward the sky. Sweat started rolling down my back, and the cold knife-edge in my gut turned to hot nausea.

And we still didn’t move.

I looked down then and saw Mr. Hoodie grinning. He had spread his feet and crouched to brace himself, deliberately holding me back.

“Come on,” he snarled. “What is holdup, smartass joker girl?”

He was showing me he still had all the power. Which made me furious. And that, in turn, made me feel… stronger.

You’re the holdup, you knob!” I yelled. “If you want to get off this tub, stop pulling me down! The Werewolves expect us in thirty minutes, and if we don’t make it, I promise we’re both gonna pay for it!”

The Russian gave a slimy chuckle, and he stood up straight and brought his feet together. “Okay, okay,” he said. “We go now, eh?”

Then a blast of wind pushed me sideways, and I had to flap furiously to stabilize. The ship was starting to make some headway, and we needed to zoom.

Slow down, doodle, I thought. You can do this. You can do it for Ghost.

Be a hero, dammit.

Like Mom.

I squeezed my eyes shut and gave one hard flap of my wings, the fiercest I could muster. My shoulders would have screamed out loud if they could.

And we rose. Just a few feet, at first, and my wings trembled with the effort. But I got Mr. Hoodie into the air.

I didn’t have time to celebrate, though. I had to get some altitude or we’d collide with the nearest stack of containers. We were in danger of being squished in a super smushed kind of way. So I forced more fierce flaps from my muscles, and I climbed higher. And higher.

The sky had become the color of a bruised plum, and the water in the harbor was almost black. Mr. Hoodie laughed like he was having fun, and he gripped my ankles even tighter. It really hurt. As in, I’m-going-to-kick-you-away-and-drop-you-into-the-harbor-you-hairy-snot-rag. But I couldn’t do that, no matter how much I wanted to.

We cleared the containers, barely. And now I had to make it to Battery Park. The cover of night was going to help me and Wally deal with the Russian and stay hidden from any snooping Werewolves, especially since Wally was going to knock out some of the park’s sidewalk lamps. But first I had to get my cargo to shore. My shoulders were burning, and my breath was like fire in my lungs.

“Move it, joker girlie,” Mr. Hoodie said. He gave my ankles another hard squeeze, and I winced. “Is too bad Werewolves have promised to let you go. I could do much with you.”

A burst of rage shot through me. And it made me fly higher and faster than I ever would have thought I could.

My wings were shaking, but I didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was saving Ghost… and making sure this gross creeper got everything he really, really deserved.

 

It felt as if we had been flying for hours, but I knew it had been less than fifteen minutes. I sure hoped so, anyway.

My wings were almost numb now, and my shoulders hurt so much that I didn’t remember what it had felt like when they hadn’t hurt. And disgusting-douchebag Russian was like a big bag of rocks.

As we approached Battery Park, I started heading downward. Mr. Hoodie didn’t notice at first because he was too busy making comments like: “You are just what clients want. Young, nice tits, enough joker to tickle pervert fancy. Wings and skin like shiny leather. Sexy slits in shirt for extra little legs. Are you joker in other places, too? That helps price, you know.”

I wanted to kick him in the scrod. Just, ugh. He was hyper vile. And I knew exactly where I wanted to plant General Tiny Peen: straight into the iron railing on the bay side of the park.

A light mist had begun to fall, but it felt good on my burning shoulder muscles. And the floodlights illuminating the circular wall of Castle Clinton gave off a fuzzy glow that helped guide me. I was aiming for the sidewalk and trees just to the southeast.

I let the Russian’s weight pull me down, and we began moving to shore fast. Really fast. Mr. Hoodie finally twigged to the fact that things weren’t going as he’d thought they would. “What is happening?” he demanded. “This does not look like hotel! I think I call Werewolves!” But as long as he had to hold my ankles, I didn’t think he’d be using my phone to call the Werewolves or anyone else.

Then his ankles slammed into the railing. He didn’t let go of me right away, so the collision twisted me around and sent me skidding across the sidewalk on my wings.

But like I’ve said, my wings are tough. Captain Craptastic, on the other hand, smacked the wet sidewalk hard, and his hoodie wasn’t much protection. That was when he finally let go. “Filthy joker bitch!” the Russian howled. Then he tried to stand up, but fell again and shrieked. His ankles might have been broken. I sure hoped so, anyway.

I picked myself up and kicked Butt Monkey in the knee as hard as I could. That made him shriek, which was nice. There was just enough light for me to see the shocked look on his ugly face. And that his mouth was bleeding.

Then Wally came running from a clump of trees, grabbed Fuck Face (Aunt Joey has really rubbed off on me) by the hoodie, and started dragging him off the sidewalk. Wally was now wearing a dark hoodie himself, ready for the next part of our plan.

But before Wally could reach the trees again, a gravelly voice called from farther down the sidewalk.

“Mr. Rustbelt,” it said. “You can drop that piece of garbage. We’ll take care of the side quest, and you and Miss Adesina can finish the main mission.”

I turned toward the voice and saw five darkened figures, backlit by a single unbroken lamp, approaching through the mist. They were the only other people in this darkened part of the park.

“I’m glad you made it,” I said. “But I didn’t know you were bringing company.”

Wally picked up the Russian by the hood and held him off the ground, dangling and flailing. He stepped closer to me and peered toward the approaching figures. “Do I need to do something about them, Adesina?”

I shook my head and plucked my cell phone from Mr. Hoodie’s back pocket. “No, Wally. You aren’t the only person I texted before I flew to the ship.”

The lead figure of the five stopped a few yards away, shook drops of water from the flowers on his head, and then took off his glasses and wiped them with the tail of his checkered shirt.

“Tulip Ralph!” Wally exclaimed.

Ralph nodded. “Hope you don’t mind that I let these knuckleheads come along. But when I told ’em the game you two were running, they wanted in.”

The giraffe-necked guy came up on Ralph’s right, and the lizard-skinned lady came up on his left. The bug-eyed guy and the nerdy nat joined them.

“Is that the dirtball who sells joker kids?” the giraffe-necked guy asked.

The dangling Russian spat a bloody gob at him. “Don’t worry, big-nose,” he said. “You and lizard bitch would not bring enough money to be worth trouble.”

The lizard-lady hissed. “Oh, yessss,” she said. “That’sss him.”

Ralph put on his glasses. “Seriously, Mr. Rustbelt,” he said. “You and Miss Adesina can go. As a Jokertown businessman, I know which cops are honest. So I’ll make a call, and the knuckleheads and I can, uh… look after this person until they get here.”

“Gosh, thank you!” Wally said. “I was gonna tie him up, but I lost my rope when I was busting out lights.” He chucked Mr. Hoodie to the sidewalk at Ralph’s feet, and the Russian lay there like a discarded, filthy rag.

Ralph cleared his throat, and his four knuckleheads grabbed Mr. Hoodie and dragged him toward the trees. The Russian started to scream, but then the nerdy nat produced a roll of duct tape. So Corporal Dingus was quiet by the time they got him out of sight.

“I owe you one, Ralph,” I said.

Tulip Ralph shrugged. “You and Miss Yerodin come into the Dice as soon as you can, and we’ll call it even.” He started for the trees, then looked back at us. “You punks kick some ass, okay?” He vanished into the foliage.

I checked the time on my phone against the time stamp on the smiley face. We had thirteen minutes.

“We gotta go, Wally,” I said, sliding my phone into my jacket pocket. “You ready?”

He gave a rust-raspy nod. “I am if you are.”

Then I had to swallow hard. “I am. But Wally, I’m—I’m sorry I had to trick you.”

Wally’s eyes grew wide. “Aw, geez, there’ll be time for that stuff later. We have to get my daughter!”

So I fluttered into the air so he could grab my ankles the way the Russian had. I’d struggled flying with that Butt Monkey, and he weighed a lot less than Wally. Even so, I was pretty sure I could get Wally aloft—but could I get him high enough and keep him there long enough? And fly fast enough?

I mean, I was tired.

Wally grasped my ankles. His hands were bigger than Mr. Hoodie’s, and they made a slight clang as his fingers clasped. I could tell he was trying to be gentle. But still, hey, metal hands. Owie.

I flapped my wings, and nothing happened. Again. It was the same as when I’d tried to get the Butt Monkey up into the air, only worse. This time, I knew my passenger wasn’t messing with me.

But one way or another, we had to go. So I gave a grunt and flapped my wings as hard as I could. I swear I felt something pop, but we went up about five feet. Then every flap took us a little higher until, at last, we rose above the trees.

And ever so slowly at first, but gaining altitude and velocity with each flap, I began flying us over the park, and then over the streets, toward the Hotel on Rivington.

“You got this, Morpho Girl!” Wally cried. “You betcha!”

I gritted my teeth and strained.

Hang on, Ghost, I thought. We’re coming.

 

Mom’s Diary

I guess I might become a hero after all.

When Drake couldn’t control his power, I absorbed the massive explosion and went into a coma. I saved New Orleans from being destroyed.

I’m out of the coma now, but when I was unconscious, I dreamed about a lot of weird stuff. I dreamed about a little girl.

Her name is Adesina.

 

Time slows down when everything hurts. With each flap of my wings, my muscles screamed a little more. My legs turned numb from Wally’s weight. Breathing was torture.

When I went into my cocoon as a little girl, it was because I was afraid and in pain. But now, I couldn’t hide in a cocoon. I had to keep moving. And I had no way of knowing if I was moving fast enough.

Then, through the pounding in my head, I heard Wally shout.

“There it is!” he cried. “Half a block! Six Werewolves on the west side of the roof. And oh, gosh, a Werewolf with Yerodin on the other side!”

I blinked to clear my eyes of mist and tears. We were about thirty feet higher than the roof of the Hotel on Rivington, which was illuminated by floodlights. Near the eastern edge, several yards from a clump of Werewolves, Ghost was lying unconscious on the tarred gravel. She was guarded by a Werewolf in a Golden Boy mask.

With what felt like the last of my energy, I put on all the speed I could muster. But I didn’t let myself descend. Not yet. I didn’t want the Werewolves to see that Wally wasn’t the Russian until it was too late.

“Wally,” I rasped. “I’m going to drop you on the one beside Ghost! You throw him at the others and hold them off so I can pick her up. Then I’ll hover so you can grab hold again, and I’ll fly us all out of here.”

“Oh gee, no!” he replied. “If you try that, one of them might grab you first.” Then he gave a grim chuckle. It didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard from him. “Besides, I need to stay long enough to give these boys something to remember me by. You just fly Yerodin away from here and meet me at our apartment, okey dokey?”

And now we were less than a quarter block away, so there was no more time to discuss it. “Here we go, then!” I yelled. “Like, gravity isn’t just a good idea—it’s the law!”

I went into a dive, and we came in hella fast. We were only ten feet over the cluster of six Werewolves when we shot across them and streaked toward the one in the Golden Boy mask.

“Shit!” Golden Boy yelled. He had seen that Wally was not the Russian. But it was too late. Wally let go of me, dropped like the mother of all rusty bombs, and crashed down on him. They hit the gravel two feet from where Ghost lay, and it sounded like every pot and pan in Williams Sonoma falling to the floor all at once.

With Wally suddenly gone, I bounced up another ten feet, and that wiped out my forward momentum. I spun in the air, managed to stabilize, and found myself hovering.

Wally leaped to his feet, grabbed the flattened Golden Boy Werewolf, and flung him at the six who had now started toward them. Golden Boy hit two, and they went down. The others all stopped where they were.

Wally’s hoodie and shirt had ripped apart, and anyone else’s skin would have been shredded. But not his. If anything, he looked shinier and stronger. Some of the day’s rust had been scraped away.

He charged the cluster. But then five more Werewolves surged out of the roof exit behind them. And the three who had gone down were getting up.

Wally stopped four yards short of the twelve Werewolves. He balled his right hand into a fist, then punched it into his open left hand. There was that sledgehammer-hitting-an-anvil sound again.

The reinforced Werewolves wore masks ranging from puppy dogs to demons to Golden Boy. To, of course, the Amazing Bubbles. They were armed with chains, knives, pipes, and baseball bats. And a few guns.

A wiry Werewolf in a Bubbles mask pointed a pistol at Wally and chortled. Laughing Boy. “You weren’t invited, lead-for-brains!” Laughing Boy crowed. “So we’ll have to show you the way out!” He pulled the trigger, and there was a loud pow.

And then a ping and a puff of rust as the slug bounced from Wally’s forehead. “Well, gosh darn it,” Wally said. “I’m only here because you fellas went and hurt my daughter, don’tchaknow. So pardon me for bein’ rude!”

Then he charged again, like a locomotive with legs.

The Werewolves were about as distracted as they were going to get. So I dropped into a sudden dive, plunged behind Wally, and landed on the roof with a skid that almost tore off my shoes. I slid right into Yerodin, and she almost rolled into the low steel lip at the edge of the roof. But she stayed limp, and there was a horrible moment when I thought she might be dead. Then we came to a stop, and she groaned. I reached down, scooped her up, and held her tight.

Then, over the clanging and screams from the other side of the roof, I heard a crunch of gravel behind me. One of the Werewolves had managed to avoid Wally. “Fuhggeddabout it, you double-crossin’ bitch.” I didn’t have to turn around to know it was Brooksie. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

But, yeah, I was pretty sure I was.

I leaped straight up, spreading my wings with a whoomp. Compared to Wally, Ghost felt like nothing. But my arms, shoulders, and wings still trembled with fatigue. And before I could get totally clear, Brooksie was able to grab my left foot.

I kicked at him with my right and tried to keep heading up and out. But he was dragging me down and keeping me from crossing the edge of the roof into open air, holding me back just like Captain Craptastic the Butt Monkey had. And a Golden Boy Werewolf, broken free of Wally’s attack, was now running toward us—and if he latched onto Brooksie, they would pull me down to the roof again. For sure.

I grunted and flapped my wings with every ounce of strength my shrieking muscles could muster, pushing through the pain. Then my left shoe slipped off. Brooksie fell back with a shout, and both he and Golden Boy went down to the gravel while Ghost and I popped up high above them.

Thank God for clogs.

We spiraled upward, and I hugged Ghost to my chest as I felt her arms slip around me. Down below, Wally had been surrounded by the rest of the Werewolves. They began to swarm and pile on, and he vanished beneath them.

I paused in my ascent. I was, like, two seconds away from diving back down to try to help.

Then I heard a metallic roar, like a road grader revved up to drag-racing speed, and the piled-on Werewolves exploded outward. It was as if a grenade had gone off in a mound of marionettes.

One of the Bubbles-masked Werewolves went over the edge of the roof, screaming and crying as he fell. I recognized the voice even though it wasn’t chortling now.

“So long, Laughing Boy,” I muttered. And maybe this makes me a bad person… but hey, I didn’t feel sorry for him at all.

Wally looked up at me and Yerodin as he windmilled his arm and brought his huge fist down on the head of a puppy-dog Werewolf who was trying to kneecap him with a crowbar.

“Cripes!” Wally shouted. “You two get out of here! This is just gonna take a while, that’s all.”

He clunked a couple of demon-Werewolf heads together, then stacked the demons atop the puppy dog. Then a few more Werewolves attacked, and they were added to the pile.

“Later, Wally!” I called, and made a shallow dive to gain enough airspeed to turn away.

Wobbling and slow, I flew away from the Hotel on Rivington toward the Lower East Side. A couple of shots rang out behind me, but I only felt one slug hit my wings. It bounced off almost as neatly as the one that had bounced off Wally’s forehead, albeit with less ping. I had known my wings were tough—but this was the first time I’d realized they could deflect bullets.

Yup, the New Teenage Me was lots tougher than the Old Little-Girl Me had been. And that was pretty cool.

But maybe a little confusing, too.

I wasn’t a full-strength grownup yet. But I wasn’t a vulnerable kid anymore, either. And it had been a really rapid transition. Even after all that I had just managed to do, I still wasn’t sure what to make of it.

And if I wasn’t… well, I knew Mom wouldn’t be, either.

 

Mom’s Diary

I’m a mother now. I never thought I’d be one. But Adesina’s real parents are dead, and who else is going to take care of her?

Besides, we’re connected in some way. I’d still be in the coma without her help.

And we saved those children. That counts for something. It has to. I’m not saying it was a perfect victory, but some good came out of it. Maybe even a lot.

And now there’s Adesina… and me.

Plus, I sure did like beating the hell out of Tom Weathers’ Monster. That was the best. Filled to the top with chocolatey goodness.

Turns out that being a hero has an upside, after all.

Who knew?

 

I touched down on the roof of the Gundersons’ apartment building with an “Oof,” kicking off my remaining shoe to keep my balance. And then I saw that Yerodin’s eyes were wide open and staring up at my face. So I set her down and released her. She wavered a bit, but stood on her own.
“How’re you doing?” I asked. My voice sounded hella nervous. I was still scared that she might be mad at me.

She gave me a big, goofy smile. “You came and got me!” Then she swayed, and I put my hand on her shoulder. Her eyes blinked slowly.

“Of course I did,” I said. “Well, me and your dad. He kinda helped.”

Her eyes widened, and her forehead crinkled. “Did he tell you about our fight?”

“Yeah,” I replied. I nudged my lone shoe with my bare toe. “And I told him about us skipping school. I mean, I kinda had to.”

Ghost nodded. “I get that.” Then she smiled. “I almost feel sorry for the Werewolves. Dad’s really strong.”

“Oh, hells yes!” I said. “Once he got hold of them, I wasn’t the only flying joker in the neighborhood.”

She laughed, but then gave me a worried look. “Are we okay, Adesina? I miss you so much, and I’ve been afraid we won’t be friends anymore now that you’re…” She waved her hands in circles in front of me. “All this.”

I put on a deliberate smirk. “Maybe I’ve changed a little, but I can still kick your butt at Ocelot 9.”

She stabbed an index finger toward the sky. “I call Baby Ocelot!”

“No way,” I said. “No dibsing after you’ve been kidnapped. Totes unfair!”

“Too late!” She pirouetted like a drunken ballerina. “C’mon. The Werewolves still have my phone, but my tablet is downstairs.”

I was suddenly happier than I’d been since before I’d changed. “All right, but I’m going to pwn you. You’re way too third dwarf right now. You know—Dopey!”

We went down to her and Wally’s apartment, where their neighbor Bob was still waiting to see if Yerodin would show up. So now he texted Wally, said goodnight to us, and went home. Ghost retrieved her tablet, and we sat on the couch to play.

She slaughtered me. And I loved it.

Then my phone buzzed. It was a text, but there were no words. Just an emoji of a tulip, followed by a thumbs-up.

I grinned. Tomorrow, my best friend and I would have to pay a visit to the Tumbling Dice.

 

“Daddy!” Ghost exclaimed when Wally came in. She jumped up and gave him a jumbo hug. His clothes were torn and dirty, and his face looked a little dinged-up. There was a new dimple in his forehead, and even a couple of small rips in the iron skin of his arms. But they didn’t seem to bother him.

“Oh, gosh, I didn’t ’spect to see you awake.” He held her close. “I’ve sure been worried, don’tchaknow. And we’re gonna get you checked out by a doctor right away, you betcha.”

Ghost was steady on her feet now. “Okay, Daddy,” she said softly. “But in the morning, please? I promise I’m all right. I’m just so sorry I scared you. And it’s not your fault I’m not big enough for high school.”

They both looked at me, and I wanted to sink into the floor. “I’m sorry, too. If I hadn’t changed—”

Wally shook his huge head. “All that matters is you girls are both okay.” He wiped a tear from his cheek. It left a rusty trail. “You did good today, Adesina.”

That embarrassed me. But I had an easy out. “I should be going. It’s after nine, and Mrs. Lehman is supposed to come stay with me if Mom isn’t back by ten.”

“Golly,” Wally said. “Speaking of your mom. Uh, maybe we don’t need to tell her about today’s business. She has enough on her mind, don’tcha think?”

I was super glad to hear him say that. “Yeah, I do. So telling her about any of this would be such a bad idea.”

“Okey doke, then,” Wally said. He breathed a sigh. “We’re on the same sheet of the funny pages.”

Ghost gave him a suspicious look. “Daddy,” she said. “You’re giving the feeling that maybe, just once in a while… you used to skip school.”

 

Mom’s Diary

I’m not sure who I am anymore. What I did in Kazakhstan was unspeakable. How could I have done those things? How?

Madness. There was nothing but madness.

But wasn’t it pulled from somewhere inside me?

Am I a monster?

Can anyone ever forgive me?

 

When I got home from the Gundersons’, I decided I wasn’t hungry. Not even for yummy leftover beef Stroganoff.

Instead, since I still had a few minutes before Mrs. Lehman would come over, I pulled out Mom’s diary again. I kept coming back to the last entry. See, that Kazakhstan madness had tried to catch me, too. But I protected myself in my cocoon.

Mom, though, was there in the flesh. It ripped her mind apart, and that’s why she’s so… broken now.

As I stepped out of her bedroom, I heard the front door open. I assumed it was Mrs. Lehman, using the key Mom had given her. But when I came into the living room, there was Mom with a bag of groceries in one arm and flowers in the other.

“Hi, Mom!” I took the groceries from her. “I guess stuff in Panama went okay? And you called Mrs. Lehman?”

She shrugged. “I sent Mrs. Lehman a text. As for Panama, there was nothing to it. Turned out the people the Committee thought were going to be a problem were just being paid to be obstreperous for a day. They ’fessed up when I put one of them into a bubble and offered to roll it into the canal. But none of them seemed to know where the money had come from, or why they were told to stall.”

I had a pretty good idea, myself. But of course I couldn’t say. “Maybe someone just wanted a celebrity encounter with the Amazing Bubbles. Oh, and what’s up with the flowers?” I hoped that would change the subject.

“I thought they might brighten up the place.” She looked sad for a moment, and then there was that blankness again. I’d been sure she’d look at me and know I had been up to something. But no. Nothing.

“Mom.” I put the groceries on the kitchen counter, then waved my hand in front of her face. “You okay?”

She blinked and was back. She gave me a wan smile. “Yes, dear. Panama was nothing. I’m fine.”

But she wasn’t fine, and there was nothing I could say to change it. I didn’t have the right words.

And then I realized that even though there was nothing I could say… there might be one thing I could do.

“Hey,” I said as we put away the groceries. “I know it’s kinda late, and a school night, but… just for a little while, maybe we could get out of the house and do something totes fun.”

She gave me a falsely bright smile. “What’s that, honey?”

“We could go to the Statue of Liberty.”

A confused expression crossed her face. “I don’t think the ferry runs this late.”

I took her hand and gave a tug, but I couldn’t move her. She was pretty pudgy at the moment.

“C’mon, Mom,” I said.

She shook her head as if she were just waking up. “Okay, fine, if you’re going to insist.” She half laughed and almost sounded like the old Mom. Then she let me pull her into my bedroom.

I let go of her hand, cranked my window open, and climbed onto the sill. The mist had stopped, and the sky was almost clear.

I stepped out onto the narrow ledge and turned to face Mom.

Her eyes were wide. “You can’t,” she said. “You never told—”

But before she could finish her sentence, I jumped backward, letting my wings spread wide. Mom gave a little squeak, then ran over and stuck her head out.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked. There was both wonder and annoyance in her voice. Definitely more like the old Mom. “How long have you known?”

“Not long,” I replied, hovering. I looked down and saw people on the sidewalk stopping to squint up past the streetlamps. Oh well. It was going to come out sometime. “Let’s go, Mom. It’ll be fun!”

Now she looked dubious. “How do you know you can even carry me?”

“Well, we can try,” I replied. No need for explanations about that.

And yeah, I was exhausted from the day’s torturous adventure. But the thought of taking Mom flying made me feel like I could do anything.

“You could bubble off some fat,” I said. “And even if you fall, well, I mean… so what?”

That made her snort-laugh—nothing ladylike about it at all. I loved that laugh.

Then she started bubbling through the open window. Some of the bubbles floated around me, and some drifted down to amaze the pedestrians. They were all like the ones she used to make for me. Soft and pretty. Shiny, too.

“Okay,” she said, climbing out onto the ledge when she was a bit thinner. “How do you want to do this?”

“Just wrap your arms around me.” She reached out to pull me close, and I let her embrace me.

Then I gave a few strong flaps, and we rose into the air. It smelled of autumn. The wind changed direction as we ascended, and I knew I’d have to compensate for it. But hey, no prob. Not for Morpho Girl.

I liked Mom’s arms around me. It made me feel like a little kid again. But now I was the one carrying her, and that felt like… something new.

So maybe we could never be normal again. Never like the way we used to be, I mean.

But maybe we could be… okay.

I flew upward until we were high above the city. Below us, the jumbled buildings of Lower Manhattan were bathed in electric radiance. It was freaking gorgeous.

Then Mom and I looped around, rose higher still, and flew through the darkness toward the bright glow of Lady Liberty.

Copyright © 2018 by Caroline Spector and Bradley Denton
Art copyright © 2018 by John Picacio

citation

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