For over 25 years, the Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history. An outcast learns how fit in at her school and much more in Marko Kloos’s short story “How to Move Spheres and Influence People.”
T. K. hates a lot of things, but at the moment, it’s how she becomes the #1 target during dodgeball at gym. Everything changes, however, when she discovers that she has the ace ability to direct spherical objects — and she makes her classmates pay! But her powers are made for more than petty revenge, as she soon discovers while on a family vacation.
The first time it happens, she’s in P.E. class, because of course it has to be P.E.
It’s fashionable to hate P.E., and most of the other girls at Mapletree Academy claim they do, but T.K. really doesn’t mind it. It’s only twice a week, and they mostly stick to sports she can do with her one working arm. She knows she could easily get out of P.E. by pulling the Cripple Card (although she never calls it that; her parents and teachers would flinch in horror at her own insensitivity toward herself, go figure), but she doesn’t because she likes to run around even if she’s not very good at it. She also doesn’t want to give her stuck-up classmates the satisfaction of being able to shoot her pitying glances as she sits on the sidelines and eats Goldfish crackers while doing her math homework. Truth be told: it’s the only time during the week when T.K. doesn’t feel like everyone’s pussyfooting around her disability.
They’re playing dodgeball that day, at the end of the class. T.K. is pretty good at it considering she can only use one arm, even if she gets nailed by the ball a little more than the other girls. But this session is a shooting gallery, with her as the target. Again. It’s just two girls who are targeting her specifically—and her left side, too, where she can’t block—but they’re stealthy about it so Mrs. Williams, the P.E. teacher, doesn’t come down on them. For some reason, Brooke MacAllister has decided that if T.K. wants to play with the varsity, she can take the hits too. And for this week, she seems to have recruited Alison Keller to be her wingman, because T.K. is getting targeted fire from two angles. Mapletree has a special version of dodgeball where you have to crank out five push-ups on the spot if you get hit. Mrs. Williams wanted to give her a waiver on the push-ups, but T.K. refused the special treatment. She’s not strong enough for one-armed pushups, but she can do crunches just fine, so she does those instead. And today, she’s doing a lot of crunches courtesy of Brooke and Alison. In the middle of her fifth set, a ball comes in and beans her on the left side of the head just as she is coming up from a crunch.
T.K. glares in the direction of the ball’s origin and spots Brooke, who gives her a curt and jock-like “Sorry!” without even the slightest tone of apology in her voice. T.K. doesn’t want to make anything of it, so she doesn’t even look for Mrs. Williams, but she has her limits, and Brooke’s attention is starting to poke at the edges of them. She finishes her crunches and gets back up to rejoin the ranks. Another ball shoots past her face, so close that she can practically smell the rubber, and she ducks and flinches. This one came from the other side of the court, from Alison’s direction, but Alison pretends to not notice T.K.’s glare as she conspicuously picks another target. T.K. grabs a ricochet off the gym floor and chucks it at Alison, but it misses her by a foot and smacks into the mats lining the wall behind her. Alison looks over to T.K. and smirks, which only serves to crank up the dial of T.K.’s Pissed-Off-O-Meter another notch. She can’t really complain about them throwing balls at her, because that’s what the game is about. But getting singled out for no good reason takes the fun out of it.
“One minute,” Mrs. Williams shouts from the sideline. “Wrap it up, ladies!” Then she turns around and checks her cell phone. T.K. groans.
“Don’t you—” she calls over to Brooke, but Brooke does, and so does Alison. Of course they were waiting for the opportunity for one last cheap shot. Alison’s shot hits T.K.’s right thigh and bounces off. Brooke’s ball comes in a flat arc, and T.K. knows that she’ll take the stupid thing right on the bridge of her nose.
That’s when the thing happens.
Later, she’ll puzzle about what triggered it. She’s hot and sweaty, angry at Brooke and Alison, hurting from the shot to the bare skin of her leg, and the muscles on her left side, the one with the paralysis, are taut enough to snap, which is what happens when she overexerts herself. But she knows that she feels a swell of fresh anger, and something goes snap in her brain. There’s a hot, trickling sensation, like someone just opened the top of her skull and poured a cup of coffee directly on the back side of her brain and down her spinal column. T.K. raises her hand to keep the ball from hitting her in the face, even though she knows it’s too late for that. But then the strangest sensation follows the hot trickle. She can feel the ball not three feet in front of her face—its roundness, the way it displaces the air around it—and she gives it a tiny little shunt with her mind, and it’s the best feeling she’s ever had, like finally scratching an itch you couldn’t get to for an hour, only a hundred times better. The ball—the one that was about to give her a nosebleed—hooks ever so slightly to the left and whizzes past her left side, close enough to her ear that she can hear it whistling through the air.
Nobody notices. T.K. isn’t even sure that Brooke saw the ball didn’t fly true, that it made a little skip at the end of its arc. There are still half a dozen other balls in the air, and there’s a lot of movement and yelling, kids paying attention to throwing or not getting hit. But she is dead sure that she caused that little skip, because she knows that for just that half second, the ball was in her control, and that it went precisely where she had wanted it to go.
They hit the showers and get dressed, and T.K. is too amazed and shaken to seek out Brooke and Alison to bitch at them. Now that P.E. is over, nobody pays attention to her anymore. In the first few weeks after she joined the class, her awkward-looking one-handed maneuver to get back into her bra and shirt got some interest from the other girls in the locker room, but that’s old hat now, and she finishes up and leaves as quickly as she can.
P.E. was the last class of the day, and now they have an hour of library time before dinner. But T.K. doesn’t feel much like going to the library. Instead, she unloads her backpack at the dorm and then goes back to the gym.
She had figured the place to be empty by now, because Mrs. Williams usually leaves on time. But when she walks back in, Mrs. Williams is still there, walking toward the door with a bag on each shoulder.
“Tilly,” Mrs. Williams says, and T.K. tries not to frown. Most of the teachers address her by her chosen name instead of Tilly, which she hates almost as much as its proper long form, Lintilla. She knows she’s named for a great-grandmother she never even knew, but “Lintilla” sounds like a species of exotic rodent to her. So she was Tilly until she was thirteen, at which point she decided that “T.K.” was edgier than “Tilly Kendall.” Like she’s a New York City spray tagger or a skateboarder instead of a skinny fifteen-year-old redhead from rural Vermont with freckles and left-side hemiparesis. But Mrs. Williams insists on using her actual name, which strikes T.K. as slightly disrespectful.
“Mrs. W,” she replies. “I, uh, forgot something in the locker room.”
It’s a quick and shoddy lie, but Mrs. Williams, loaded down with bags as she is and clearly in a hurry, buys it without trouble. Besides, the gym is always open for the students anyway—there’s a keypad at the door and everyone knows the code, and what kind of trouble can you get into in a school gym?
“Well, go get it. But make sure the door is latched when you leave, okay? The latch sticks sometimes if you don’t push it shut all the way.”
“Will do, Mrs. W,” T.K. says. “Have a good evening.”
“See you tomorrow, Tilly.”
T.K. heads toward the girls’ locker room and pauses in the doorway to wait for the “click” of the sticky door latch. Then she turns and goes to the door that leads into the gym. That feeling she had just a little while ago, when she moved that ball away from her face, had been the most wicked rush of her life, and she wants to see if she can repeat it.
The balls in the gym are neatly stashed away in nets hanging from the wall on the back of the gym, right next to the equipment lockers. T.K. walks over to one of the nets and pulls it open. She fishes out a ball and tosses it into the middle of the gym, where it bounces a few times and rolls to a stop.
“Here goes nothing,” T.K. says to herself. Her voice echoes a little in the empty gym.
She’s afraid that the moment of total control during the game was a fluke, a one-time thing, some momentary and non-recurring phenomenon, maybe a glitch in her brain. That she’ll stand here in the gym and stare at that ball like an idiot for a bit while nothing happens. But when she concentrates, that control comes back with absurd ease. It’s like looking at the curve of the sphere throws a switch in her mind, one that wasn’t there before. It’s not as strong as it was the first time around, but when she feels the curvature of the ball with whatever new sense her brain has flipped on with that switch, that feeling of deep satisfaction comes back, and she knows that it wasn’t a momentary thing. It feels like she’s holding that sphere in the palm of an invisible hand, one that’s much more strong and limber and precise than her own.
T.K. laughs with relief. Then she picks up the ball with her mind and flicks it halfway across the court to the basketball rim on the far end. The ball hits the rim and bounces off. Before it can hit the gym floor, she picks it up again without effort, raises it slowly, and dumps it straight through the hoop.
“Holy shit,” she says and laughs again.
She has superpowers. She’s a damn ace.
For the next hour, well into dinnertime, T.K. practices in the empty gym. She pitches the ball all over the place, and every time she does, she gets more accurate with it. It’s like her new talent is a muscle that can be made stronger with practice. When she tries to manipulate other things, other shapes, that feeling of control evaporates, almost like the angles on the thing poke through whatever force she uses on the spheres and pops the bubble. But if it’s round, she is in full control of it. She tries one of the heavy medicine balls out of the equipment locker, the ones she can’t even lift with her own physical strength, but with the new power she just turned on, it’s just as easy to throw those as it is to pitch a basketball. She throws the medicine ball around until she gets a little too giddy and tries to slam-dunk it onto the hoop rim. It smacks against the backboard hard enough to make the nearby windows shake, and the crash from the heavy ball on the board is so loud that she’s sure they’ll hear it all the way up in the library. She quickly picks up the medicine ball and moves it back to the equipment shack, before someone can come in and wonder how the partially paralyzed girl managed to move a twenty-five-pound ball ten feet up in the air by herself. Then T.K. tidies up and leaves the gym to head back up the hill to the dorm, with some reluctance.
Soda Cans and Brick Walls
The next day, T.K. can barely muster the patience to sit through her classes. She was up until three in the morning, playing with tennis balls and marbles in her room, experimenting and chasing that euphoric feeling of control. The tiredness makes the day even longer and more unbearable. She has an idea for the afternoon, and she can’t wait for the clock to hit 3 p.m.
When classes are finally over for the day, she rushes back to the dorm to dump her backpack and her books. Then she leaves the school property to go to the mixed-use building that sits just a quarter mile away from campus on the rural road. There’s a country store here and a pizza joint, and the back of the building houses a little post office and a hardware store that’s much bigger than it looks from the outside. T.K. usually comes here to get snacks, just like lots of other Mapletree students, but today the stuff she wants is in the hardware store.
The store has quarter-inch ball bearings at seventy cents apiece, individually bagged. She cleans off the whole peg, a dozen bags, and carries them to the register. T.K. has an alibi handy if they want to know why she needs a dozen ball bearings—school science experiments—but she must not look particularly shady, because the clerk rings her up without comment. Then she spots little plastic containers of BBs on the shelf behind the clerk and asks for one of those too, fully expecting to be treated like an aspiring terrorist any second. But the clerk just adds the total to the bill—eight bucks—and bags her stuff for her. She reads the label on the pellet container right before he bags it: 2,400 BBs.
Well, I wanted to know if I can do multiple spheres at once, she thinks. Guess I’ll find out.
There’s an old abandoned factory half a mile away from Mapletree Academy, dilapidating away on the bank of the Connecticut River. A few of the juniors and seniors sometimes go there to drink, but the place isn’t much of a hangout, littered as it is with old factory debris and broken glass. But it’s away from people, and there’s nothing T.K. can break here that’s not already broken.
She brought a twelve-pack of soda from the country store, and for her first experiment, she lines up three cans on a crumbling brick wall in the central yard between the buildings. Then she walks back fifty yards and unbags her ball bearings. They feel weighty and serious, both in her hand and in her mind, when she lifts them one at a time with her power. T.K. expects the first one to drop to the ground when she lifts the second one, but it doesn’t. She grins as she repeats the process, and three quarter-inch ball bearings are floating in the air in front of her.
She gives the first one a push, about as much as she pushed the basketball yesterday. It shoots off and knocks the first can off its perch. It lands on the pock-marked concrete with a huge dent in the center. T.K. finds that even at fifty yards, aiming the spheres isn’t difficult at all. She pushes the second ball bearing a little harder than the first. This one streaks across the yard in a blur and punches into the second can dead-center, sending soda spraying everywhere.
T.K. concentrates on the last floating ball bearing and pushes it as hard as she can.
The third can disintegrates in a spray of soda and aluminum shrapnel. She knows the ball bearing went through the can and into the brick wall of the building twenty yards behind because she can see the puff of brick dust and hear the shattering brick as the bearing cracks it.
“Whoa,” she murmurs, awed by the power she just unleashed with nothing more than half a second of concentration. She could seriously hurt somebody with this ability, even kill them.
T.K. steps up to the brick wall of the building she just shot with her ball bearing. Several of the bricks are cracked from the impact, and one of them is almost completely gone. She can see the hole the bearing made as it passed through. It went right through four inches of brick, and she suspects it also went through the back wall of that building, because that quarter-inch ball of steel was moving fast.
She spends half an hour experimenting with the rest of the ball bearings. She target-shoots the rest of the soda cans and finds that she can modulate her power very precisely, right down to the point where she can send a sphere right into a can with just enough power to knock it down without even denting it. Used like this, she can retrieve her ammunition and reuse it instead of having to dig it out of holes in broken bricks.
Then T.K. opens the container of BBs. They’re so much tinier and lighter than the ball bearings that it hardly seems she’ll be able to do much with them, no matter how fast she pushes them. So she pours them out on the ground in a pile and then tries to lift as many as she can at once.
They all rise like a little silver cloud in front of her—all 2,400 of them.
“No way!” T.K. laughs.
Then she starts playing with them like they’re a flock of birds, moving them in one direction, then another, sideways, up, down. It’s weird—she can feel each individual BB in her mind, but she can move them all as a mass, and it feels almost like she’s manipulating a liquid made of thousands of perfectly spherical little drops. A hundred of those BBs don’t weigh what one of the ball bearings did, but with so many of them in front of her at the same time, she realizes that not much can get through to her if she keeps them moving quickly. She directs the BB cloud into a stream around herself, around and up, then down and up again until it looks like she’s the vortex of a metallic tornado. The BBs move so fast that she can’t make them out individually anymore. They’re just a blur of flashing silver.
It’s like armor, she thinks. Like a suit of armor you can carry around in your pocket.
And then, on a whim, she wants to see if her power is divided among all those BBs evenly, or if each of them pushes off with the same speed as the ball bearing before, regardless of the number of spheres. And these BBs are tiny and lightweight, and how much damage can they possibly do? So she focuses on the cloud of spheres swirling all around her and pushes out with all her might, shoves them in all directions. They explode out from around her in a flashing ring of polished steel.
The result is instant and terrifying. T.K. hears glass breaking and brick cracking all around her, and for a moment she thinks she killed herself with her new powers, like a complete idiot. There’s brick dust in the air, and as she stands there, cowering with her right arm over her head, it settles on her clothing and the ground in front of her.
She looks up and takes a sharp breath. All the way around the yard, the walls look like someone just blasted them with the world’s largest shotgun, thousands of little holes bored into the brickwork, whatever glass was remaining in the window frames blown out and pulverized.
“Let’s not try that again,” she murmurs to herself.
It’s kind of sobering to know that she can turn herself into a living shrapnel grenade with nothing but an eight-dollar container of BBs. That’s more easy destructive power than she—than anyone—should be allowed to control.
But still, even as cowed as she is by her own display of sphere mayhem, she takes two of the quarter-inch ball bearings and sticks them into the pocket of her jeans as she packs up to go back to Mapletree. After all, you never know when you might need a sphere-shaped object handy in an emergency, and she won’t always have a hardware store nearby when she needs one.
The next day is a Thursday, which means P.E. again.
T.K. goes into the inevitable round of dodgeball at the end with a live-and-let-live attitude. If it hadn’t been for Brooke trying to cream her with a ball two days ago, she wouldn’t have discovered what she can do. Or maybe it would have come out of her at some other time. But she’s willing to forgive and forget, if Brooke and Alison don’t pick her for target practice again.
But whatever chip Brooke has on her shoulder this week, it’s still there today. T.K. makes it three minutes until Mrs. W has to take a call on her cell. And sure enough—five seconds after Mrs. W turns her back, a ball comes zooming at T.K. from where Brooke and Alison are playing side by side today. Brooke isn’t even hiding that she took that shot. She grins at T.K., who gets smacked on her bare thigh again, in almost exactly the spot the other ball landed two days ago.
T.K. doesn’t shout at them to cut it the hell out. She just drops for her five crunches. But even as she does, she keeps an eye on Alison, because she knows that Alison isn’t the sharpest crayon in the box and probably thinks she can plant another one while T.K. is crunching away.
Alison takes her shot right as T.K. finishes the last crunch. T.K. knows that both girls are watching her, and that she can’t pull the same sort of last-ditch save she performed on Tuesday. So she takes the ball to the side of her head on purpose. It’s just a glancing blow, but it clips her ear and hurts, and she yelps involuntarily. Alison and Brooke, satisfied with their strafing run, turn their attention away again.
“All right then,” T.K. says. She picks up the ball that bounced off her head. Then she chucks it at the spot where Alison and Brooke are standing, and gives it more push and a more precise direction with her new power.
The gym is noisy, and there’s lots of crossfire, so nobody notices the utterly perfect path the ball takes. It flies a foot or more past Brooke’s head, who whips her head around and smirks at her as if to congratulate her for the missed shot. But as soon as the ball has passed Brooke’s peripheral vision, T.K. accelerates it and makes it bounce off the wall right behind her head. The deflection is implausible for the angle of the throw, but not impossible, and nobody notices anyway. The ball smacks into the back of Brooke’s head, and it’s just the right angle and momentum to bounce off her skull and hit Alison in the side of the head as well.
Brooke takes the brunt of that hit. T.K. swears she can hear her teeth slam together from the impact even across the noisy gym. Brooke goes to her knees. Next to her, Alison just lets out an indignant “Ooowww!” and then looks at Brooke, pissed off, as if her friend had chucked that ball from half a foot away.
T.K. almost laughs. She can do this over and over until both of them are tired of the game and leave her alone. But she can’t help but feel a little bit of concern for Brooke, who’s still on her knees and looking dazed, even though T.K. knows that she calibrated the pitch enough to not rattle that girl’s cage too hard.
I could have knocked her unconscious, T.K. thinks and looks away.
And then a small voice in her head chimes in.
You could have knocked her head into the next zip code, it says, and it chills her to the bone.
And right then and there she resolves to only use that power on people when she absolutely needs to. It’s too much, and it’s not right to use it for frivolities like a high school tiff with a stuck-up rich girl who will have forgotten T.K.’s name two days after graduation. And then, despite it all or maybe because of it, she walks over to Brooke to make sure she’s all right.
Here’s the thing about Mapletree: everyone who goes there is pretty much by definition a rich kid. The tuition is fifty grand a year, and there are no scholarships. But T.K. doesn’t consider herself one of the rich girls because her allowance is small, and her parents didn’t send her to boarding school with a wallet full of credit cards. At the beginning of the holiday break, however, there’s no denying that she’s from a loaded family. The parking lot in front of the gym looks like an exotic car dealership on pick-up day as all the parents are trying to out-Porsche and out-Benz each other.
Her mom and dad come by precisely twice a year—when they come to pick T.K. up for the summer break, and when they take her home for the holidays. That’s when the big ceremonies for the parents take place. It’s graduation in June, and the holiday concert in December, everyone dressed up and watching all the grades perform. T.K. supposes that when you shell out that much tuition money, you want to see caps and gowns and hear some uplifting display of liberal arts education at least twice a year. Mapletree doesn’t teach any one-handed instruments, so T.K. sings in the choir, which is much more fun than she had expected. The grades do their performances to lightning storms of camera flashlights, a darkened gym full of middle-aged parents all holding up phones like they’re at a concert. Then there’s the milling and hand-shaking at the end, and then they are released for the holiday break, a whole week sandwiched between two long weekends.
“How was your trimester, sweetie?” her mom asks from the front seat as they are driving the fifty miles back home to Casa Kendall.
For a moment, T.K. thinks about answering truthfully. Oh, it was awesome, Mom. I learned how to move round objects with my mind, and now I could wreck our house with a bowling ball just by thinking hard. She tries to suppress a grin when she imagines that scenario and mostly fails, which her mother takes entirely the wrong way.
“That well, huh?” her mom says and winks knowingly. “Is he a junior or senior?”
T.K. only catches on after a second. Her mom thinks she’s smiling about a boy. As if the whole school didn’t have only two hundred students, less than half of them boys, none of whom are exactly falling over themselves to romance the only girl on campus with an obvious handicap. Not when all the other girls are well-bred, pretty, and with left arms that don’t hang by their sides like recently broken wings.
“Neither, Mom,” T.K. answers. It’s not exactly a lie, after all, and her mom takes the evasiveness as cute embarrassment.
“Playing your cards close, I see. Well, I’m glad the trimester was fun for you.”
“Where are we going for the holidays?” T.K. asks, mostly to change the subject. Dad always takes them out of the country for the holiday week as a treat. Last year it was Montreal, and the year before they went on a cruise and then stayed in Puerto Rico for three days.
“Edinburgh,” her father says from the driver’s seat. “Do some Christmas shopping in the old town, see the lights, have some good food. What do you think?”
“Sounds awesome,” she says and gives her dad a thumbs-up. Then she sits back in her seat and thinks about the upcoming holidays. If she does the job while her parents aren’t watching, hanging all the ornaments on the tree should be super easy this year.
They head to Edinburgh for their usual holiday week fun rituals: shopping, restaurant meals, and enough sightseeing to fill the memory card on her dad’s camera even though they’ve been here half a dozen times at least already. Edinburgh is pretty, especially the old town, which is aglow with Christmas lights everywhere, and it takes T.K. no time at all to get into the holiday spirit when snow starts falling on the evening of their first stay.
On the morning of their second day in Edinburgh, T.K. is out by herself to get Christmas presents for her mom and dad, who are off doing their own thing. Dad’s having brunch with an old medical school buddy of his, and mom is getting a massage back at the hotel spa. There’s a huge Christmas market set up on George Street, a rustic village of hundreds of booths and vendor stalls. T.K. spends the morning browsing the rows of merchants and taking in the sights and sounds. By lunchtime, she has converted most of her pocket money into gifts and trinkets for her friends. It’s not bitingly cold, but the two hot chocolates from the beverage stalls have worn off, and T.K. is ready to head back to the hotel to stash her purchases and get some lunch.
At the end of George Street, there’s a big, park-like square. It’s a wide expanse of grass surrounded by a perimeter of trees and a high wrought-iron fence. T.K. is about to cross the street and walk through the park to get to the hotel when she hears a commotion on the other side of the square, screeching tires and then a loud metallic crash. The pigeons on that end of the park take to the sky seemingly all at once. T.K.’s first thought is that someone just had a bad traffic accident. Around her, heads are turning toward the noise. Then there’s a second crash, louder than the first one, and then she spots the source of the commotion. A delivery truck has knocked down a section of the iron fence on that side of the park. As T.K. watches, the truck drags part of the fence with it into the park square. There are people walking on the garden pathways of the park, and they are dashing out of the way of the truck now, shouting in alarm.
Everything happened so quickly that T.K. hasn’t even had time to get scared yet. After a morning of Christmas lights and warm drinks and cheery holiday mood, the scene unfolding just a hundred yards in front of her seems surreal and out of place. T.K. stands rooted to the sidewalk at the end of George Street, transfixed by the sight of the delivery truck bulling its way across the neatly manicured park, while people around her gape or shout or rush to get out of the street. The truck swerves to avoid the huge statue standing right in the center of the park. As it does, the piece of fencing it was dragging comes loose and clatters against the statue’s plinth with a thunderous racket that reverberates across the park.
Three police officers come dashing down George Street and past T.K., shouting at people to get out of the way. They run toward the edge of the park and the approaching truck. Now the crowd really starts moving, as if the appearance of the police makes the danger official and concrete. T.K. glances back down George Street, which is still packed with holiday shoppers. The end of the street is blocked off to traffic, but the barriers are just orange-and-white plastic blocks with hip-high metal fencing at the top.
Two of the police officers try to block the truck as it approaches the gap in the park’s perimeter fence where the walkway lets out onto the street where T.K. is standing. They wave their arms and shout at the driver, who pays them no mind. The officers jump out of the way when the truck reaches the gap, which isn’t quite wide enough. The front of the truck, already dented and scraped from the previous collision, smashes into the iron fencing and knocks it aside. The truck’s forward momentum is slowed down briefly by the barrier, but the truck’s driver revs the engine and starts to push through.
Up until now, T.K. thought it may have been an accident, or maybe a medical emergency. But then she sees the face of the driver through the windshield of the truck. He doesn’t look like he’s scared or in distress. His face is all wide-eyed focus, so devoid of obvious emotion that it almost looks like there’s a department store mannequin behind the wheel. He steers the truck slightly to the right, then to the left again, to shunt the sections of fencing aside that are scraping along the side of the truck’s cabin. One of the policemen jumps up onto the running board on the driver’s side and hammers a baton against the window. The driver opens the door abruptly and forcefully, and the police officer goes flying and lands on the sidewalk.
T.K. doesn’t consciously decide to act. She just looks at the people crowding the street behind her and the truck that’s about to drive right into them in a few moments, and there’s no way for her to get all those people out of the way, no way to stop that truck in its tracks. But there are hundreds of decorated Christmas trees all the way down George Street, and almost every stall and vendor booth is festooned with decorations as well. And so many of them are globe-shaped ornaments.
Without thinking about it, T.K. drops her shopping bags, reaches out with her good hand, and lets that newly awakened part of her mind pull every round holiday ornament in sight toward her.
It sounds like a thousand birds taking off all at once. All the way down the street, people shout and yell as trees rustle and sway, and a multicolored swarm of glass and plastic spheres rises into the cold winter air and speeds toward the truck just as the driver has managed to break all the way through the fence. The ornaments are bigger and much lighter than the ball bearings she has been using for practice. T.K. tries to keep control of them all, but they are so light, and there are so many of them, that the light breeze blowing over George Street is enough to make her lose her grip on many of them. It’s like trying to hold on to a handful of powdery sand. Dozens of the ornaments fall out of the swarm and bounce or shatter on the street, careen off vendor stall roofs, or bop people in the head. But she manages to hold on to most of them, and there are a lot, many hundreds, maybe thousands. T.K. hurls the stream of colored orbs against the front of the truck, where they start to shatter in little silver-bright explosions.
The ornaments have almost no mass, and they burst against the front of the truck and its windshield without doing damage, spraying glittering fragments of glass and plastic. But the cloud of ornaments T.K. has yanked loose from their trees and light chains has so much volume that dozens of them smash into the windshield every second, a flurry of green and red and silver shards that envelops the front of the truck like a cloud and obscures the driver’s vision completely. The truck starts swerving. For a heart-stopping moment, it heads right for T.K., who redoubles her mental efforts. Then the driver swerves back to the right, over-corrects, and clips one of the traffic control barriers. The left front wheel of the delivery truck hits the corner of the barrier, and the truck jolts with the shock of the impact. It careens further to the right, bounces onto the sidewalk, and crashes into the front of the house on the other side of the street.
T.K. releases her hold on all the spheres that are still in the air. They fall to the ground, once again beholden only to gravity, and for a few moments, it’s raining Christmas ornaments all over George Street. Maybe five seconds have passed since she started pulling the spheres with her mind and steering them toward the truck, but she feels like she has just run a track relay all by herself.
The policemen run up to the truck’s cabin. One of them jumps up on the sideboard again and yanks on the door handle. The door flies open with a bang, so forcefully that one of the hinges pops off. The policeman jumps out of the way at the last instant, and the weight of the door bends the other hinge as well and makes the door flip forward and hit the ground with a shriek of tortured metal. The driver jumps out of the cab and onto the sidewalk, and T.K. lets out a shocked gasp. He’s a joker—or whatever they call those in this country. Taller than the biggest of the policemen by at least a head, he is bare-chested, and a set of leathery wings is protruding from his back. But that’s not even the most joker-like thing about him. Out of his chest, T.K. sees two extra vestigial arms protruding, each with three long fingers that end in sharp-looking claws. He grabs the nearest policeman by the front of his bulletproof vest, lifts him off his feet, and throws him backwards. The second policeman swings his baton and hits the joker on the side of the head. The joker almost goes to his knees. Then he whips his arm around and returns the blow with a backhand from his left arm. He’s much stronger than the policeman, who takes the hit to the side of his head and bounces off the delivery truck’s cabin only to crumple to the pavement.
The joker looks around, fury in his face. He yells something, but his Scottish accent is so thick that T.K. can’t make out what he’s saying. Then his gaze locks on her, and the fury turns to naked hatred in his expression. He gets up from the half-crouch the cop had beaten him into with his baton, and strides toward her. The wings on his back unfold with a little shudder and then pop out to their full extension. They are leathery like a bat’s, and they make him look like a gargoyle or a demon from a comic book. She freezes in wide-eyed fear.
Then it’s the joker’s turn to get wide-eyed. He bellows a strangled scream and falls to his knees. Behind him, the last standing police officer is aiming a small black gun-looking thing at the back of the joker. She can see two little wires coming from the device and reaching all the way to the joker’s back, to a spot right between his wings. Whatever the policeman is doing to him must hurt, but it doesn’t seem to hurt enough to keep him down. He twitches a bit and rolls around, and his big leathery wings make an awful soft scraping sound on the pavement of the sidewalk. Then he reaches back and yanks the little wires right out of his back. The policeman fumbles with his little black taser thingie, but the joker is getting to his feet again, and T.K. can see that whatever the cop is doing won’t be done in time.
She only realizes that she took her two ball bearings out of her pocket when they are floating above her palm and in front of her eyes already. The joker has his back turned to her as he is advancing on the remaining police officer, who is retreating and yelling into his radio.
T.K. doesn’t want to kill the guy. She doesn’t even want to hurt him. But she does want to keep him from hurting anyone else, and this is the only thing she has right now that will make a difference in time. She focuses on the ball bearings above her palm.
Easy, she reminds herself, remembering the holes she bored clean through bricks with these things not too long ago. Pretend you want to bop Brooke with a basketball.
She lets the first one go, but even as it flies toward the joker, she knows that she went a little too light on this shot. The ball bearing hits the joker square in the back of the head. He stumbles and goes to one knee, but catches himself and gets up just as the police officer tries to take advantage of the situation. The policeman tries to use his baton again, but the joker snatches it away from him and throws it aside. Then he grabs the policeman and flings him backwards. The officer crashes into the wall of the house behind him and slumps to the ground.
The joker turns around and glares at T.K. He bares his teeth and tenses his body like someone about to launch into a fifty-yard dash. She doesn’t take the time to think about how to calibrate her next shot. She only has one ball bearing left, and there’s no time to look around to see where the other one bounced. So she gives it a harder push than before and lets it fly.
The little silver steel orb hits the joker right in the middle of his forehead. This time, she can hear the dull thud of the impact from twenty yards away. And this time, the joker doesn’t just go to his knees. He collapses to the pavement like T.K. has just turned off his main power switch. His wings splay out on the sidewalk, and then he lies still.
Sounds come rushing back to her brain like an aural flood. There are sirens everywhere now, and people are shouting and talking all around her. Three more police cars come screaming around the corner, sirens blaring and lights flashing. T.K.’s knees are shaking. She feels like all her energy has drained from her in the last few minutes.
There are police converging on this intersection from all directions now. Someone grabs her shoulder and shouts something at her, but it’s like her brain has temporarily lost the ability to understand English. She can’t take her eyes off the joker who’s lying motionless on the pavement twenty yards in front of her, his wings draped over his body like a shroud.
Then one of the wings twitches a little. She sees a hand rising, then an arm. The joker tries to push himself up or roll on his side, but he doesn’t get far because at least half a dozen police officers descend on him and pin him down. But he’s alive. She knocked him out, maybe cracked his skull, but she didn’t kill him.
T.K.’s legs give out, and she sits down hard on the cold pavement. Then she bursts into tears.
What was supposed to be a three-day trip to Scotland ends up turning into a week-long event. After Edinburgh, it seems like everyone in the country with a badge or a government ID wants to talk to T.K. Everyone is super nice to her, but she’s still having to go to various places guarded by men in uniform who are carrying guns, and she never once has the feeling that all these talks are optional.
Her parents are dumbfounded to find out that their handicapped daughter is basically a superhero now. At first, T.K. is worried that her dad is going to ground her until college. But when he sees that everyone seems grateful for T.K.’s intervention and amazed at her ability, T.K. can tell that he enjoys basking in the positive attention by proxy a little.
After a few days of interviews and unceasing attention, T.K. is kind of over the whole thing. She’s tired, both in mind and body. Whatever she did in Edinburgh took as much out of her as finals week in school. And when they spend the last day before their return home in London, she gets nervous every time she hears a car horn or the squealing of tires. The cops tell her that she just knocked the joker terrorist out—only they call him a “knave” instead of a joker here—and she is glad to know that she didn’t hurt him permanently or end his life because then she knows she’d never use her ability again. But when she falls asleep in her hotel bed in the evening before the return flight, she sees the angry grimace of the truck’s driver in her dreams, that twisted expression of fury directed at her, and she wakes up with her heart pounding in her chest and doesn’t close her eyes again for the rest of the night.
Her first inkling that life at home isn’t going to be normal again comes when they arrive back in Boston. Before they even get to the immigrations check, three uniformed police officers and two men in dark suits wait for T.K. and her parents on the jetway right outside the plane’s door. There’s some hushed commotion behind them because the flight attendants are making everyone wait until T.K. and her folks have deplaned first. She feels uncomfortable with this unexpected attention, and when they grab their carry-on bags and leave the plane, she feels like she has done something wrong. But everyone is cordial and professional. They lead the Kendalls into a quiet room away from all the bustle, and all they want is to have a chat with her about what happened in Scotland, and for her to show them her ability again. They have donuts and coffee, and they’re just as friendly as the cops in Scotland, but once again T.K. has the distinct impression that this isn’t optional, that she wouldn’t be able to just say “no, thank you” and walk out of the room. So she spends two hours with her parents and the cops in yet another boring conference room and retells the same story for the fiftieth time this week. Finally, the men in the dark suits thank her and let them go through immigrations and customs, and T.K. is relieved right up until the point where they walk into the international arrivals hall and see about two hundred camera lenses aimed at them. A crowd of reporters is waiting in ambush, and the flashes that go off when T.K. and her parents walk through the sliding doors leave no doubt about who they’re here to see.
“Can we go back to check-in and fly somewhere else?” she says to her dad, even though she’s bone-tired and wants nothing more than to go home and crash in her own room and on her own bed. “Like, Antarctica maybe?”
Her father replies with a chuckle, but from the expression on his face, she can see that he’s at least considering the idea a little bit.
“Absolutely not,” her dad barks into the phone downstairs for what seems like the tenth time today. “She’s fifteen years old, and she has to go to school on Monday.”
At first, the constant barrage of calls and stream of people at the door were amusing to T.K., but the novelty has worn off very quickly. She has been holed up in her room since they got back from Scotland while her parents have been fielding reporter questions and interview requests. Every morning newscast in the country suddenly wants to talk to T.K., and so far her dad has shot down every request. But the phone hasn’t stopped ringing even though Casa Kendall has an unlisted number, and T.K. has no idea how she is supposed to make it to school while there are news crews camped out on their street.
“So you basically suck for not telling me about this earlier,” Ellie says over the phone. Ellie has been T.K.’s best friend since kindergarten—their families have been friends since T.K. and Ellie were toddlers—and Ellie is one of the few callers who makes it through the mom-and-dad screening vanguard today.
“I didn’t know until, like, two months ago, I swear,” T.K. says.
“You found out at school?”
“Yeah. In the middle of gym class.”
T.K. gives Ellie the condensed version of the week her card turned, leaving out the part where she accidentally found out that she’s basically a walking weapon of mass destruction now.
“That’s insane,” Ellie says. “I saw the news story. The stuff you did in Europe. You’re gonna be a rock star at school. You saved people.”
“I don’t know about rock star. More like freak show, probably. Like I wasn’t sticking out enough already.”
The thought of returning to Mapletree with her new abilities known to everyone makes T.K. feel queasy. But the cat is out of the bag, and there’s no stuffing it back in, not after cell phone camera footage of her from eight different angles showed up on television screens all over the world a few days ago.
“Can you come over?” T.K. asks. “I’d say let’s go out to the Creamery and get some monster sundaes, but my folks won’t let me within twenty feet of the front door.”
“Tell you what,” Ellie replies. “You show me your new superpower thing, and I’ll come over with a half-gallon of Moose Tracks and two spoons.”
T.K. laughs, relieved that at least some things are still the way they were last week, back when she was just a high school girl with a busted wing to everyone.
Thirty minutes later, Ellie walks into T.K.’s room and plops herself down on the bed. She has a grocery bag in her hand, which she puts on T.K.’s nightstand.
“There are six news vans out in the street right in front of your house. This has gotta be the most exciting thing that has ever happened here. They practically peed themselves with excitement when my dad pulled into your driveway.”
T.K. groans and drops onto the bed face-first next to Ellie.
“I’ll never be able to leave the house again,” she says into her pillow.
“They’ll go away sooner or later. Or you could just go and talk to them, you know. It’s not like you did something terrible.”
T.K. sits up again and eyes the plastic bag on her nightstand.
“You saw the whole thing on TV?”
“Who didn’t. It’s been on the local news for days now. They kept replaying the footage.”
Ellie opens the bag and takes out a half-gallon container of ice cream. She pops off the lid, fishes around in the bag for two spoons, and tosses one onto the bed in front of T.K.
“You should have seen my mom and dad when I showed them the newscast. It was the best. Like they just found out that their daughter’s best friend is secretly moonlighting as a rock star.”
T.K. wants to keep up the indignation, but she has to admit that Ellie’s report pleases her. She was worried how her friends and family would react, but so far everyone is interested and even excited about her new ability. She feels like she just won the multi-state lottery jackpot. Even her parents, put out as they were by the sudden media siege and the disruption of their regular lives, had reacted with wide-eyed amazement when she demonstrated her powers to them. She wonders if everyone’s reactions would have been the same if her card turned joker instead, but she knows the anthropological interest and slightly repulsed fascination with which her father reads the occasional features on New York City’s Jokertown in National Geographic. No, she concludes almost instantly. Things wouldn’t have felt like a lotto win if she had started sprouting tentacles or horns or something.
They make it through half the container before Ellie puts down her spoon and looks at T.K. expectantly.
“Well? I held up my end of the bargain. Now let’s see what you can do.”
“I thought you saw that on the news already.”
“That’s different,” Ellie says. “Come on, don’t back out now. I ran the camera gauntlet for you with that ice cream.”
“Fair enough,” T.K. demurs, secretly excited about having an excuse to pull the ball bearings out of the pocket of her jeans.
Ellie flinches a little when T.K. opens her hand and lets the ball bearings float above her palm. Then her friend leans in closer to look at the glossy orbs circling each other slowly, making orbits around a common center of gravity like a miniature binary star. T.K. has been practicing plenty since Edinburgh, and she has honed her fine control over the last few days. Turns out it’s harder to move the balls in a slow and tightly controlled path than it is to fling them somewhere quickly or with a lot of force. Moving heavy stuff or shooting bricks require effort, but fine control takes concentration, and the more precise she wants to be, the more she has to focus.
Ellie watches as T.K. makes the ball bearings in her hand spin around each other, first slow and then faster, until they’re just a chrome blur. Then she slows them down again and sends them zooming around the room. She makes a low pass of her desk with one of the bearings, but misjudges the flight path a little. The ball bearing taps against the edge of her desk lamp’s metal arm and knocks it over with a clatter.
“Whoops,” T.K. says. Ellie just watches, mouth agape, as T.K. brings the errant ball bearing under control again and lets the orbs resume their formation-flying.
“You’re doing that with your mind?”
“Yeah,” T.K. replies. “Pretty awesome, huh?”
Ellie holds out a hand, and T.K. steers one of the ball bearings over and drops it gently into the center of Ellie’s palm.
“Heavy,” Ellie says. She bounces the ball bearing on her palm and turns it with her fingertips. “How fast can you make those things go?”
“Pretty fast,” T.K. says, intentionally vague because she doesn’t want to give Ellie the idea that she’s dangerous now. “I still have to be able to see what I’m moving, though, so not that fast.”
She’s fibbing a little, of course—while she needs to be able to see the sphere to get its movement started, she can push it so fast and so hard that it instantly goes out of her control, like a bullet fired from a gun. But that’s something that she will keep to herself for the moment.
“So what are you going to do now?” Ellie asks. “I mean, you’re an ace. Everyone knows about it. You’re going to go back to school like nothing happened?”
“Yeah. I mean, what else am I supposed to do? Put on a spandex leotard and go fight crime?”
“You’re going to get your diploma. And then you’re off to college. When the whole country knows your face. And what you can do.” Ellie looks at her with a skeptical little smirk.
“Yeah,” T.K. repeats. “And famous people go to college all the time. Actors and stuff. If they can do it, I should be fine.” She scoops out a big spoon of ice cream from the now half-empty tub.
“Besides,” she says around a mouthful of Norwich Creamery Moose Tracks. “It’s not like they’ll mob me for autographs before gym class. I’m nobody.”
“Right.” Ellie waves her own spoon vaguely in the direction of T.K.’s bedroom window. “And nobody has camera crews from all the major networks laying siege to her house.”
Then Ellie uses her spoon like she’s holding a ruler and sizing T.K.’s measurements up.
“Speaking of spandex leotards—we need to design a costume for you. And you’ll need a catchy ace name. Like Sphero. Or Ballistica.”
“Absolutely not,” T.K. says and flicks a small spoonful of ice cream at her friend, who retreats with a little squeal. “Not in a million years.”
Ripples in the Pond
With the rest of her life so off the hinges right now, T.K. looks forward to going back to school after the holiday break, to see things return to normal. Mapletree is a private school, with controlled access to the campus and electronic keypads on every exterior door. There are kids at Mapletree whose parents have a lot of money and influence, so reporters aren’t welcome there without a good reason, ace students or not.
But the day before school is about to begin again, her parents get a call from the school asking them to see the headmaster at drop-off in the morning, and the dread T.K. feels in her stomach tells her that normal may not be happening for her this school year.
“You’re expelling her?” T.K’s dad says. He’s using the same tone and facial expression he adopts whenever someone pitches an unwanted solicitation over the phone. They’re sitting in the headmaster’s office, and it’s a cold and gloomy January morning outside, to match T.K.’s current mood.
“It’s not an expulsion,” the headmaster replies. He looks a little uncomfortable. “The board got together last week and decided that the school is not equipped to deal with the media fallout. And some parents have voiced concerns about safety. We don’t allow students to bring weapons to school. And your daughter’s, uh, abilities can certainly be used in an offensive manner. As we’ve all seen on TV.”
T.K. doesn’t like that the headmaster is speaking about her in the third person as if she wasn’t sitting right in front of him.
“I’ve had these powers for months now,” she says. “I’ve gone to class every day, just as always. And nobody got hurt.”
“Of course we don’t think you’re out to hurt anyone, Tilly,” the headmaster says.
“But you are kicking her out of school,” her dad interjects. He still sounds like he’s telling someone on the phone that no, he doesn’t want or need any supplemental life insurance, thank you very much. Like he’s haggling over an annoyance, not discussing whether to yank half of T.K.’s life out from under her feet.
“The board has decided to not renew the enrollment contract for this year. We feel that Tilly would be better off at a school that can take her abilities into account. But it’s not an expulsion. We will send her on with a recommendation that reflects her flawless academic and disciplinary record.”
It sure feels like an expulsion, T.K. thinks. Whatever you want to call it.
Her dad tries to argue because that’s what he does. But T.K. can tell that the headmaster is done with them, and that her dad’s protests and attempts at negotiation are going to extend this unpleasant business, and she is relieved when her father finally gives up and takes himself and his checkbook out of the room in a huff. T.K. trails him out of the school office and into the parking lot. Her schoolmates are going to classes, alone and in small groups, catching up with each other after the holiday break, and she has never felt so shut out in her life. She skipped right from disabled to too-abled, without getting to spend any time in between at just abled.
“We were thinking about a different school anyway,” T.K.’s dad tells her on the way home. “There are lots of great places in the area. Your mom really likes that boarding school in Quebec, the one with the houses and the school ties.”
T.K. is sad and angry, and her father’s forced cheerfulness doesn’t help. She has no interest in thinking about a new school right now, with the sudden and complete separation from Mapletree still hurting like a razor cut. She didn’t even have time to say goodbye to anyone. But she doesn’t talk to her dad about her feelings. He’s well-meaning, but he’d misdiagnose the problem and try to apply the wrong solution. In his world, everything can be fixed by writing a big enough check, and this isn’t something money can mend. It’s easy to make him think he’s helping, though.
“I’ll think about it,” she tells him. “Do you think you could take me over to the Powerhouse and let me hang out there for an hour or two? I don’t want to deal with the cameras at the house right now.”
“Oh, sure, honey.” From his expression, she can tell he’s relieved that she is speaking in a language he understands. “I can drop you off and go see the accountant for a bit. Tax time is coming up, after all.”
He gets his wallet out of the inside pocket of his sport coat and fishes out a credit card without taking his eyes off the road.
“Here. Use this one if you want to get a few things. Just don’t buy a new car or anything.”
“Not likely,” she replies and returns his smile. But when she thinks about it, buying a little convertible and pointing it west isn’t the worst plan of action she can think of right now, and if she had her license already, she knows she’d at least consider it.
Their rich little town has an expensive little mall. It’s a converted old powerhouse, renovated at great expense to look like something out of Victorian England, two levels of cute little shops along an indoor concourse lined with hardwood and decorated with lots of wrought iron. This early, most of the shops aren’t open yet, but there’s a cozy little cafe on the ground floor where T.K. can wait for ten o’clock to roll around.
She’s halfway through her vanilla chai latte and picking at her blueberry scone when a magenta-haired girl walks into the cafe. The girl looks around, spots T.K., and heads straight for her table. At this time of day, most of the patrons in the cafe are blue-hairs from the nearby retirement village, so the girl walking T.K’s way sticks out even more than she usually would. She stops in front of T.K.’s table, pulls out a chair, and sits down without asking. She’s definitely past high school age, but that brightly colored pixie cut and her goth outfit make her look like she doesn’t want to be a grown-up just yet. As she sits down and scoots the chair closer to the table, T.K. spots a golden nose stud.
“Hi,” the girl says. “You are Lintilla Kendall.”
T.K. makes a face.
“It’s T.K. Or Tilly, if you don’t do the initials thing. I haven’t been Lintilla since preschool.”
“T.K. I’m Simone. Simone Duplaix.” The girl holds out her hand. She’s wearing a bunch of bracelets on her wrist, and they jingle softly as T.K. accepts the handshake almost automatically.
“Nice to meet you,” Simone says. Her English has a charming French accent that somehow matches her inoffensively cute appearance perfectly.
“Vous êtes Québécois,” T.K. guesses, and Simone nods.
“Oui, c’est vrai. I see you took French in school. Very good.”
“Wait, I think I’ve heard of you. You’re one of the Canadian aces.” T.K. looks around in the cafe to see if anyone’s head has turned their way, but the mostly old folks are sipping their coffees and talking to each other without paying any attention to them.
“They call me Snowblind,” Simone says, with dramatic effect in her voice on the last word. “I can blind people for a while. Like they are caught in a, how do you say, nor’easter? It is a good talent, but it is not quite as good as yours, I think. I watched the news footage. What you did, it was very impressive.”
T.K. squirms a little in her seat, but she doesn’t try to protest the compliment. It’s the first time someone has said something unequivocally positive about her new talent. In truth, it pleases her a great deal, even if the memories of that day still twist her stomach.
“How did you know where to find me?” she asks.
“Oh, the place where I work, we have ways of tracking people. And you have been in the news lately quite a bit, no? It was not hard to find you.”
Simone glances around the room poignantly, leans across the table, and lowers her voice a bit.
“You need to keep that in mind, after what you did in Europe, T.K. Now that everyone knows what you can do. You don’t know yet what things are like for people like us in the world. There are jokers who already resent you for what you did. And there are many people who will want what you have.”
T.K. looks at the café patrons again. The people sitting at their tables and drinking their coffees are still the same ones that were here before Simone walked in, but now T.K. feels anxious and a little afraid. The ball bearings in her pocket are a comforting weight, but she’s still only a fifteen-year-old girl with a physical handicap and no talent or stomach for fighting. Aces and jokers, government agencies and terrorism. When did her life turn into a bad international mystery thriller?
“I got kicked out of school today,” she says glumly. “They think I am dangerous.”
“Well, of course you are,” Simone says.
“But I’m not,” T.K. protests. “I’m still the same person. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just want to go back to the way things were.”
Simone looks at her with unconcealed pity and shakes her head with a little sigh.
“Oh, cherie. Your old life? That is over. From now on, when you meet new people and they know what you are, they will either want something from you, or they will be afraid of you.”
“Really? And which kind are you?”
It comes out a little snippier than T.K. had intended, but Simone just smiles.
“Well, I am not afraid of you,” she says.
“So what do you want from me?”
Simone reaches into the pocket of the leather jacket she’s wearing and takes out a business card, which she puts facedown on the table right next to the plate that has the rest of T.K.’s blueberry scone on it.
“I want you to think about your future. About what you will do with this talent of yours. You will find that it opens a lot of doors for you. But you will have to decide which of those doors you want to step through.”
T.K. picks up the business card and flips it over to read it.
“I work for the Committee,” Simone says. “The Committee on Extraordinary Interventions. You may have heard of it.”
“You work for the government?”
“Not for a government. We work for the United Nations, for all governments. People like you and me. Aces and joker-aces, keeping the peace. Helping out where we can with our talents.”
“I’m fifteen,” T.K. says. “I can’t work for the United Nations yet. My parents won’t even let me get a summer job at the gelato place.”
“But you will be eighteen before too long, no?”
Simone nods at the business card T.K. is still holding.
“Maybe in a few years, if you decide you want to use your talent for a good cause, we can show you the sort of things we do. Until then, we just want you to know that we are around. So call me or send me a message if you need help. Or if you just want to talk. You know, with someone who knows what it’s like.”
“I’ll think about it,” T.K. says. She would laugh at the ludicrousness of the situation if she wasn’t so overwhelmed by it all. If she hadn’t gotten kicked out of school this morning, she’d be back in P.E. right now, and she’s reasonably sure that Brooke and Alison wouldn’t throw any balls within fifty feet of her ever again. But instead of doing crunches while thinking about lunch hour and afternoon science lab, she has the United Nations and international intrigue swirling around in her head, and that’s not a leap her brain is willing to make right now. Her face must show some of the stress she’s feeling, because Simone reaches across the table and squeezes her hand lightly.
“When you did what you did in Europe, it was like you threw a rock into a pond, T.K. It started making ripples. You do nothing, the water will smooth out again, eventually. But you know what you can also do?”
“Start throwing in bigger rocks,” Simone says. “Turn the ripples into waves.”
When T.K. leaves the cafe half an hour later, she’s in a better mood. Getting expelled from school still hurts because it makes her feel like she’s done something wrong, that she’s being punished. But when she thinks about her future now, it’s no longer indistinct and scary.
On the drive home with her dad, she imagines herself like Simone: dyed hair, nose stud, running around in some exciting foreign city like Tokyo or London, using her new ace powers in the service of the Committee. Brooke and Alison would absolutely lose their shit, she thinks.
That evening, T.K. sits down with her parents in the living room to talk about school stuff. The way they are accommodating her right now, they must think she’s devastated about getting kicked out of Mapletree. T.K. chooses to reaffirm their parental instincts by telling them how unfair she thinks the whole thing is, which is absolutely true. She doesn’t tell them about her meeting with Simone today, or about the fact that unlike them, she was never really fully in love with that school anyway. But when your parents have dropped fifty grand a year in tuition for two years running, that kind of information would probably be unwelcome, and she feels like she should keep it on a need-to-know basis for now.
While they are looking through high-gloss brochures for half a dozen other private high schools, her dad is sort of half-watching the hockey game that’s playing on low volume on the living room TV. T.K. has her back to the screen, so she doesn’t see what’s going on in the game. She’s reading through the list of offered sports at one of the interchangeable prep schools her parents have picked out—most of which require two functioning arms, naturally—when her dad lets out a suppressed cheer and pumps his fist.
“Really, honey? Now?” T.K.’s mom scolds him. “We’re looking at schools now, dear. Can’t you turn that off?”
T.K. turns to see what spiked her dad’s excitement. They’re showing the replay of the goal now. One of the players stops the puck with his stick and then does a sort of vertical roundhouse swing with all his force. Even at the low volume of the TV speakers, the puck shot sounds like a thunderclap, and she can barely follow its course as it rockets into the goal and makes the net twitch violently with the impact. T.K. sits up straight and follows the next replay closely with excited amusement. It looks exactly the way it did when she launched a ball bearing or a cue ball in that old factory down by the river near Mapletree: the puck, sitting at rest, then shooting off so fast that it’s just a blur in the air.
“What do they call that swing?” she asks her father.
“Huh? What do you mean, sweetie?”
“When they swing the stick like that, with force. You know, smack.” She mimics the motion with her good arm.
“Oh, that. It’s called a slap shot.”
“Slap shot,” she repeats with a little smile.
“Yeah. It’s the hardest shot to pull off in hockey. Powerful, but not very accurate. Unless you have a lot of control.” Her dad seems pleased that she’s drawing on his knowledge of his favorite sport.
She returns her attention to the brochure in front of her, but her attention isn’t with the nationally renowned equestrian program at St. Whatsit Academy, which she wouldn’t be able to participate in anyway because she can’t hold the reins of a horse with both hands. Instead, her mind is on the events of the day—the hurt and shame she felt this morning when she got kicked out of school, and then the weird excitement when she met Simone and got treated like an equal by a genuine grown-up, internationally famous ace. And right then and there she knows that her future probably won’t be determined by whatever new rich-kid high school her mom and dad pick for her tonight.
Later, when she’s in bed and scrolling through the messages on her phone half-asleep, she shoots off a text to Ellie.
Forget Sphero or Ballistica. How about Slapshot?
The reply comes only a minute later.
OMG THAT IS PERFECT. It’s so freaking regional.
Slapshot it is, then, T.K. sends back. Then she puts the phone on her nightstand and pulls up her covers.
I’m still not doing a costume, though, she thinks before the day catches up with her and she falls asleep.
“How to Move Spheres and Influence People” copyright © 2019 by Marko Kloos
Art copyright © 2019 by John Picacio