For over 35 years, the Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history. In Carrie Vaughn’s “Grow”, ace Maryam Shahidi makes a big splash in the news after one of her “experiments” goes awry.
“Give me that,” Maryam said, reaching for Elaine’s cigarette and plucking it out of her hand. She took a long drag off it, then dropped it on the grass and stamped it out.
“Hey, I wasn’t finished with it!”
Maryam ignored her, watching the cricket field on the other side of the chain-link fence. The match was maybe half done. Boys in trousers and jumpers ran about, yelling, though as far as she could see there wasn’t a ball in play. There’d be no better time to do this. She unclipped her black hair so it fell past her shoulders, pulled her jumper and bra off, and shoved down her school skirt, stockings, knickers, and shoes. Naked now, she handed all her clothes to Elaine, who was suddenly looking skeptical.
“You really going to do this?” Elaine had dirty blond hair wrapped up in a purple scrunchy at the top of her head, with maybe a quarter of it falling out to frame her pale, freckled face. Her eyes always seemed to get really round and shocked whenever Maryam cooked up a plan like this. You’d think she’d be used to it by now.
Maryam grabbed the nylon fabric of the ripped-up tent she’d rescued from the bin that was exactly the right size for her purpose and wrapped it around her waist. “Yeah, I am.”
She closed her eyes and focused. She had practiced this, but never in public and never with a target in mind. Go big, bigger than she ever had. Huge, or there’d be no point to it. Her skin started to tingle, which grew into a heat that went all the way to her bones. A hiss and a crack sounded from nearby power lines as her body grabbed hold of that electricity.
Grow, grow, grow.
Elaine let out a squeak and stumbled back, and Maryam opened her eyes on a world turned distant. Small. Like looking down from a balcony. Elaine blinked up at her with a stupid owl-like expression, and Maryam grinned madly.
She stepped right over the fence, planting her bare foot on the grass on the other side, her brown skin contrasting with the bright green, and went striding across the back field of the pitch in just a few steps. She could break into a run and cover miles in a few minutes. She could pick up cars and shove them out of her way. Knock over poles. She could do anything. But right now, she merely walked, like she was strolling through the park, letting people get a good look at her.
The screaming from the spectators was extremely satisfying.
Her long hair stayed draped past her face and over her chest. Not that she had much in the way of breasts to show off, and she rather expected that all joking aside, the fact that she was so very tall would draw more attention than her toplessness.
Be interesting to find out, anyway. Which was only part of why she was doing this.
She didn’t linger. This was just an experiment. A bit of dabbling, to see what would happen. Just enough time to let people take photos, maybe a bit of video if someone was taping the match. She had her exit strategy all mapped out, stepping over the fence on the opposite side of the field while the panicked shouting continued behind her. However much she wanted to glance over her shoulder to enjoy the chaos she’d caused, she resisted temptation. The air of mystery was more important.
Across the street was a park surrounding a duck pond, lined with enough tall trees to offer a bit of shelter. Plunging into them, she offloaded energy, and size, with a flash and a crack of static, returning to her normal height in almost an instant. Now that she was hidden among the trees, no one would notice.
Wrapping the tent fabric tightly around herself, she jogged off, and no one was even looking for her. Elaine was waiting right where they’d agreed to meet, in the yard outside a water tower about half a kilometer from the cricket field.
“Well?” Elaine asked, handing her back her clothes and keeping a lookout as she rushed to put them on.
“I did it!” Maryam grinned madly.
“Brilliant!” Elaine grabbed her arms, and together they hopped up and down in a quivering dance of teenage enthusiasm.
That evening, the house was its usual chaos. Her two older siblings—both on break from university, which seemed a bit much—were arguing at the kitchen table about rail passes or the price of beef or some nonsense. Their mother was simultaneously fixing supper and yelling at their father in Farsi. Maryam only knew that she’d told him “please turn on the news” because he got up to turn the television on immediately. Maryam had only been two when the family left Iran, and her grasp of her native language was flimsy at best. She sometimes thought she ought to repair that, but never seemed to find the time, between studying for A-levels and figuring out her power. Nobody but Elaine knew she’d turned an ace. Well, nobody until today.
She went to the sitting room to join her father. From the sofa, he smiled a fond but absent-minded greeting at her, half watching the television while reading a newspaper. She took the chair near the sofa. This was the moment she’d been waiting for, but she couldn’t seem too eager. She didn’t usually watch the news, hiding away in her upstairs bedroom instead. She couldn’t exactly tell everyone to just shut up now without giving herself away.
Her mother wandered in, wiping her hands on a towel, and her brother and sister were still arguing in the kitchen. “Be quiet!” her mother told them when the BBC News logo came up.
The lead story was about some turmoil or other in American politics. The second about an oil spill someplace in Africa. Maryam began tapping her feet. What if she hadn’t made the news at all? But finally there it was, halfway through the broadcast.
“And here in Britain, a cricket match outside of Leeds was disrupted when a previously unknown ace made an appearance—”
God, she’d made the news. And yes, there was some grainy home video footage of a towering otherworldly creature taking long deliberate steps across the grass and away. It was marvelous, like something out of a bad movie. Her siblings had come in from the kitchen to watch and stood with their mouths open in disbelief. Maryam had to be very still. Not react at all.
Her father stroked his chin. “Leeds? That’s just near the school, isn’t it?”
Gaping at the television, her mother asked, “Anyone we know?”
“Of course not, we don’t know any of those kinds of people.”
Me, Maryam wanted to yell at him. Those kinds of people were me.
Maybe she ought to keep this secret. Not be such an exhibitionist. But the newscast was still going on, interviewing spectators who’d been at the match. “A giant! She came out of nowhere!” one of them said.
“How does a fifteen-foot-tall woman come out of nowhere!” her mother exclaimed. “She had to have come from somewhere.”
The video showed gigantic Maryam leaving the other side of the field, then cut out. So no one had really seen where she went. She’d ducked behind a building and that was that. At no point had her face been visible.
“Well,” her mother said, then wandered back to the kitchen.
Maryam had been sitting right there and neither of them recognized the giant girl on the screen as their own daughter. Well, indeed.
She ran up to her room to phone Elaine, who answered on the first ring as if she’d been waiting. “Did you see it?”
“That was fantastic,” Elaine said. “I can’t believe it.”
“You know what this means?”
“I’m doing it again.”
Fifteen feet. That was as tall as she’d ever gotten. Almost five meters, the commentator said. She could go taller. She knew she could.
Maryam had done some reading when this first started happening to her. Growing to an immense height, or changing shape into something much larger than one’s self, was a fairly common wild-card power that had been studied and classified, and she was introduced to the concept of proportional strength. A larger frame required more strength to carry itself around, much less be able to move or run or do anything at all. There had been cases of wild-card victims who’d grown to twelve, fifteen, twenty feet—but still maintained the proportional muscle mass and strength of a normal human. They were incapacitated. They couldn’t move. But some got the strength they needed, and it made them powerful. Radha O’Reilly, Elephant Girl, was a case Maryam had particularly studied. A woman who could transform into a full-grown Asian elephant, who couldn’t just move normally, but fly. Researchers agreed that telekinesis was involved.
Maryam was lucky. Her strength grew with her height. She hadn’t been able to really test this yet, but she planned to.
The second exhibition—experiment, she still thought of it—was even better. A children’s football match, so there were sure to be enthusiastic parents with video cameras on hand. She started on the other side of the school and then casually strolled across the end of the field, as if she were just having a ramble and the game happened to get in the way. Didn’t even look at the screaming crowd and fleeing children. She heard them well enough. Continuing past the field, she went on to a wooded greenway and ducked into the trees, where she let off a clap of energy, and then ran before anyone could connect that disturbance with the giant woman who’d just marched across the way.
On that evening’s newscast, she was the second story. “Another sighting of Britain’s newest ace! This time at a student football match, where spectators were shocked—”
“Is that woman even wearing any clothes?” Maryam’s mother exclaimed at the television.
“Yeah, she’s got a thing around her,” Maryam said, then shut up. She wasn’t supposed to be interested.
“The police should do something,” her father said.
“She isn’t breaking any laws,” she shot back. Actually there was probably a law against toplessness. But not against just walking, even if you were fifteen feet tall.
Her mother snorted a laugh. “How’re they going to arrest her, then?”
Maryam smiled to herself. Ultimately, that was the thing that was going to save her. Who could possibly stop her? Who would ever try?
Maryam lay on her bed, papers spread out around her, checking schedules for highly public, high-profile events. Local sports matches were all well and good, but she couldn’t just keep popping across obscure fields and expect people to continue paying attention. She was also on the phone with Elaine.
“You should go public,” Elaine stated.
Maryam didn’t know that she could. Those people, her father had said, scorn in his voice. That raised the question: What if she had turned up a joker, and grown horns out of her head or five extra legs? What if she hadn’t been able to keep it secret, what then?
She didn’t want to think about that.
“And then do what?”
“Charge for autographs. Get a sponsorship. Make a little money off these stunts.”
“It’s not about making money,” Maryam grumbled. Then what was it about? She hadn’t really thought that far ahead. Just . . . she could do this thing, she was an ace, she ought to do something with it, right? Make a splash, get attention.
Was that all she wanted? Attention? She hadn’t thought herself so shallow.
Elaine huffed at her in disgust. “But I bet you could make a lot of money.”
“Doing what, being a freak?”
“Well I don’t know, you work it out!”
“Wait, I found something.” Maryam sat up and read the story more closely. “This is it. This is perfect.”
“There’s a new hospital opening, a big charity event. Prince Edward will be there. Can you imagine the press? They’ll get some amazing video.”
“Prince Edward? Em, you can’t. That’s . . . there’ll be so many police there. Security will be really serious.”
“And you think they can stop me?”
“That’s not the point! They might not try to stop you, they may just shoot you!”
“They wouldn’t. It’s not like I’ll actually get close or anything. I’ll just show up at the end of the street and wave or something.”
“So what, you’ll just keep doing this until someone figures out who you are?”
“No one’ll figure it out. They haven’t yet, have they?”
“Maryam Shahidi, you’re addicted! You’re a thrill-seeking addict!”
“You going to help me or not?”
“Fine. Where do you want me to meet you?”
Maryam was thrilled. The crowd was stupendous, and TV cameras were everywhere. The royal motorcade had already made its way to the front of the hospital. She’d get close enough to wave to the prince, then walk off again before anyone even knew what was happening.
She and Elaine got as close as they could, outside the barricades of the police cordon. Maryam had the routine down by now, stripping off her clothes and shoes, arranging her hair loose down her chest, hitching the nylon fabric around her hips and between her legs like some makeshift loincloth, like she was some Biblical Goliath. Ha, maybe that could be her ace name, Goliatha . . .
“When you start making money at this, I need a cut,” Elaine said, gathering up her clothes.
“You do, do you?”
“I’m your assistant. I deserve something for handling your stinking knickers.”
“My knickers do not stink!”
Elaine rolled her eyes.
“Just meet me down by the river. I’m counting on you, Elaine.” She said it like this was some secret mission upon which the fate of the nation depended. Elaine rolled her eyes again and backed away.
Maryam closed her eyes and pulled energy into herself.
Grow. Bigger. Even more.
A great thrilling charge passed through her body, down to her bones. Like she had taken in a breath, and the breath just kept going, her lungs expanding. Like stretching a muscle that had never been stretched before.
When she opened her eyes again, the ground seemed faraway. Elaine, who now didn’t come up any higher than her hips, backed away, wide eyed, before turning and running like a girl in a bad horror movie.
Maryam could look inside second-story windows. She could step on cars. Kick over trees. She laughed, and her voice came out big. Time for her moment.
She came around the building, stepped over the police barricade, took another long stride that brought her into the open—and had no place to go. The street was packed with onlookers, news vans, rows of photographers, and the sleek black limousines of the royal motorcade. The glittering party in orbit around Prince Edward himself stood before the front entrance of the new hospital. Impeccably dressed in a medal-festooned Royal Navy uniform, Prince Edward posed for the endless pictures and video being taken, caught in the middle of cutting the ribbon tied in front of the doors.
Someone screamed. Maryam couldn’t tell where exactly the scream had come from; noises from the crowd seemed tinny and mashed together. The extra height made a difference in all her perceptions. Then came another scream, and another, and the crowd lurched, as every single person tried to move away from her. Chaos ensued, and the police moved in, trying to manage the sudden stampede. All the cameras were suddenly on Maryam, and she had no place to go. At least not without actually stepping on people. A deeply unpleasant prospect in bare feet.
All this attention. Pandemonium, all because of her. This was what she wanted, wasn’t it?
The moment she spent frozen in place, undecided about what to do, her face turned full to the crowd, and what seemed like a million camera shutters went off. Prince Edward, his navy cap settled over a studiously curious brow, merely blinked back at her.
If she could just get across the street, to the car park past the row of shops, she could catch her breath.
Maryam set down a foot and the concrete of the pavement cracked. More screaming followed. Well, this wasn’t good.
Uniformed police and security were replacing the civilian crowd. Only a matter of time before someone arrived with a gun. Maybe that was enough of a show for one day. Maryam turned on a heel and ran back the way she had come, behind the new hospital building, hoping the structure would hide her. Not bloody likely.
She kept running, her footfalls pounding like a jackhammer. Glancing behind her, she saw that a couple of intrepid photographers chased after her. Oh, that really wasn’t good. She needed to get away, to hide just long enough to shrink back to normal—and then what, run around the streets with tent fabric wrapped awkwardly around her? This was ludicrous.
Well, at this height her strides carried her away fast, so she kept going, dodging down narrow lanes and around buildings until she reached the riverside park where Elaine should have been waiting for her.
Elaine was not waiting for her.
“Dammit!” she muttered and let off the burst of energy that dissipated her power and brought her back to normal size. Only this time was she aware that a lightning burst like that in the middle of a cloudless day was like sending up a signal flare.
Normal size weirdly made everything seem big. The trees were too big, the buildings on the other side of the street seemed faraway. It was disorienting.
She started pacing. Her heart was thudding a million times a minute and all her nerves were electric wires, waiting to blow out. A car drove past, and she ducked down behind a shrub, hoping she couldn’t be seen from here.
Still no Elaine.
This was not unsolvable. She could figure this out. Walk home, while avoiding any attention. Wait until everyone was occupied, then sneak inside and up to her room, wash and dress and act like nothing at all was wrong. Pretend to be shocked when the news showed a giant girl attacking a member of the royal family.
She kept pacing. She couldn’t seem to get herself to move out of the trees and find a path that would take her home.
“Em!” shouted a voice, followed by a crashing through undergrowth.
Maryam jumped, startled. “Bloody hell, where were you!”
Elaine appeared, gasping for breath, sweat matting her hair to her face. She carried Maryam’s clothes in a plastic grocery bag. “Trying not to be followed, there’re police and news vans and cars everywhere! What the hell did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything! Basically just stood there! There were a lot more people there than I thought there’d be.”
“I told you! Didn’t I tell you? You can’t fuck around with the royals without something like this happening.” Elaine’s face was turning red, furious.
Their voices were going to carry up to the street if they weren’t careful. Maryam closed her eyes a moment to steady her breathing. Then she looked right at Elaine. “You need to calm down. Nothing actually happened, did it?”
Elaine threw the bag of clothes at Maryam, who ducked, but not fast enough, and it hit her shoulder, then plopped to the ground.
“I’m finished!” she shouted. “I’m not doing this anymore!” She turned and marched back through the trees and up the slope leading to the street.
Maryam’s first thought was of what she would need to say to Elaine to make her stay, convince her that she shouldn’t leave, that what Maryam was doing was good and worthwhile and Elaine would stick with her if she knew what was good for her. What could Maryam say to her? That wasn’t an outright apology, of course, because she would never apologize for this.
Maryam’s second thought was that she could do this on her own from now on. “Coward!” she shouted after Elaine, who never once turned around.
At least Maryam had her clothes and could dress now. Go home, wait for the news, and see where she stood before planning the next outing.
Sweaty and exhausted, Maryam got home on foot, hopped the low brick wall into the back garden, dumped the wadded-up tent by the door, and snuck inside. She was able to get upstairs and into the bath to clean up before anyone saw her, and strolled back down the stairs with a magazine in hand as if she’d been in her room reading all afternoon.
Turned out she didn’t need to wait for the news—a special broadcast was already playing, and the whole family was gathered to watch. When Maryam appeared in the front room, her parents and siblings looked at her, wearing expressions of pure shock that she’d never seen in her life.
“What?” she said, though a chill passed over her.
Her brother pointed weakly at the television, and Maryam watched. A now familiar style of impromptu video was playing, the viewpoint maybe half a street up from the new hospital’s front doors. And there Maryam was, striding into the frame, followed by screaming, and something like a stampede. The image shook, jostled by people running past. The person with the camera seemed to be torn between fleeing themselves and staying to record the moment.
Then giant Maryam turned toward the camera, exposing a clear view of her face, framed by a fall of black hair. The newscast froze this image and put it in the background while the very serious newscaster read from her page.
“The Towering Teenager, as she is now being called, has been identified as Maryam Shahidi, of Horsforth, near Leeds . . .”
Beside the image from that afternoon’s hospital opening, a second photo appeared, an innocuous black-and-white school picture, in which she was wearing a white shirt and necktie and a stupid, toothy smile. The two were very clearly the same girl, and very clearly Maryam.
“Authorities now believe this was not an assassination attempt against Prince Edward as initially believed, but may be nothing more than a schoolgirl prank. In any case, police are looking for Maryam Shahidi, and anyone who has any information should contact—”
That was when the knocking at the door started.
She stared back at her family and wondered if it was too late to simply run as far and fast as she could and never come back.
Her father got up to move toward the door.
“Don’t answer that!” Maryam called. Meanwhile, her brother and sister were pulling aside the curtains to look out the front window. Gasps followed.
“Look at that!” her brother announced, laughing a little.
The front street was filled with cars, vans, and a seething crowd, all pointed toward the Shahidi house. Once the name was out, Maryam wasn’t at all hard to find, it turned out. Noticing the curtains parted, dozens of people with cameras lunged through the front shrubbery to put lenses up to the glass.
“Close those curtains!” Maryam said. Miraculously, her brother did so, and the room went dark, except for the television, where the video footage from the hospital was playing over again. This time, there was a clip of Prince Edward being escorted to his waiting limousine. His expression was serene, as if he’d merely been interrupted by a bit of rain. As if this sort of thing happened all the time. Maryam had to admire him a bit.
From the front door, someone was shouting, “Are you Mr. Shahidi? Is your daughter Maryam? Is she here? I can pay you for an exclusive interview, just let me inside—”
The door slammed shut. Her father wandered back to the front room in a daze.
Her mother was not in a daze. “Maryam, what have you done!” she shouted, hands out, pleading. She was a middle-aged woman, soft and tired, in a smart blue skirt and a nice blouse, her black hair tied back in a prim bun. Very presentable. Maryam had stopped being able to talk to her about anything years ago.
“It was just for fun!” she pleaded. “I didn’t hurt anyone! I just wanted to see what I could do, how big I could get!”
“You could have been hurt, you could have been killed, if someone decided to shoot at you—”
“I had it all planned out, I wasn’t going to get hurt!”
Her mother put her hands on her hips. “And how will you ever find a husband, when people see you walking around naked like that!”
“God, Mum, this isn’t about finding a husband!”
“Don’t ‘God, Mum’ me! What do you think you’re doing? When did this happen? How did this happen? We are a good family!”
“That’s got nothing to do with anything! It’s a virus, that’s it! The wild card! It just happened, I don’t know how, I woke up one day with my legs hanging off the foot of the bed, how am I supposed to know how that happens!” Her father was a cardiologist, her siblings were medical students, shouldn’t everybody in this family know how viruses worked, for God’s sake?
The banging at the front door continued. The voices were shouting loud enough to be heard through the window, and her brother and sister kept stealing glances. Next, a police siren rattled from the end of the street. Her father stood before her, his expression hurt and lost. “Maryam, I don’t understand.”
Her whole family was arrayed around her, and they all looked so confused. She didn’t know what to do about that.
“I’m an ace, all right? That’s it, that’s all it is, I’m an ace.”
Her mother said, “But why do you have to go running all over the countryside—”
“Because I could! I just . . . I wanted to see if I could.” Her eyes were stinging, and if she started crying now she would hate herself forever.
The sirens were getting closer.
This was too much. She didn’t want to deal with her family, and her family didn’t deserve this mess. Maybe she could at least get the police and media circus away from them.
“Look, I’m sorry. I’m just sorry.” She went through the kitchen to the back door, pulling off her shirt as she went. She was already growing, gaining a foot of height with every step. She grabbed the old ripped tent from where she’d abandoned it, then easily stepped over the brick wall, and by then she was visible from the front of the house. She turned and waved, to make sure everyone saw her. That nearly started a riot, and just as she hoped, the crowd surged away from the house, back to their vehicles, trying to race away to follow her and getting tangled up with one another in the meantime.
She didn’t know where she was going, so she just ran, from the yards behind the row of houses to the next street over. She was big enough and heavy enough now that she was leaving cracks in the pavement and asphalt.
If she could get to someplace without roads, the cars and vans couldn’t follow her, or at least would get even more tangled up and turned around trying to follow her. A mile or so on was a bit of pastureland, fenced in, with rambling trails along the River Aire. She could lead them on a big chase, put on one last show, then hide. Then—she didn’t know what. Maybe the Towering Teen would never appear again. She was getting this out of her system, she could vanish, and then be done with it all.
Except that this was glorious. Even with the stress and panic and the police sirens screaming after her, she was thrilled. The landscape swept by her at speed; she was covering entire blocks in just a couple of strides. Her head was above it all. She could see for miles, and the tiny faces of the tiny people pointing at her and screaming went by too fast for her to really see them, and she didn’t care. Nothing could catch her.
The Towering Teenager? Schoolgirl prank? She’d show them.
She stepped into an intersection just as a police car sped up the road, gunning its motor to cut her off, spinning a one-eighty as it slid ahead of her, a move worthy of the cinema. A man in a suit jumped out of the passenger side and held up his hands. At first she thought he was pointing a gun at her—she was quite sure she was still vulnerable to gunfire, even at this height. But no, he just raised his arms, beseeching. He shouted at her, but sounded faraway and tinny; she couldn’t make out the words. Not like she wanted to talk to him anyway.
Maryam rocked back on a heel and veered to her right. The greenway was close and getting closer. Nothing could catch her.
That didn’t stop them from trying. She only just caught sight of the van out of the corner of her eye as it careened down the lane after barely making the turn. A photographer hung out the open passenger-side window, holding a video camera. The car wasn’t slowing down. It raced straight toward her, as if it intended to ram her. And why not? She didn’t look as if anything would knock her over, after all. If they wanted to stop her, running into her seemed reasonable.
This was all mad. She planted her feet, legs apart to brace herself, and when the car came within reach, she put her hand on the roof and pushed. The metal dented. The car stopped, its tires squealing on the asphalt, burning rubber and raising a stink.
Then she shoved it out of the way. Not hard, just to get it to the side of the lane so she could run past it. The passenger was screaming something about property damage and suing her; the driver appeared to just be screaming.
Yeah, she was probably going to get in trouble for that. She kept running, and finally made it to the pasture. Her steps sank into the muddy grass, which felt soft and soothing on her bare feet after scraping against asphalt. She kept going, toward the trees. The noise and sirens and screaming faded behind her. Once she hit the trees she could shrink back down and find a place to lie low. Maybe wait for nightfall, though the reporters would probably be camped out at her house for days. She’d have to find a phone somewhere. Maybe Elaine would let her stay over—
No, that wasn’t likely, was it? She’d be lucky if Elaine ever spoke to her again.
And then she tripped. Her foot hit a soft spot that was a little too soft, a slope where her increased weight was just a little too much, and the muddy grass gave way. Too distracted with all her tangled thoughts, she didn’t catch herself in time and crashed down.
A wrenching, shocking pain ran up her left leg, settling into a deep throb in her ankle. She cried out, lying flat on the grass, gasping for breath and staring miserably up at the cloudy sky. She was afraid to move, absolutely certain that when she did, pain would wrack her ankle again. She’d broken her ankle. Fifteen feet tall, incredibly strong, and she’d broken her bloody ankle with a bad step. Fantastic.
Finally, she sat up to look at it. The pain throbbed in time with her pulse, and she still couldn’t catch her breath. She was sitting in the middle of a pasture filled with sheep shit, and what had she done to deserve any of this? The ankle was already swelling, looking gross and puffy compared to the normal shape of the other. From her point of view, her legs, her own body, looked normal, in proportion, nothing to be alarmed about. She had no idea what her swollen, broken ankle looked like from the outside.
She’d have to go to the hospital, she supposed.
This had been a terrible idea. It had all been a terrible idea. That was obvious now.
Supposing it would be easier to get to the hospital as a normal-sized person, she took a deep breath and released that burst of energy to let go of her size, returning to where she started.
And she screamed. She’d never felt anything so incredibly painful, like her whole foot was being twisted fiber by fiber. It faded into a merely vicious throbbing ache, but she was still left sitting there, all her muscles clenched, gasping for breath. It was clear what had happened: this was the damage of a fifteen-foot-tall woman compacted into a five-foot-five woman’s ankle. Exponential.
For future reference: never, ever get injured while super tall. Or if I do, don’t bloody well shrink immediately after.
She was still sitting on the ground, wrapped in nylon tent fabric and whimpering, when the police found her, a whole squad of them charging down the hill that had betrayed her. Not a single one of them slipped, which seemed horribly unfair. They all stopped and stared at her a moment, as if uncertain what to do. They had been expecting a giant ace, not a miserable teenage girl. While Maryam wasn’t crying, not really, she was sniffing hard and feeling very sorry for herself.
“Maryam Shahidi?” said a woman in a smart police uniform, short hair under her cap. “You ready to come with us now?”
She could only nod.
It happened that her ankle was merely sprained, not broken, which amazed her. How badly would it have hurt if it had actually broken? The doctor assured her that soft tissue damage could be extremely painful, but he was probably just trying to make her feel better.
The hospital wrapped her ankle, put it on ice, gave her a raft of painkillers, and kept her overnight “for observation,” though Maryam was fairly certain the police had asked them to hold her.
Her parents hadn’t yet been to visit her, and she was shocked at how much she wanted to see her mother right now. Even if she yelled at Maryam about finding a husband, she’d also stroke her hair and cry all over her and make her feel that somebody liked her. Maryam had told the nurse on duty that she wanted to see her mother.
The policewoman standing next to the nurse had said, “Not just yet.” Which seemed like a bad sign.
Maryam wasn’t sure how much trouble she was in. While she knew she ought to try to sleep, she couldn’t, and lay in the hospital bed staring up at the ceiling. She was completely unable to remember why she had started all this exhibitionist business in the first place. It had seemed like such fun. She was an idiot.
Close to suppertime, the door opened, and Maryam was all ready to demand that the nurse, or policewoman, or whoever it was, let her mother come see her. But the visitor was none of these.
He was a middle-aged man wearing a nondescript suit with an old-fashioned hat tucked low on his head. The skin of his face had a strange quality to it, a kind of flat, matte look that didn’t seem natural, and he wore gloves. For a moment, he seemed to be studying her, his brow furrowed skeptically. He stepped forward, carefully shutting the door behind him. She shrank back against the bed, growing increasingly uneasy.
“Miss Shahidi,” he said finally. “A very impressive bit of spectacle.”
“I wonder if I could ask you what you hoped to accomplish? You didn’t seem to have any particular goal in mind on any of your outings except causing chaos. Which you succeeded at, I must admit.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
He ducked his gaze, chuckling lightly. “Be patient, we’ll get to that momentarily. May I make an observation first? You wanted to be seen. You wanted to be noticed. But you didn’t necessarily want to cause trouble, or even be identified. With a power such as yours, you could have robbed banks, destroyed power lines, any and all matter of destruction and disturbance. But you didn’t. Also, I speculate that you’ve had these abilities for a number of years. Onset came at puberty, yes?”
She thought that was a rhetorical question, but he waited for her answer, and she felt the heat of a blush on her cheeks. “Yes.”
“So the timing wasn’t random. You waited until after you’d taken your A-level examinations before starting these escapades. Whatever happened would not affect your exams or the results. From this I infer that you care about your future and don’t want to damage your prospects.”
She’d thought she was just blowing off steam after exams. Working out all that stress. But he was right. It had been safer, doing this after exams were done.
“Oh, I have your results, by the way,” he said, offhand.
“We’re not supposed to see them until next week. How did you—” He raised an amused eyebrow and smiled thinly, as if to say what a foolish question that was. She snuggled back against the pillow and crossed her arms. The man waited calmly. Finally, she couldn’t stand it any longer. “So how did I do?”
“You did very well, Miss Shahidi. You’re a smart girl. Surely you’ve guessed by now that I represent a government agency that seeks out talents like yours. You seem like someone who might appreciate the chance to use your abilities for a higher purpose. To help people and your country, rather than simply make a scene that will be forgotten when the next new spectacular ace comes along.”
“The government? The British colonialist government?” she scoffed, trying to poke him, to get a rise out of him.
“Ah, a crusader.” He smiled, unperturbed. “I’m simply presenting alternatives. And letting you know that I could put in a word. If you had your eye on, say, Oxford or Cambridge. There are doors that could be made to open.” He gave a noncommittal shrug.
“And what would you want from me in exchange?” she asked.
“You are still technically underage, so I can’t officially make any offers, and I can’t hold you to any promises you might make now. But let’s say in exchange for my good word, you will be open to meeting with me or one of my colleagues when you’ve finished your degree. My card.”
He walked to the bed and held out a business card. Of course she took it, how could she not? It was expensive-looking, cream-coloured card stock with an embossed royal seal on the left and lettering in a subdued, professional typeface to the right: alan turing, enigma, order of the silver helix. And a phone number.
A higher purpose. Was he joking? No, he wasn’t. One of her A-levels was in history. She knew the name Alan Turing and exactly who he was.
“Lovely meeting you, Miss Shahidi,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said a little breathlessly. “Same.”
He opened the door, but paused and turned back around. “Oh, and you’ll need to come up with a better name than the Towering Teenager. Do think about that over the next year or so.”
The door shut, and the room fell suddenly, deeply quiet. Maryam could hear the blood rushing in her ears. She considered her future. And what else she might grow into.
“Grow” copyright © 2022 by Carrie Vaughn
Art copyright © 2022 by