Keeping Cool (Part 1)
A Whateley Academy 2nd Generation Tale
--- Sunday, July 3rd, 2016
Rockets raced glaring red trails as they ripped across the dusky sky, and distant booms sounded a few seconds after the full light and power of the bursting bombs became apparent. It was the light show to end all light shows in the skies of St. Louis that afternoon, and it was a pity the villain known as the Malypense had no concerns for the festive calendar of the United States, because this performance left the pyrotechnics of that day and the next looking decidedly inferior.
The explosive exhibition had begun with a bang as the front doors of the St. Louis Art Museum slammed to the ground some twenty yards in front of the building. The figure of a man strode through the smoking hole, covered head to toe in deep crimson robes and a cowl that obscured his face entirely. In his wake were two security guards who lay on the floor in far more than two pieces. A single treasure glinted in his hands as the wind gathered around him, whipping at the edges of his robes, and he rose into the sky.
Heroes were on the scene within a handspan of minutes, alerted by the museum's alarms in the few seconds those devices had chance to sound. The Spirit of St. Louis gave chase in his spectral airplane, shooting off missile after missile, all of which failed to find their mark. In following weeks, the Spirit would face a class-action lawsuit for his reckless fire, but in the heat of the moment, the only thing on anyone's mind was catching Malypense. Red Kite swooped in and clawed at him, only to grasp at empty cloth where flesh should be. Then the villain caught her with a dazzle of concentrated St. Elmo's fire, and she plummeted into the elephant enclosure of the St. Louis zoo, not far from the museum.
She survived without injury, but poor Pearl the elephant wasn't so lucky. The zoological society eventually settled out of court.
Malypense sped south-by-southwest, prize in hand and hounds on his heels. The Spirit was flying high, while more terrestrially bound heroes such as Gear Grinder and the MoMo Master commanded their respective minions to prevent him from going to ground. Holiday evening traffic on I-44, a nightmare in any case, became far more interesting with the addition of autonomous motorcycle drones and conjured bigfoot cousins.
From a vantage point on the Gateway Arch, the physical embodiment of Billiken kept a careful eye to the west, sending measured bursts of essential luck and fortune to aid the heroes and prevent too much calamity. Tiny of stature and with hobbit-like feet, the latter-day God of Luck and Things as They Ought to Be wasn't an impressive sight, but in the end he had the greatest influence on events to come. With every bit of good luck sent out, somewhere nearby a cloud of bad luck gathered force, and it was a sign of his skill that when that misfortune struck, it still worked out for the greater good of all.
For when Malypense finally went to ground, finally opened the portal which would take him to his lair, his hard- won treasure was missing one small but important piece. Four days later, the antique necklace of rubies and garnets would appear on the cracked doorstep of the St. Louis Art Museum, safe and intact save for one tiny tear of carbuncle missing from its setting. Nothing else had been taken from the exhibit, and no one had an explanation as to why.
Fireworks like that were meant to be appreciated, Patrick felt. Preferably from very far away. Currently, his favorite viewing spot was up a tall tree near where Fenton Creek met the Meramec River, not far from home. He was miles south of the museum and its surrounding parkland, but the rockets and bombs were clear as day through his binoculars. And to think, he'd been about ready to give up on cape-watching entirely! In the last month, he'd only gotten three confirmed sightings, all of the Spirit of St. Louis, and that was nothing special. That guy would buzz random suburbs just to get attention. But tonight, Patrick had not only logged the Spirit in action for once, but also Red Kite, two other heroes he vaguely recognized from the Illinois registry, and an honest-to-badness villain.
The biggest thrill came when the robed bad guy had turned in mid-air and flown straight towards his position. He'd kept his eyes on the prize, tracking the mysterious ne'er-do-well as the man passed over, with the Illinois heroes in hot pursuit. Sparks were flying everywhere, and by this point the action was so low to the ground that Patrick almost fell out of the tree. Some of the embers from the villain's robes, singed by a hero's fiery blasts, fell too close for comfort. One even made it down the front of his shirt, where it bit into the skin for a moment before he could pat it out of existence.
"Damn..." he whispered. The chase had already sped off into the growing night, leaving behind smoke, echoes, and the pounding of adrenaline in his veins. "What a rush..." This was something veteran cape-watchers talked about, the excitement that came from close calls with the super-powered action. All the intensity, and hopefully less of the danger of being directly involved.
He wondered who the guy in red was. Climbing down from his perch, he scratched at his chest a few times where the sparks had got him, then headed home. It was... he checked his phone. Past seven-thirty! The rest of the way home was taken at a full sprint.
The Shamballa trailer park was not his first choice for home. He doubted it was anyone's first choice, in fact. The place was a dump, with weedy green areas littered with dog crap and cigarette butts, decrepit trailers falling apart at the seams, and a layer of thick, dry dust that got into everything. It was hard to tell what hit his asthma harder, the dust or the smoke off the stoners' trailer next door.
Puh-shah went his inhaler as he took a deep drag. He really shouldn't have run -- he knew better than that -- but the physical consequences were still better than being caught out after his mom's required time, which was...
five minutes ago. Damn.
"Patrick Eustace Dulles!" And there was Mom, right on cue, and there were no convenient excuses for him this time. He couldn't slip in through the back door or a window and fake innocence; not anymore. The trailer was barely big enough for the two of them as it was. There was no way she could miss it when he was there -- or when he wasn't, which was the problem tonight.
"Where were you, young man?" Even in a slightly scuffed G-Mart uniform, Mom was intimidating. Slightly bloodshot hazel eyes burned beneath heavily permed, bottle blond curls, and since she was working the late shifts recently she'd stopped hitting the other sort of bottle so hard. This meant she was a little more coherent, and her breath a little less toxic, but also that she was harder to fool. "Well?" she demanded.
"Was just out watching the skies," he mumbled, holding up the binoculars. She scowled, but since those were the last birthday present he'd gotten from Dad, she couldn't take them away without causing a big scene. And that wouldn't do, because...
"You know I need to be at work by 8:30!" she screeched. "And someone needs to be home so no one in this crap neighborhood tries to break in. I am sick to hell of this place!"
"Hey, you moved us here ..." While true, it was a mistake to say. The flat of Mom's palm met the side of his face with a loud smack that knocked him to the ground.
"Get inside," Mom said, her voice low and angry. "Dinner's on the table, and light's out by eleven, understand? My shift ends at six, and I've got errands to run after that, so expect me back around noon."
Errands, right. He scrambled into the trailer before his mouth could blurt out anything else that would get him into trouble. Mom was a fan of the blackjack tables at the new casino in town, which went a long way towards explaining why they were living here. Picking up his plate of macaroni, cheese, and mystery meat, he sat by the window and fiddled with the blinds until he had the best ratio of visibility to concealment. Mom was already gone, but the local nightlife was just beginning.
The stoners were out of their trailer now, enjoying their stuff in the open air. Occasionally there'd be a business transaction between them and a passerby, but mostly it was giggling and the sound of an out-of-tune guitar. They weren't the best of neighbors, but they were better than the meth-heads at the far end of the park.
He ducked down as a band of roving teens ambled across the street. They were all his age or a little older, fourteen or fifteen, but in the past month they'd made it clear that he was to stay out of their way no matter what. Weed and cash passed hands, and the boys moved on. So far, it was looking to be a quiet night, thank goodness.
After a few minutes of fiddling with the controls, the TV had the evening news on. He settled into the chair and shoveled mac and cheese into his mouth. The big item was the assault on the St. Louis Art Museum, which must've been what he'd seen earlier. A few grainy screenshots from the security cameras made an appearance, giving the only known pictures of the suspect. Yup, he nodded, that was the guy, red robes and all. It was too bad he didn't have a camera this evening. A few good photos might be worth some cash here.
Oh well. He hadn't, so he couldn't, and now he didn't. Story of his life. The last two years had been a steady downward spiral since Dad had left forever, and it hadn't been too good before that. The Shambles was about as close to rock-bottom as they could get in the St. Louis suburbs, and he just knew life was about to prove him wrong on that point as well. It seemed to be a trend.
He was already looking forward to starting high school in the fall, even if it meant having to deal with all the bullies and a-holes who'd tortured him since grade school, because it meant being somewhere besides here. That's how bad it was. Anything that could make Kyle Webster and Terry Lambert the lesser of two evils was a thing to be avoided, and oh how he wished he could. But he was stuck living in this hellhole. At least they still had cable, though.
Once he was sure the news had nothing else on his mystery villain, he channel-surfed for a while until he found one of those lower-tier superhero adventure movies Marvel was cranking out every year. Squirrel Girl wasn't anywhere near on par with The Avengers when it came to budget or effects -- he'd heard rumors they'd hired actual mutants to save on costs -- but it was entertaining enough. The brunette lady they got to play the title character could run and leap with the best of them -- better than she could act, in his opinion.
Normally he didn't pay much attention to Mom's edicts on bedtime when she wasn't around, but when the movie ended at 10:30 he was feeling pretty wiped. That close encounter of the hero kind had gotten the juices flowing, and now he was feeling the crash. He gave up on clarinet practice for the night, though it was the only time he could practice without annoying Mom. He didn't even try to stay up and watch the Late Show like he usually did. It was all he could do to splash water on his face and brush his teeth before he collapsed onto his bed.
Dreams came naturally to Patrick's sleeping brain. Most every night some bizarre narrative would play out on his neurons: vast epic fantasies or frantic space opera, superhero duels or desperate battles against zombie hordes. He even remembered most of it in the morning, to be recorded in his trippy dream journal. This sort of thing he was used to.
The current state of his brain was decidedly not 'this sort of thing.' He was awake, for one. Even though this was undeniably a dream, he was awake and aware of his surroundings in a way that had never happened before. Instead of viewing his own actions from an outside perspective or only reacting to things that happened around him, he was fully in this space and in control of his movements. He could move any which way, bend and stretch, touch his toes or wiggle his fingers in front of his face.
That was about the limit of things, because there was nothing else in the dream. Nothing at all. There was only black space around him, and he couldn't tell if it was infinite or bordered by matte black walls. He couldn't even tell how he could see himself, since there was no light-source. He waited and waited for something to happen, but nothing did. The place was just... empty.
And then, it was not.
The black turned to a deep wine red, and there were limits to the space. Flat, pentagonal planes fitted together to form the perimeter of the world as he dreamt it. Except he wasn't sure what he was dreaming now. There was the feeling of something outside himself, something contained in this space with him. He spun around, twisted and turned, even flipped head over butt as it turned out there was no floor or even a 'down' in this crazy dream. Nothing was there. Nothing that could be seen or felt.
And then, Nothing spoke.
̢̀T́̕̕e͘͡l̢̀͢͞l̨͟͢ ͢m̨̛e̷̷ ͠t҉҉h̨͏͏a͢͟͡t̀ ͞͠w̛̛͟͡h̵͝į̛͘c̸͜͝҉͜h̡̡͡͏ ̸̡̀͜ỳ̢̢͜͠ǫ̵̸̛̕u͏̀͢͢ ͏̶̸̕d̷̕͠ȩ̴̴̶̕s̕͞į̷͏͝r̨̕͢͠ę̶̷͜͠.̶̵̨͟
̴́͡͝F̵͏̷a̧̧m҉͏͡ę̕?́҉͏ ̴̴̸͞ ̵̡͞F̴͠o͏̴̵r̴̸̨t̷͘ú̀͘ń̨͡e̢͟?́҉ ̷̢̨͢͡Ẃ̷̡̕͠o̴r͡͡s̡͡͡h҉̨í͡p̶̢͞?͡ ҉̨̡P̸̷͠͞ơ̷̷͏̸w̷̕̕͏e̵͢r̶͘͜͝͞?̵̢̀͟͢
̀͏̷̵̛A̶̛͟͡͠ĺ͟l͢͞ ̶͘͝͝t̨͟h̸͘͢e͢͝s̷̨͞e̶͏̨͜͠ ̸̢͡͞m̴̕͝áy̸͞҉ ̡͘͏͡b̧͢͏é͢ ̸̡̡́ý̵o͘͞u̴̷͜͞r̶̸s̡͡,̨͟͡ ̸͢͡i͏̸̴́f̸̕ ́͘͟͞ý̴̨̡͘o͢͏͟͝u҉ ̛҉̵̕s̸͜͡͠o̴҉ ̧̕͠w̷̸͡͝i̷̡̛͟͟s̶̷̕͟͞h̢̀͞.͢͞͡͡͝
҉̧͏́S̢̧̛p̢̕̕͞͏ȩ͟͜͞a̛͟k̴̡͘ ͜͠ņ̷̴̕o̢̧͝͞w̧ ͠y̡͜͡o̷̢͘͡u̢̢̧҉̀r̶͟͝͞ ͢͜͏d̡͜͢͝é̷̢s̢͏͜͡i͏̡͜r̶͟͞ę̴̡͢s̸͝͝.̛̕͟͝
The noise came at him from all sides, individual words and phrases vibrating from the outer edges of space and shaking every cell in his body with their intensity. Some sounded stronger, more purposeful than others, but when they came en masse it all merged together into a storm of white, black, blue, purple, and above all red noise. It was amazing he could hear himself think.
̵T͘҉e̛l̶l͢͡ ̛̛m̀é ͟͝t҉h͜͠͞a̛t͘͠ ̕͡w̨̨͜h̵ic҉̕h͘ ̵̶͠yo͝u̵̴ ̷̀d̶͟e̵͜s͏̢͝i̴r̕é̀.҉<
͏͝͝F̀͞a͝m͜͝e̛?͢ ͏ ͏F̕o҉r̵̨͞t̡̧u̧͏n̴̶e͢͡?͠ ́W̷o͜͢r̵͢͠s͏h̵i͘͜p̶?͏̛ P̷̀o͠w̧͢e̡r̷̀?
̷̛͘A̴̢͝ll̸͢͡ ̕͢t҉́͢h̕e͘s̵͏̸e̵ m̨a͏̡y̨͠ b̧e̡͞ ҉y̵̵o͏u̴r̡͟s,̴͢ ̶i̕f͠͠ ̧͝y̵̡͝oư͡ ̶̸̢s̛͜o̕ w̢͜͝i͟͠ş͢h.
̡́Sp̨e̷̢a̴̴͞k̴̛ ͠n̸̕o͢͝w̸͝ ́̕͡y͜ǫ̸u̵͘r͏͜ ̶̷de̷̢s̷͟͏į͟r̀e͜͠͝s̵̨͢.̧͞
There, he'd definitely heard something in the middle of all that hub-bub. It had been a question, voiced so loudly that its echoes remained after the rest had faded back into the ether. "Your... desires?" he repeated as his ears caught up. What was that supposed to mean? This was still a dream, he was pretty sure of that despite all the weirdness. Was he dreaming of a genie? If so, where was it? Search as he might, he was still the only one with light brown hair, or any hair, or even a body to be found in the confines of the red space.
No more words came. Whatever it was that spoke, it seemed to recognize that he'd understood it. So, how was he going to respond? What did he desire, after all? A dozen or more answers sprang to mind, and suddenly they were there, presented on the outer planes like images on a TV screen. Money, food, games, equipment and material for any hobby he'd ever tried... but also things he'd never considered, like power in its various forms, like fame and popularity. There was even one that showed him being worshiped as a god.
None of them rang true with him, though. He reached out to each image in turn, considering how he would feel and what it would get him. They were all possessions, he realized, even the abstract ones. Nothing among them could help the way he felt when speaking to other people, nor would they fix the anxiety brought on by constant social missteps. Sure, they might change the way people behaved around him, but they wouldn't change him, not in the fundamental sense. He'd still be nervous and mumbly and fumbly when meeting people. He'd still blurt out the wrong things at the wrong times. He'd still be a geek and a dweeb and a walking target for all the kids who'd learned years back that he wasn't coordinated enough to fight back. If he had all these riches and power, it wouldn't change all that, only what people said to his face.
He didn't desire any of these things, he realized. Wanted, oh yes. There were plenty of things he wanted, but desired...? The one thing he wanted that much wasn't really a thing at all. It was more a state of being.
"I... I just want to be cool," he stated calmly and slowly. This was still a dream, so what could it hurt?
W͘h̕͢͢a͘͠t́͘͟ i̛͟s̨ ̕͞c͟͞͝oo̵l̨͟?̢҉̵
Now that was a stumper. It was easy to say he wanted to be cool, but what exactly did he mean by that? Again, the outer planes of the space presented a gallery of images taken from his thoughts: of the cool kids at school, how they could be so relaxed and easy with the world around them, with never a misstep or a mistake. More images came from movies of heroes suave and cool, of daring action and quick come-backs, like life could so easily be scripted to make a person awesome.
"Cool is..." he began. "Cool is knowing how to act, how to be always on the ball, never caught off guard or looking foolish. It's being able to speak to anyone without stammering or feeling nervous. It's looking good without trying, and being good at stuff without thinking. It's poise and grace, a quick wit and a clever tongue. It's..." he sighed. "It's everything I'm not."
Ỳ́o҉u͟r̴͏ ̛͞d̛͜e̴s̴̨̛i̷r҉͏e͘ h̨a̸̷͜s ̢̛b̡e̵̛̛ȩ̴͠ņ́ ̧h͘҉ę́͝a҉r҉͢d an͟d̷̡̛ u͠ǹ̕d͞eŗ̶s҉t̸̷o͠o̧͞d̢̀̕.̴̷͡
Really? Patrick wasn't sure if he understood all that, and it had come out of his own mouth. He was about to ask the disembodied voice what was going on, what this strange dream was supposed to mean, when all of existence began to rumble and shake. The flat, pentagonal planes that made up the walls of the world shattered one by one, their glittery fragments coming together into a whirlwind of scarlet dust, which picked him up and dragged him into oblivion.
---Monday, July 4th, 2016
BZZ-BZZ-BZZ-BZZ, his alarm clock gleefully announced that it was once more nine of the ay-em. Patrick bolted out of bed, his heart beating faster than a sports car going zero-to-sixty in record time. Every cubic inch of his body felt like it was overheating, and his lungs were a pair of bellows stoking the fire with every deep breath in and out. He reached for his inhaler, then realized that despite the heavy breathing, his asthma wasn't kicking in at all. In fact, his entire body was cooling down already. A moment later and he was fine, if a bit sweaty.
Man, that had been one hell of a dream. His hand went for the dream journal, only to come up short. His clothes were soaked with perspiration, and his shirt in particular was sticking in odd ways. That's what he got for not properly showering and changing clothes last night, he guessed. The journal could wait. It wasn't like that dream was so complicated that he couldn't remember the details. Quite the opposite, in fact; the color red was seared into his mind at this point.
The sweat worried him more. It was like he'd had a burning fever up until right after he woke up, but he didn't feel sick. He didn't feel in top form, either. The world seemed slightly off-balance, forcing him to step carefully across the cluttered floor of the trailer to the combined shower-toilet. His bladder was complaining, begging for relief, so he quickly dropped his shorts and sat down on the pot without bothering to stop and turn on the lights. Prior experience had taught him that attempting the stand-up method in here was an accident waiting to happen, but as long as he didn't have a hard-on, sitting worked as well.
Wait, something wasn't right. Normally, simply thinking of having a hard-on was enough to have it pop up, much to his regular embarrassment, and a day without a bit of morning wood was a rare one. Maybe it was the fever's fault? Pee was coming out, so nothing was broken or blocked up, thank goodness.
The flow of urine stopped, and he reached down to shake it a bit and get rid of the last few drops. His fingers met only pubic hair. He froze, his left hand hovering over his groin. Something was not right, by which he meant something was... not where it was supposed to be. Which was crazy talk, right? Body parts didn't make a habit of getting up and walking away in the middle of the night. His wasn't the biggest or most developed, a fact that had led to many locker room jokes at his expense, but it was definitely supposed to be there. And it wasn't. The thought slid around on a moebius strip in his head, over and around and over again. It just wasn't there.
Maybe it was only shrunk a bit because he was sick? He clung onto that thought like a shipwrecked sailor to a spar of wood. It was dark in the toilet, but what if he turned on the light? His left hand shot through the door frame and fumbled for a moment before locating the light switch. -click-, the bulb overhead flared into life, filling the stall with a yellow glare.
The mirror wasn't very large, and around the edges it was pitted and worn. Nonetheless, there was enough reflective surface there to make it perfectly clear what was wrong. The person he saw wasn't Patrick Dulles. He didn't look even remotely like Patrick Dulles. His skin was supposed to be Wonderbread white, at least where it wasn't lobster red, but the stranger in the mirror had a permanent light tan. Straight, light brown hair had been replaced with a blend of different shades. He could pick out individual hairs as brown, blond, red, black, or white, but when seen together they formed a wavy mass of indeterminate color. The stranger's eyes were likewise a strange, variable color, shifting from hazel to green to deep blue as the angle of light changed.
And that was just the beginning. Patrick felt his jaw, and the stranger in the mirror did the same, confirming that the shape of his face was definitely rounder and wider than before. Earlobes no longer dangled freely from ears which no longer stuck out like jug handles. The hands -- and these he could confirm as his own by holding them in front of his face -- the hands were slender, delicate, with longer nails, and they were the same odd tan. He looked down, and saw that his feet and toes matched. Also, he had no pants on, which brought him back to his original concern.
He stood up and examined himself down there. Where wobbly bits should be dangling between his thighs, there was nothing. Even his legs were different, slimmer but at the same time more muscular than he remembered. There was a trim patch of pubic hair, which matched the drapes, he was sad to say. It took more courage than he currently had to check more closely.
There was one more thing... his shirt. All this moving and bending was making it clear that it wasn't just the sweat causing the fabric to fit weirdly. It also stank, so he had more reason to strip it off. Up and over his head it went, blocking all sight of that stranger in the mirror who was the same as him but different. He paused for a moment before removing it entirely. Some things, one had to mentally prepare for.
Deep breaths, slow breaths, and time to start. The sweaty shirt flew out the door, and there he stood, looking reality right in the cleavage. He hadn't been sure what to expect, but at least they were... a nice size? He couldn't say. His only experience with girly magazines was also the first and last time he'd left his locker unlocked in seventh grade, when Kyle and Terry decided to paper the insides with pages from Hustler and then sent an anonymous note to the vice-principal to make sure it was found before he could fix it. The boobs in those pictures had been enormous, at least the ones he'd seen before the VeePee had descended like the wrath of God on his head. The ones now were not so big, but nestled between them was a little glint of red.
It was hard to the touch, rounded and about the size of an aspirin. He scratched and pulled at it, but it felt like it was embedded in the breastbone, and not just the skin. Breastbone... breasts. Reality was sinking in now, changing this yellow-lit daydream into a red-tinged nightmare. And he couldn't even wake up from this one, because it was real. The breasts were real. He was real. And apparently he was a girl.
Some days made you regret ever getting out of bed, so he ran back into his as fast as his new girly legs could carry him, pulled the sheets over himself, and prayed that despite all he knew and thought he knew, that he would wake up for real, for really real, sometime soon. Pretty please, God?
AROO-GA! AROO-GA! His second alarm went off, louder and longer than the first. Ten o'clock, and he was still huddling under the covers, wishing for it all to go away. Wish, wish, wish... what the hell good were wishes for, really? A wish had gotten him into this mess, but it didn't look like he was getting out that easily. His... his breasts weren't about to vanish, and his other parts weren't going to reappear. What was he going to do?
AROO-GA! AROO-click. Turning off the alarm was a good start, he supposed. Then it hit. Second alarm, ten ay-em -- it was an early warning to expect Mom soon, and he looked like this. The list of possible reactions was a short one, depending largely on how well Mom had done at blackjack this morning, and how much she'd had to drink. The odds of a good outcome were dismally low, in his experience. His best bet was to avoid a reaction entirely by not being here when she came home.
It wasn't the first time he'd thought about running away, but if ever there was a good reason to get the heck out of Dodge... well, he had two good ones hanging off his chest right now. The thought of Mom spurred him into action. He didn't have much of a plan, but it was better than hiding under the covers. Five minutes had him in and out of the shower, mostly clean and thankful that his hair was still short. Ten minutes later, and he had a much better understanding of what girls meant when they said they had nothing to wear. His boxers no longer fit properly; in fact, they bunched up in really uncomfortable ways. That didn't leave much alternative but to grab some from Mom's room.
His mother's bedroom balanced out his own at the far end of the trailer, and was the same size: tiny. If anything, it was messier and more cluttered than Patrick's own room, with clothing scattered everywhere. He knew for a fact that she never brought anyone over, though he was pretty sure she was dating and not telling him. Looking at the mouldering piles of dirty laundry, he had to wonder why and how anyone would be interested. The only clean underwear he found still had the G-Mart tags on them.
There was something weird, practically sinful, about trying on his own mom's underwear, but it wasn't like he had much of a choice. He picked out a few pairs, avoiding the thongs as being a bad idea, then tested the waters with a pair of blue bikini bottoms. It fit far too well for his peace of mind. He rolled up the rest of the underwear in his bag and stuffed it in his bag.
Bras were a different problem. He had no idea how big his were, but Mom's were apparently bigger. It was a struggle to get the thing on, only find his breasts bouncing around like apples in a bowl. Back in his own room, he dug out an old t-shirt that he hadn't worn in years. The yellow cotton was stretchy enough to fit tightly over his skin, and held his breasts in place. Then he got a looser button shirt on over that so it wouldn't be so obvious.
His pants and shoes fit fine, thank goodness. Socks and other small items joined the rest of the clothing neatly folded in his bag, and as he ran down his mental list he could feel the shiver of excitement. How many times had he thought about going through with this, but he'd been, well... him. Patrick Eustace Dulles, the skinny dweeb who was always tripping over his own feet, or someone else's feet. Now he was someone different. He wasn't sure how or why, and he definitely sure he wasn't ready to be a girl.
Mom had her secret stash hidden in a compartment of the kitchenette which she didn't realize he knew about. Patrick had been careful not to take anything once he'd found it, instead patiently waiting for the right time. There was a bit over three hundred dollars in there, plus a few free samples of questionable legality which he chose to ignore. With cash in bag, he was ready to go. He slipped out the front door --
And there was Mom backing the car into the parking spot. She was home early, which meant she must've bombed at blackjack, which meant she was probably pissed... and angry, too. There was no way to avoid her. Mom couldn't have missed him, and he thought he could almost feel the burn of her stare through the windshield glass. What to say? What to do? His mind was full of panic, the familiar chaos of doubt and failure that usually brought him to his knees. His mouth, on the other hand, wasn't paying attention to it.
"Oh! Mrs. Dulles? Nice to finally meet you!" Suddenly his body was closing the distance between him and Mom, taking them both by surprise. "Patrick's told me so much about you. Oh, this is embarrassing," he heard himself say. His new voice was as feminine as the rest of him, light and cheerful and showing no sign of how much he was freaking out right now. "Um, Patrick's in his room. I kinda wore him out this morning, so I was going to get a soda from the machine while he got his strength back."
Wait, what? Where the hell had that come from? Had he just implied... oh hell, he had. Mom's face was turning beet red, which was never good. Inside his brain, he was spinning in circles, frantically trying to stop his mouth from getting him into deeper trouble, but...
"Anyway, since you're home I guess I'll run along! Bye, Patrick baby!" his voice called back to the inside of the trailer. "Come around my place next time. Mwah!" He actually blew himself a kiss, with one sinuous arm motion that screamed intentions of more illicit hanky-panky. "It was so nice to meet you, Mrs. Dulles." And now he was hugging his mother. He hadn't done that in years.
His feet didn't seem to want to walk normally. Instead, he skipped down the paving bricks to the rough roadway that circled the trailer park, turned left, and then pranced towards the exit. Behind him, he could hear Mom shouting inside the trailer, demanding to know who that 'little black slut' had been outside. Wait, black? His skin was darker than it used to be, and his face was different too, but she'd really thought he was black? It didn't bother him too much -- no more so than anything else that was going on -- but to hear Mom screech, it was some sort of high treason to her, that he'd not only brought home a girl, but a black girl.
Whew, was he glad he'd always arranged for study groups to be anywhere but his own house. Mom definitely would not have approved of the few friends he'd managed to make in middle school.
He was almost safely to the main exit when Mom ran back out, ranting about the 'whore-thief nigger' who'd just robbed her trailer. Oh, crap. The local gang of bored hoodlums were ambling by at that precise moment, in time to hear her offer a reward. Oh, crapper. And he was clearly visible at the end of the street. Oh, crappest.
The Shambles wasn't particularly large, maybe four blocks of trailer lots, with at most half of them occupied. All the commotion caused heads to stick out of windows and doors up and down the main road, and also from the low-rent houses of the next section over. He could feel the eyes on him, could practically count the number of people paying attention, but he was a little busy right now. There was a heat in his chest. He didn't have the time to describe it better in his head; it was a spot of warmth that didn't belong, and that was all. Stranger was the fizz of excitement that seemed to cover his entire body. Running from the gang of boys was exciting, when instead it should be frightening the pants off him. They knew the layout of the trailer park better than he did, but he still led them on a merry chase around the rusted hulks of mobile homes -- and sometimes over or under as well.
At one point, Gerald Mathers had him trapped in a corner formed by two trailers, and he'd grabbed the boy by the shoulders as he kicked his way up the wall, over Gerald's head, back onto the dirt behind the boy, and then dashed off before anyone realized what just happened. A moment later, he'd made a slide worthy of the World Series between Charlie Kotter's legs, slamming an elbow in the jerk's nuts as he passed. Charlie'd had it coming, after that time last week with the mud wallow.
Through it all, that fizzy feeling got stronger and the warmth in his chest grew hotter. His body was light and limber, not even breaking a sweat in the morning sun. As the local boys organized one last Keystone Kops chase scene, he realized he was actually enjoying himself. He wasn't quite in control of his own actions, but he was riding them, directing himself back towards the main road and the spot where his bike was parked. After an impromptu game of leapfrog left Charlie Kotter's face in the mud and Dwayne Guerrero flat on the concrete, he was ready for the big getaway.
There were three combination locks on his bike at all times, and usually it took him a minute or two to get them undone. This time, the tumblers practically flew beneath his fingers, clicking open without effort. In ten seconds, he was mounted and racing for the open road, with his brain only now catching up the events of the last five minutes. Why had he said that stuff to Mom?
Because, a part of his brain replied, it got her mad, distracted, and inside the trailer, so he could get away. All it took were the right words at the right time.
And that getaway? When had he learned to run and jump like that? For that matter, why wasn't he hacking up a lung from asthma right now? Middle school P.E. class usually killed him quick, but instead he was feeling awesome... Awesome. Cool. That runaround the trailers bit was like something out of a movie, and he'd come out on top without even breaking a sweat. Poise and grace. Quick wit and snappy comebacks. That was what he'd asked for in his dream. Everything he wasn't...
Oh, God. He really had done this to himself.
The road led up into Fenton's main shopping area, home of its G-Mart, plus a few other businesses that had settled in like satellites around the Goodkind corporate gas giant. He passed straight through without looking back. The G-Mart was about the only local hangout there was for kids in this area, especially for the ones living in the Shambles. He doubted that Mom -- or anyone in the trailer park, for that matter -- would call the police. It wasn't the sort of place that welcomed law enforcement, and the sheriff's office didn't have the best of reputations down there. Even so, he kept his head down and gave all cop cars a bit of distance. There was no point in tempting fate right now.
The fizz of excitement had died down to a faint buzz along his neck, and his throat tickled with thirst. He bought a bottle of water from the nearest convenience store, sipping slowly as he pulled out his cell phone and considered his options. Tossing it from the bridge over the Meramec seemed like the best course, but he needed it for other things first. There had to be someone on his limited list of contacts he could ask for help. Who, though? Most of the guys from school were out of town at various summer camps. He'd been so bummed about not being able to go with them. There was Alan, but while the boy was fun enough to hang out with, he also had the bad habit of perving on anyone with double X chromosomes and decent-sized boobs. Patrick certainly wasn't ready for that.
This left the girls' side of the contacts list, which meant Lara. She was the only female on his list of study-buddies, and about the only girl in middle school who'd give him the time of day. Nervously, he brought her up on his phone's screen and tapped a message: *Lara r u there? Need help.*
It took a few minutes to get a reply, and he'd almost given up hope when the message popped up on the screen: *What is it? Kinda busy.*
*Need help. Crazy sitch. Left home. Meet @ library?*
A moment later: *Library closed. July 4, remember?*
Oh, duh. All the personal fireworks in his life had made him forget about the real ones on show tonight. Still, the county library was the best place to meet up. It wasn't far from her house. *Outside library? Srsly need help. No1 else to ask.*
*At Grammy's. In Mehlville. If u can get to Union Road Park, then OK.*
He thought about it. Mehlville was on the other side of the river, which meant either the bus or riding his bike along the highway. Yesterday, he'd have balked at the second option, but today... Today, he was awesome.
*Will mail when I get there.*
It happened again as he crossed the bridge. That fizzy feeling of excitement engulfed him, and his body wasn't completely his own. The first twinge had flickered down his spine as he'd looked up the road at the traffic. Everyone had somewhere to go on the 4th, and they had to get there ASAP. The fact that everyone else was in the way was a minor obstacle. The old him had looked down upon that mess from the nearest hill and despaired, knowing that it was much too dangerous for a kid on a bicycle, with or without protection. The new him, the part of him built of heat and fizz, switched gears and zipped right in, weaving through traffic like it was one big game of Frogger.
He was too scared to look, but too scared to shut his eyes. Traffic was slow, and that was the only saving grace for him today. With frightening ease, he could cut through a lane of cars, overtake semis, and bypass the bit of construction at the far end that was causing the mess in the first place. On, over, out, and he was still alive. His heart had only stopped three times along the way, and it quickly skipped back into service after each.
Union Road Park was almost due east and a bit to the north of the bridge; he remembered that much at least. There had been family trips over that way, far in the past. By car, it wasn't very far at all, but by bike it took him almost an hour to negotiate the service roads below I-55, even at the speeds he was now uncomfortably comfortable with. He stopped for directions twice, but arrived with no more fuss or fear-induced adrenaline rushes.
*@ park* he texted. Patrick found a picnic table near the creek and waited. The slab of concrete dining furniture was recently vacated, to judge by the crumbs and cracker bits scattered around. Nearby pigeons and squirrels were giving him the stink-eye for being such a snack-blocker, but scattered when he threw some stale cookies their way.
-beep- *Be there in 10.*
*OK. Near W entrance. @ table.* His thumbs slipped as he typed, and he had to redo the next part twice. The power of coolness did not extend to texting, it seemed. *Something crazy happened,* he typed, being careful to spell it out completely. *I don't look like me anymore.* Patrick wasn't sure how much more of a warning to give. Some things had to be seen to be believed, and this situation was definitely one of them.
He kept his eyes on the park entrance, and spotted her as soon as she arrived. Lara Washington was the prime reason why Patrick never had study groups over to his old house: lanky, pretty, with dark chocolate skin and hair in coiled braids; she would have hit every racist trigger Mom had, if this morning's performance was anything to go by. He'd also had the biggest crush on her last year, and he was anxious about how his current body would react to that. Did he still like girls? Would guys start looking good to him?
Less than a day on the other side of the gender divide, and he was already worried about the romantic implications. God, he really was such a teenager. There were bigger things to worry about, like convincing her he was legit. Even with the warning, Lara's eyes passed over him twice before he waved to get her attention, and she hesitated before coming over.
"Pat?" she asked dubiously.
"Unfortunately, yes." God, his voice sounded higher than hers now.
"No offense, but you look like a girl."
"Pretty sure I am a girl now," he sighed. "Told you it was a crazy situation."
"Can you prove it?"
"I could drop my shorts if you want, but I didn't think you were into that sort of thing." Ack! Where'd that come from? Once again, his mouth was going on autopilot, but Lara took it in stride.
"Meant prove you're Pat." She had her fists on her hips, with that no-nonsense look she'd gotten from her mom the corporate raider. "Because this is starting to look like a sick joke."
"Last March, right before history class started. I wasn't feeling well and you hadn't finished your homework essay, so we managed a bit of projectile..."
"Okay, okay. You might be Pat after all." Her eyes narrowed. "So what happened, are you a mutant or something? What do you want?"
Huh, he hadn't even thought about that. Could mutations do this to a kid? Did that explain all the other crazy stuff, the heat and the fizz and the sudden onset of daredeviltry? Right about now, he would do a lot to have a basic class on what to expect. Too bad the Mutant Ed class wasn't until the second semester of high school at the earliest.
"I don't know what happened, but I think it's got something to do with that big hero -villain fight that happened yesterday." Quickly, he told her about his close call with the battle, the ember down the shirt, and the crazy dream that night. "And when Mom got back in the morning, she kicked me out of the house. Well, she thought she was kicking out my secret girlfriend, but if she'd known I was me then she'd've kicked me out, too."
"Secret girlfriend?" That got a snirk out of Lara. Was it really so hard to believe that he could have a significant other, really? The old him wasn't that bad looking...
"Yeah," he said. It felt like he should be blushing right now, but apparently that wasn't cool, so he didn't. "She also thought I was black, which appeared to make it worse."
"What, really?" Lara got right up in his face, examining it. He hadn't been this close to a girl ever, and he suppressed the urge to give her a quick kiss. Something told him it would certainly not be cool. "Yeah," she continued, nodding her head. "I can see that. Some folks can't get over others having a bit of color to them, and you're just dark enough to make an impression. I'd say you look more Hispanic, but what do I know?"
"So can you help?"
"Hmm... maybe." There was a calculating gleam in her eyes. "You're really, truly a girl now? No faking?"
"Nope, and how I wish it were otherwise."
"Okay, here's the score." The black girl sat down at the table and gave him a serious look. "My mom's out of town right now, so I have to stay with Grammy for the rest of the month. She's not feeling well, and needs someone there in case of emergency, I guess. Now," she said, raising a finger. "I could use some help here, myself. People keep inviting me out to do stuff, but I'm stuck Grammy-sitting. You sit in for me, and I'll make sure you've got a place to stay. But no funny mutant stuff," she warned. "You don't have any weird powers, do you?"
"Not that I know of," he said half-truthfully. He wasn't sure how to explain the 'cool' bit. "I'm not sure of a lot right now, but I don't seem to have fireballs or anything."
"Good. If you got any flashy tricks, keep them to yourself. Don't want folks thinking I could catch something off of you. Well, come on," said Lara. "Let's get going. I'm not supposed to leave Grammy alone for too long."
"No. It's okay. I'm okay." At least, he thought so. He was starting to wonder how good an idea this all was, but, he'd have to go with it for now. If Lara's Grammy was okay with him staying over, then good. If not, then it was back to square one. It wasn't like he had a lot of other options; this was the only plan in town.
It wasn't that far of a walk, fifteen minutes at most. Patrick spent most of the time doing his best to further convince Lara he was for real, rapidly going through three years' worth of middle-school war stories in the hopes that the sheer depth of detail would help. She was still looking a little dubious by the time they arrived, but she wasn't calling him a liar either. He couldn't blame her, since the situation really was that bizarre. It was amazing to him that the conversation had gotten this far at all. At times, he could feel the heat and fizz surge behind his words, adding an extra oomph or shaping his voice tone and word choice to what was presumably the best for convincing skeptical friends.
Grammy's house was a surprise. Patrick had understood on some level that Lara's family was as well off as his own was not, so he'd expected something nice, but the little structure before him was stolidly standing in the very middle of the middle class, circa 1955. There were red brick walls with sugar frosting accents, ornately carved eaves and window frames, with a second-floor loft on one end and a chimney on the other. It even had a white picket fence surrounding a neatly trimmed yard. Blue gingham curtains were pulled tight, blocking the view within, but Patrick thought he saw one ripple gently, like someone was watching them walk up the stepping stone path to the front door. Garden gnomes stood silent guard with a lawn jockey and a pair of plastic flamingos for company.
"Whatever you do," Lara warned. "Don't put anything out of order. She's really funny about that. In fact, don't touch anything, okay?"
He nodded and followed her through the front door. The inside of the house was neat and tidy in a June Cleaver sort of way, with a metric ton of knick-knacks covering every horizontal surface. One shelf held a legion of tiny dolls, each the size of his thumb and ranging in style from Russian nesting dolls to something vaguely oriental and demonic. On another, there were dozens of pairs of little plaster shoes, and below those were crystals in a hundred different colors. It seemed Grammy wasn't a collector of anything in particular, just a collector, period.
The first room off to the left, the one with the rippling curtain, was a library. At some point it had probably been intended as a living room, but that was far in the past. The four walls were dominated by shelf after shelf of the printed word, and the smell of dry old paper filled the air.
Sitting in an antique green reclining chair near the fireplace was an old black woman. She was covered in shawls of lace and silk, which wrapped around her shoulders and blended in with the doily-like coverings of the chair. One lay like a spider web over the bun of hair atop her head, held in with a hairpin. A pair of reading glasses perched upon her nose, connected to a delicate chain around her neck. Her face was thin and drawn, and bore a startling resemblance to her granddaughter beneath sixty-some extra years of life.
"Grammy, this is my friend Pat. She's in a bit of a bind right now and I was wondering if she could stay here with me for a while?" Lara said sweetly.
"Hello, ma'am." He ducked his head in greeting.
The old woman stared down her nose for a moment, then replaced her book and took off her glasses. "Lara, child. What did your momma teach you about takin' in strays?" There was a touch of the delta to her voice, making each word flow out slowly and seriously.
"That if I want to keep it, I gotta take care of it right," Lara recited in bored tones. "But Pat can take care of h-herself, mostly. Please, Grammy? Her mom kicked her out this morning, and all she's got is a bag and a bike."
"And just why did her momma do that? We don't want trouble 'round here."
"She didn't approve of my dating choices, ma'am," he said quickly. It was true enough.
"What if I don't approve of this boy either?"
"Hard to say, ma'am. He doesn't exist. Mom only thought he did, so I think it's safe to say she'd disapprove of anyone. She didn't even approve of me that much." This last sentence slipped out with the intent to be flippant, but he caught it at the tail end as it exited, twisting the tone to one of resignation. It was a sad truth, unfortunately.
"An' where was this?"
"The Sham... ahem, Shamballa Estates, ma'am. The trailer park in Fenton?" Oh God, he hoped she wouldn't call to check up on his story. Even though it was all true in the large details, Patrick wasn't sure how anyone would react to the little ones.
"Hmph. That place." The old woman had about as much respect for the Shambles as the next person, it seemed. "Well, can't blame you for wantin' to get out of there. Lara, could you get us some tea? I'm feelin' mighty parched over here."
"Yes, Grammy." The girl looked like she wanted to protest, but a look from her grandmother sent her scurrying.
"Now," Grammy said from her chair. "Is there anythin' else to this story you'd be wantin' to add?" Her tone sent a shiver down Patrick's spine. There was something incredibly, deadly serious about this old black lady, and he wasn't sure how to reply.
"I'm not sure how much I'm comfortable talking about yet." But as usual, his mouth had its own agenda to follow. "My mom and I had a lot of issues."
"Fair enough." Grammy gave him another once-over. "Just what are you, anyway? You ain't white, ain't black, ain't any sort of Asian or Latino I've ever seen, so what then?"
"I'm just..." He searched for the right expression. "I'm all mixed up, ma'am."
That got him a big, toothy smile. "Ain't we all, child. Ain't we all. And none of this 'ma'am' business. Call me Grammy, y'hear?"
Lara came back a moment later with three tall glasses of sweet tea, and he settled into a guest chair while the three of them participated in some obligatory small talk. Grammy was a fiend for details, and he ended up talking about a lot more of his life and the previous school year than he'd intended. The fizzy feeling returned, but remained in the background. Once or twice, he felt himself steer the conversation away from areas that would reveal his normal gender, and for the first time he was glad to have a unisex nickname. He wasn't sure that he and Lara could maintain the facade so well without it.
"Now then." Grammy clapped, ending the frivolous part of the conversation and moving to serious business. "I'm sure Lara has mentioned this, but in my house there are rules which I 'spect you to obey. First, no bringin' home boys."
"Not a problem, Grammy." On the other side of this conversation, Lara was making grimaces to show her opinion of this rule. The girl was quick to put her face in neutral whenever her grandmother looked her way.
"Good. Second, you're 'spected to do your share of the chores. That means cleanin', cookin', or anything else I need help with. Third, the second story loft is locked, an' it's gonna stay that way. I know it's pointless to mention, since y'all got the curiosity of kittens, I'm sure, but I don't want anyone goin' up there, understood?"
"Finally, in this house we are up by eight every mornin', and in bed by eleven 'cept under special circumstances. I can't stand slugabeds. I know that's a tall order for you teen-age kids, but I insist y'all try."
"I'll do my best, Grammy."
"I'm sure you will, child. Now, since today's the Fourth, we'll be makin' some things to take with us to the light show, and you can help in the kitchen. You know how to cook? Amazin' I have to ask, but in this day and age..."
"A little," Patrick answered. "Mostly simple stuff, for when Mom wasn't around to make anything." When she worked the day shift and drank the night away, he'd cooked his own dinner every night, in fact. "It was usually edible."
"Hmph. At least you're honest. Let's get you started on the potatoes."
Six hours later, he arrived at Forest Park with a big bowl of potato salad in one hand, a tupper full of chicken strips in the other, and two quarts of sweet tea slung by a cord over his shoulder. Patrick was proud of that potato salad; he'd never made anything like it before, and beneath Grammy's benevolently dictatorial glare basic kitchen work had gained much more importance than he'd have thought possible. While zipping through a dozen tubers with an old straight-razor peeler, he'd had little time to think. He'd needed to prove himself useful to Grammy, so he'd done the work as quickly, effectively, and yes, coolly as possible.
The old lady had worked him hard, too. Peeling, chopping, carrying, lifting, it never really ended. The food was only his first load to deliver to the picnic site. Grammy had tons of other stuff still in the back of her little Mazda.
"Hey Grammy!" he heard a voice call from up ahead. A man, brown as old leather but still technically 'white', was waving them over. "Thought you wouldn't make it!"
"Now have I ever missed one of our little get-togethers?" Grammy called back. "Mercy sakes, Louie! You should know better. Howdy, Cynthia, Lloyd." She nodded to the other folks seated on the broad quilt which covered this section of the grass. Her three friends were at least as old as she was. Cynthia was very light-skinned, with the sort of red hair that came out of a bottle, while Lloyd was so dark he could make an eggplant seem pale. They'd apparently been there for some time, as witnessed by a bag full of empty beer cans.
Grammy tutted when she saw those. "Now Lloyd, y'all know you ain't s'posed to drink so much anymore. It's not good for what's left of your liver."
"Yeah, like this weak-ass stuff's gonna hurt me none... er," the man named Lloyd stopped when he noticed Pat and Lara standing nearby. "Right, right, gotta be 'sponsible for raisin' the young'uns on the right moral path. Don't be like this ol' sad sack," he declared. "Take care o' yo'selves, and stay off the sauce... even if I done drunk water that'uz stronger than this glorified horse-piss..." Patrick heard the old man mutter under his breath.
"Anyway, y'all," continued Grammy. "This here's my granddaughter Lara, who's staying with me this month, and her friend Pat, who's also staying with me for a bit while she gets her life together. Say hi, children."
"Hi!" he and Lara said in perfect harmony. They couldn't have done it better if they'd rehearsed it, and there was a brief pulse of warmth from his chest. He chose to ignore it this time.
"And we brought food!" Grammy announced as Pat unloaded everything and then ran back for more. There were casseroles, pies, sandwiches, and cakes left to deliver. That kitchen must've been busy for several days, and not just this afternoon.
"Oh, Grammy, ya shouldn'uv!" squealed Ms. Cynthia in a most un-old-ladylike voice. Her accent was way southeast, maybe Georgian, he thought.
"Well, Cynthia, you know your favorite movie line..."
"Ah heve ahlways relahed on the kahndness o' strangeahs..." Cynthia finished for her, playing up the accent until it was almost unintelligible.
Six on the blanket was a bit crowded, even when it was two skinny teens and a bunch of lean old folks. Louie and Lloyd ceded their places to the 'li'l ladies,' which annoyed Patrick. That wasn't who he was, goshdarnit! He had to fume in the secret silence of his brain, however, as his mouth's chatbot function was once more in high gear, picking up on conversation threads and quickly taking them over with questions and commentary. He couldn't even let it prattle on without paying close attention to the output; that conversation with Mom was still heavy on his mind.
What was up with this, anyway? What part of 'being cool' meant he had to sit back and watch himself take over the conversation? Or should that be 'herself,' since at times like this his mouth certainly wasn't a part of him! On the plus side, no one seemed to suspect anything, so he was spared any questions more embarrassing than Mr. Louie's good-natured ribbing about boyfriends. Now that he had time to think about it, the idea of a relationship just made him feel queasy.
"Well, children," said Grammy once the last of the potato salad was gone. "The lights start at ten, which is in three hours." She said this with firm exactitude, even though she didn't have a watch on her wrist. Patrick decided to trust her on it, though. "Lara, were you gonna meet up with friends? Hmph, well remember what your momma said. Take Pat with you, and let us ol' fogeys jabber 'bout the old days."
"When men were men!" Louie shouted, red in the nose.
"And women were always cleaning up after them," Cynthia added, thunking him on the head with a tiny fist.
"And children listened to their elders," finished Grammy with a nod. "So I want you two back by ten-thirty, y'hear?" They nodded. "Good. Now, git!"
She didn't have to tell them twice. Patrick let Lara lead the way, but wasn't surprised when the girl stopped just out of sight of the picnic spot.
"For the record," she said. "You're helping me with Grammy, and I'm thankful for it, but right now she's using you to keep a leash on me, which means you're getting in my way tonight. Try not to be too much of a problem. You do anything to embarrass me or get me in trouble, and I'm outing you, understand?"
He nodded with a gulp.
"Right, now the official story for my friends is that you're my cousin or something from Illinois, and I don't know you that well but Grammy insists. Practically true anyway," she huffed.
"I'll behave," he promised. "Scout's honor."
"And no yakking like you did with the old folks. You're gonna avoid attention, comprende?"
"Comprendo. I'll be a happy wallflower tonight."
"Good." With that, the girl turned and stormed off into the dusk, with Patrick at her heels like a good lapdog.
He could feel a strain in his chest, where the heat was pulling, but he covered the spot with his hand and squelched it firmly. There was being cool, and then there was being smart. He was thankful he could tell the difference right now.
Grammercie LeRoi -- Grammy to friends, family, and the world at large -- sat back with a glass of sweet tea and watched the girls go. "Whatcha'll think?" she asked as they vanished into the dusk.
"Somet'in' odd 'bout the friend," said Lloyd. "Could 'bout swear half o' that conversation wuz on autopilot. Body language wuz a bit weird, and her eyes wuz all o'er the place."
"A runaway?" Louie asked.
"Seems like it," Grammy said. "Runnin' from what, that's the question. She's a smart one, and sweet. No question she gots a mouth like an electric typewriter, though." She sighed. "Gotta wonder how she got mixed up with Lara."
"Causing trouble again, is she?" Louie asked. "You got my sympathy."
"Just the usual, boy trouble. Started up as soon as school finished, Marnie tells me. And now this Patty girl... I dunno. You're right how she feels odd, Lloyd. Not just how she acts, either. Marnie told me 'bout all of Lara's school friends, in case some'un she wasn't s'posed to be seein' popped in to start trouble, and there ain't no girl named Pat, Patty, or Patricia on the list. Had a Patrick, though. When Lara got that message from a 'Pat' this morning, I figgered it was him. Then she comes back from the park with her little stray in tow."
"Well, that wasn't a boy," Cynthia said. "Why did you let her stay, then?"
"Whatever's goin' on, the girl's got real problems. Couldn't say no to that." She shook her head. "Got some bad chills off o' this. Might have to consult some higher powers."
"Pray?" Lloyd suggested.
"Yeah, that too."
Keep your head down, stay quiet, avoid conversation, keep cool. He repeated his four priorities over and over in his head. Lara was forging a trail through the most crowded section of the park, where musical acts performed on stage and vendors sold all things fried and on a stick. There was a carnival atmosphere, one that sent thrills across his skin and fed the heat and fizz. Somewhere deep inside him there was the urge to break out, be noticed, ride the waves on this sea of humanity... but he'd promised Lara. No grabbing attention, no standing out. With that to anchor him, he could resist.
It was funny, really. The old Patrick was an expert on staying unseen and uncool. This should have been the easiest thing he'd done today. So, why was he sweating bullets now?
Lara's phone had some sort of friend-search app on it, which made him a little jealous. His phone was an antique by comparison, barely good for basic communication. Armed with technological superiority, the black girl located her friends in record time, and Patrick found himself being introduced to people he already knew.
Becca, Ashleigh, and Mairead; he'd seen them at school many times but always in passing. They were all a grade ahead of him and Lara, and would soon be sophomores at the local high school in Fenton. How had Lara gotten into their orbit? He was sure they'd never been friendly when they were all at the same middle school, but now his friend was circling them like a small moon.
"This is my cousin, Patty," Lara was telling them. "She's from across the river, in Illinois. Visiting for the summer."
"Hello," he said, trying to keep things simple. Their triple-strength X-ray stare of social relevancy scanned his profile for a moment, so powerfully he could almost feel it pressing over his skin. Apparently he passed muster, if barely, and the social gossip continued. He listened, but couldn't make much sense of it all. Too many names were unfamiliar, and there was generally no context given, which made it even easier to stand back and remain unnoticed, thank God.
"Hey, who's the new girl?" And then it was like someone had aimed a spotlight right at him. He could feel the question pass through the fast-growing pack of teenagers, feeding the heat and being fed by it in turn. Eyes homed in on him, and Lara was forced to give another round of introductions to satisfy everyone's sudden curiosity.
By the third time this happened, the black girl's patience was running thin. "I don't know what you're doing," she hissed in his ear, "but stop it. Avoid attention, remember?"
"I'm trying!" he whispered back. "It just... well, it just happens."
"Lara-doll!" A new voice joined the conversation, slightly older and a hundred percent more masculine. He knew it far too well. "Who's your friend?"
"Terry, this is Patty," she said. A slight quirk of the mouth told him she recognized the irony of the situation too. Terry Lambert had tormented Patrick Dulles for most of elementary school, and then for two years of middle school, and was probably all set for another three years of high school hell at Pat's expense. Yet here his tormentor was, all gentlemanly and polite, getting introduced to 'Patty'... and Lara's smile suddenly had a whole new meaning for him. It said, 'Keep your mouth shut and smile, stupid,' followed by 'One word, and I can end you.'
He kept his mouth shut and smiled.
Lara and Terry wandered off a ways, and the way they did, arm in arm and hip to hip, screamed that they were an item. When had that happened? And why Terry, of all the idiot jocks in the St. Louis metro area? Pat wasn't about to ask, but he could sure wonder at the weird ways of the world.
Keep your head down, stay quiet, avoid conversation, keep cool. It was such a relief when the fireworks finally started.
Much, much later, Pat lay in a borrowed bed in Grammy's guest room, wondering what the hell had happened to his life. On the table nearby, his cell phone showed it was a quarter after one, and his brain was too busy to sleep. Mom hadn't called, not even once. He hadn't really expected her to, but it hurt anyway. She hadn't even tried to find out what was going on. Probably thought he was in cahoots with the 'girl' who'd robbed the trailer, she did.
Life as he knew it was over, ruined, kaput. He had no home, little money, his worldly possessions in a backpack, and his current host seemed more intent on using him as an excuse to get out of extra work than on helping him.
Lara had sworn him to secrecy on the subject of Terry, which didn't bode well. She'd also threatened him a second time with exposure if he did tell, which was pretty much par for the course at this point. The Lara he knew from middle school study buddy groups had given way to this new Lara, and the difference to him was almost as dramatic as his own, if not as physical. He had to ask himself several times this evening if he'd ever really known the girl he'd spent so much time studying with and silently crushing on, and the conclusion he came to was not very heartening or flattering to his intelligence. To her, he'd been the means to an end, either to get decent grades or to provide excuses and backup when there was something she wanted. She was simply being more honest about it now.
So to sum up, he was screwed. Nowhere to go, nowhere to return to, and one wrong move would mean the end of him when his supposed friend ratted him out from sheer caprice. Why oh why had he made that dumb wish in the first place? That question rattled around for the longest time. The status quo had been pretty bad, but there'd been a sort of stability to the awfulness. One wish made in a dream, and his entire existence was up-ended, and for what? A desire to 'be cool'? He wasn't even sure what 'cool' was anymore.
It was all the stone's fault. That tiny fleck of red between his...his breasts, goddamnit! He had breasts now, all because of that thing! In the dark of the night, all alone and without the stares of others, his chest had finally stopped sending pulses of heat and fizz to the rest of him. His head was clear, and he was mad. Mad at himself, mad at his mom, mad at life.
Most of all, he was mad at that goddamned bit of rock stuck in his chest. During his time in the shower, he'd explored that little scarlet nub, but poke, prod, and pry as he may, it wouldn't budge a micron. It was stuck to him and seemed perfectly content with alternately running and ruining his life. He hadn't asked for this... well, okay, he had, but not with these specific details! Not with breasts and hips and... and... girl bits down there. The loss of his boy bits hadn't hit home until this evening's shower, when he'd had more time to get over the general shock of the situation and focus on specifics.
It was aggravating how he could only act shocked about this when he was alone. Part of him had wanted to scream and shout and rage at the changes, but couldn't. Not because he was too timid to do so -- he was mad as heck, and couldn't take it anymore!-- but because it wasn't cool. He had felt that even when later on he wanted to sit down and cry in the middle of the park. Keeping cool meant maintaining composure, and with all those eyes surrounding him, he just... couldn't. Couldn't scream, couldn't cry, couldn't do anything except stand there and look unruffled by it all.
Please, he quietly begged to the red chip of stone. Take it back. I don't want this anymore. It's too much, too different, too fast.
The rock in his chest wouldn't answer. Mute as any other stone, it sat there in his skin, in his flesh, inanimate. There was no red haze with its booming, incomprehensible jumble of words, no genie to push back in the bottle. It was just him and the... things on his chest. He clutched at them, wishing he had the strength to rip them right off, and to hell with whatever power had put them on him in the first place.
His breasts weren't going anywhere, unfortunately. Patrick slipped out of bed and padded silently to the door. Magic had made them, made him what he was now. He tiptoed down the hall towards the kitchen. Maybe, just maybe, magic could undo it as well. Stainless steel whispered as he drew a knife from its holder on the counter, and he unbuttoned his nightshirt to expose the source of all his current troubles. All it would take was a small, careful cut, and the magic would be out of him...
The stone flared red, sending a flood of heat outward at the same instant he heard footsteps enter the kitchen. The knife returned to its holder in a blink, well before the lights clicked on.
"Mercy sakes, child, what is going on here?"
All he wanted to do was cry, really. He wanted to collapse on the floor right then and there and let it all out, to moan and sob about how hard this was, how he wanted it gone, wanted to be free, wanted to be normal.
Instead, he felt his head turn and heard his mouth reply, "I was looking for some cheese. My stomach was keeping me up."
Grammy was giving him the weirdest look, and he realized his shirt was still half undone. His hands crawled up his front, fixing it neat and nice, and once more he was presenting a perfect, cheerful image, a happy little lie to the rest of the world.
"Child," the old black woman said. "We are gonna have a talk."
A flight of stairs had never seemed so tall as the one Grammy led him up now. Keep out of the loft, she'd said. Mind your own business, she'd said. He for one hadn't intended to pry, since he was in no state to push the boundaries of politeness, but apparently this was where Grammy intended to have her talk, and he couldn't say he wasn't curious.
Man, did these stairs seem to go on and on! From the first step upward, the length of the flight of steps seemed to stretch, and every further step was hard-won. It was like reality was turning to taffy, or maybe one of those dreams where he was running down a hall, and the door at the far end kept moving farther and farther away. He was puffing from the effort, but when he looked back, he saw less than a dozen steps to the bottom.
"Sorry, child. I forgot to turn that off." Grammy slapped a section of wallpaper lightly and muttered 'zeno-mumble-something,' which somehow made reality snap back into its proper shape. He blinked when he saw he was already to the second story door.
"Mercy sakes, you're a stubborn one, too. Lara never made it half that far, or even realized what was happenin'. Knew you wuz special."
Not as special as Grammy, he was beginning to suspect. One look around the loft confirmed that. It was packed with curios, much like the rest of the house, but also old chests and dressers full of dusty cloth and costume jewelry. Along one wall there was a banner, an old cloth hanging like something from the circus, which proclaimed the fortune-telling prowess of one 'Madame Grammercie LeRoi.' Beneath it on the wall was an old photo of a young Grammy wearing a gypsy outfit and sitting behind a crystal ball. She didn't look much older than Lara.
"You were a carnie?" he asked, then clapped his hands over his mouth. It was the first truthful sentence in a long time to slip out of his mouth without thinking, and it had to be a rude one. Go him. Yay.
"That I was, child, 'mong other things. Maurice and I got our start workin' the carnival circuit in the mid-Fifties." She nodded to another old photo, one of her and a handsome black man a few years older than she was. "Maurice was a strongman, though he didn't look it. Man could lift three, four times more than anyone else in the bizness. But oh, how sweet a man he was. Wouldn't hurt a fly what done him no wrong, and always ready to help others. That's what done him in, too, sad to say. 'Bout fifteen years ago he got caught in a two-bit villain's hostage scheme up on the Arch, and Maurice felt obliged to take the woman on. Almost won that fight, too." She shook her head. "Almost."
"So... you wanted to talk about old times?" he asked, hopefully.
"Hardly." Now the old woman's eyes were firmly in the present and staring right through him. "What I'd like is some straight talk from you., but I don' think I'll be gettin' that just yet. So instead, I'm gonna ask the cards." She motioned to the low table in the center of the room. It was covered with a plush velvet cloth, black with flecks of white like stars, and on either side was a thick cushion to sit on. "G'on, get your skinny bee-hind down and shuffle for Grammy."
Something rectangular and thick was pressed into his hands, a sort of balsa-wood box with mystic-looking scribbles on the top. Opening it up, he saw that it was full of cards, like a trump deck but much older and tougher. He flipped through them, noticing how some looked like regular playing cards with odd symbols, while others had vivid illustrations. Grammy let him examine them for a moment before tapping the table to tell him it was time to start.
He split the cards and began shuffling. This was normally his mom's job, on the rare occasions they played a game together, so his technique was usually awful. Of course, now he had the power of cool and an audience. No blackjack dealer in town could shuffle better than he did now, flipping and twirling the cards, doing every trick he'd ever seen, and then some more for good measure.
"No need to impress me, child. A simple shuffle'll do."
That stopped him cold. For a moment there, he'd gotten lost in the feeling, riding the awesome and enjoying himself without realizing it. He merged the two remaining stacks of cards together and handed them to Grammy.
"Now, I'm gonna lay out a spread for you, and we shall see what we shall see." Three cards were placed in a row, face down. "These three represent you, personally. Past, present, an' future. An' these," she continued, laying out two columns of cards perpendicular to the first to make an H. "These are your virtues an' vices. Vices..." She tapped the left-hand column. "... are what's holdin' you back, while virtues are what'll help you move forward. Finally, we got the influences." She lay down two more rows of cards parallel to the first, one high and one low. "The influences on your side are the good 'uns. The ones on my side are the bad. These are the people, events, an' things that affect you, whether you know it or not. So, let's see what we got."
She flipped the first row over in order from left to right, from his point of view. His heart skipped a beat when the first one revealed a tall gentleman, lanky in the way of a man who literally had no skin on his bones, dressed in a fancy suit with top hat and tails. The next card was hardly better, showing a young man dressed in bright rags cheerfully dancing along the edge of a cliff. The third was a picture of a lady in flowing red and white robes standing beside a black-maned lion. She was stroking its head like it was a pet.
"Death, the Fool, and Strength," said Grammy. "Those are the three cards that reflect your past, present and future. Don't be too worried 'bout the Baron there," she added, tapping Death with one long red nail. "His card can be literal, but more often he's a met'phor for change, 'specially big ones. No bigger change than goin' from one world to the next, after all. Seein' as he's standin' in your shadow, as it were, it's safe to say you been through some big changes recently."
He could only nod at that. 'Big' hardly seemed big enough a word to describe it all.
"The Fool, now there's another odd one. If you look, his number's a zero. He ain't nothin' at all yet, but he's not hopeless, either. In the trump decks, he's the Joker, the wild card, and seein' him at the center of your spread means you got some learnin' to do. The Fool don't know where he's goin' or how he's gonna get there, an' if he's not careful he might just fall off that cliff, but then again, maybe not. He's ignorance and innocence all wrapped together, but if he -- and by that I mean you, child -- can get y'all's act together, then eventually you'll be like this lady." She tapped Strength. "Power and control. That lion o' hers could break her like a twig, but it ain't never gonna do that. Strength ain't in the arms, but in the will."
Grammy made it all sound so simple, but from where he was sitting Patrick could feel the cliff looming below. It was also a little disturbing to him that his past and present cards were dudes, but his future was a woman. Then again, they were only pictures. He could be reading too much into that. "Time to go to the bad news. The vices are what are keepin' you from gettin' to your future strength, so let's see..." She flipped over the left-hand column, presenting three playing cards with different symbols than he was used to. "One o' Wands, Five o' Swords, Two o' Cups. Or Clubs, Spades, an' Hearts, if we wuz playin' poker. All good cards, usually, but we got 'em in a bad spot. Wands is all 'bout fire, power, and excitement, and the One card means you're in new territory what you never 'spected to be. Lost and confused. The Swords is sharp, full o' ideas an' inspiration, but the Five tells me you're goin' too far, too fast. And then we got the Cups, which is the suite of deep emotions, the sort you fall into and drown yourself. Two o' Cups says you're split inside, an' the two halves ain't workin' together too well. Altogether, they say you should be in a right sorry state." She eyeballed him, daring him to say otherwise.
He played mum, and after a moment she shrugged and turned over the other column, the one she called the virtues. "Eight o' Swords, Temperance, an' the Six o' Cups. A good set to balance those vices. The Eight's a call for decisive action. Sometimes the worst thing to do when you're in uncharted territory is dither around and waste your choices. Make a decision and stick with it. Temperance," she continued, tapping the picture of a young woman standing by a lake with two pitchers in hand. One was pouring water onto the land, and the other into the water. "She's about keeping your impulses in check, so's you don't trip over your own feet. An' the Six of Cups is a card that means balance. All three together like this could mean that you need to find your center, choose your path well, an' don't get too hung up on distractions."
Well, that was easy for her to say. His life seemed to be one big distraction at this point. He was certainly good enough at getting people's attention without even trying.
"For the influences, let's start with the past." Grammy turned over the first one on her side of the table. It was a picture of a man and a woman, naked but for conveniently draped hair, branches, and strands of ivy. It reminded him of old Sunday school pictures of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The card itself was upside down from where he was sitting. "Lovers, inverted," Grammy said with a nod. "A romance -- or at your age, more likely a family relationship -- gone bitter and toxic. Don't take a detective to figger out that one."
He nodded at that.
"So as far as the past goes, it looks like the bad blood between you and your momma's got a big influence. Let's see what we got to balance it." She reached over and flipped the card in the matching space on his side. This one showed a great tower being struck by lightning, its top section about to fall to the ground far below. "Hmph. Rare to see the Tower in a positive spot like this. Looks like you done burned a lot of bridges behind you, and that it's s'posed to be a good thing you done. Not thinkin' 'bout goin' back to momma, huh? Good," she said as he shook his head emphatically.
"For the present, your big influences are... The Magician as a negative and the Priestess as a positive. The Magician, he's an active seeker o' knowledge; unlike the Fool, he knows what he's lookin' for and ain't too nice about it at times. I dunno who this could be, but you better watch yourself. The Priestess on the other hand is a keeper o' knowledge an' secrets. Not to toot my own horn or nothin', but I think that's me. Now for the future..." She turned over the top-right card, revealing another Strength, but upside down. This time, the lady's clothing was blue and yellow, and the lion's face looked a lot less friendly.
"Um..." he finally spoke up. "Is there supposed to be two of those in the deck?"
"No, there ain't. The cards are gettin' uppity again." Grammy glared at it for a moment, then went on. "So, opposite o' Strength in this case ain't weakness, if you're wonderin'. The Lady and her lion are still together, but she ain't got no control over it. The beast could eat her as soon as help her. It could happen to anyone with power, unfortunately. You either control it, or get controlled by it."
That wasn't a happy thought, all things considered. How many times in the past twenty-four hours had he felt like he had zero control over his own actions? Far too many.
The final card of the spread was another woman. This one was dressed like a queen in fine robes and a crown upon her head. In one hand she held a large cup, and with the other she stroked a sword. A royal scepter hung on the wall behind her, and coins lay strewn beneath her feet. "The Empress," Grammy said. "She's a person who commands respect an' authority; a lady with allies, who knows she can't do it all by herself. A good person to know, in any case. Deal fairly with her, and she'll do the same for you."
The old black woman leaned back and pondered a moment. "Your life might be more interestin' than I 'spected at first, child. Maybe more'n you 'spect, too. Let's get you to bed now. Gotta be up in a few hours."
He protested all the way down the stairs and to his bed, but it was mostly for show. The fortunetelling session had actually helped, in a way. It had given him something to focus on, and maybe something of a frame to help him sort the puzzle pieces of his life. Nothing made sense, but now there was the vague sense that it could, if he worked out how to fit it all together.
In any case, his brain had settled to the point where sleep was crashing in like waves upon the sand, and he barely remembered being tucked in, or Grammy kissing his forehead. And he certainly didn't remember her saying, "Sweet dreams, Patrick," though he mumbled a "Thank you" right as he passed out. He didn't even remember any dreams the next morning.
"Lord Almighty," she muttered under her breath as she went back up the stairs to her cozy sanctum. A wave of the hand restored the wards to their former state, making sure there'd be no unforeseen intrusions. Unforeseen. Hmph. Once upon a time, there wasn't anything that could surprise her, but she'd stopped looking a long time ago. Hadn't needed to look in almost that long, in fact. Gazing into the abyss of the future wasn't all it was cracked up to be, 'specially when the future started gazing back and telling you all the things you didn't want to hear about all the things you couldn't possibly change.
But she'd just had to take a peek this time, hadn't she. Just with the cards, which didn't tell the future so much as they reflected the current reality, but that gave her enough information to feel the shape of the world to come. She wasn't sure she liked how it felt.
Out of an old cedar chest she pulled a well-cushioned felt bag. Its contents rolled onto the table and nestled in the plush, like it was an old cat returning to a favorite sunny spot. The old crystal ball gleamed in the low light, tempting her.
"I made a promise," she muttered. "Promised myself I'd never use you again, after what you showed me 'fore Maurice died." Grammercie sighed. "But here I am. Shee-yit. We gots to see what we gots to see, so let's get on with it."
The crystal ball winked at her. It could have been a trick of the light, but it wasn't.
----Tuesday, July 5th, 2016
"Oh, what do you think of this one?"
Patrick's morning had begun with a bright flower print dress getting shoved in his face, and that had been the start of a trend. Now, he was wearing that flowery dress, and despite every fiber of his being silently crying in embarrassment, it looked good on him. The current piece of fabric assailing his eyes was full of swirly rainbow patterns. It was some sort of shirt; he was pretty sure about that. Just what kind, he couldn't say. The previous hour had taught him that Lara didn't really care what he thought, either. The girl just wanted a sounding board that could reliably nod at her comments and suggestions, because he didn't know enough to have an opinion.
"It's nice," he ventured. "Bright colors are good, right?"
"If you can wear them right," she replied, implying that of course she could.
The two of them were standing in one of the many clothing stores of the South County Center Mall. He couldn't really say which. There were so many, and they tended to blend together after a while. Hanging from his arm was a bag of cheap, frilly bras, bought on discount from a store on the first floor. They were his, he was sad to say.
Grammy had taken one look at the state of his wardrobe, which fit in his backpack with room to spare, and declared it wholly wanting. An hour later, he and Lara had been unleashed on the unsuspecting mall with cash in hand and a command to find something presentable for Pat. That mission lasted as far as the off-brand lingerie store. They were in and out of there in less than ten minutes, much to his relief, and after that he hadn't tried on one article of clothing.
"You can have my old stuff," Lara had declared. "It'll all look good on you anyway." She'd then gone on to replace as much of her old wardrobe as possible, promising him at every turn that her hand-me-downs were at least as nice as the things she was trying on for herself.
Did he mind? Not really. Bra shopping had been a humiliating enough experience, but also a necessary one. How else was he going to figure out his cup size, after all? It wasn't like he had any idea how to do the measurements himself. Watching Lara go at it was an educational experience, too. He wished he had a notebook to scribble down every bit of fashion wisdom and semi-arcane vocabulary, but that would've been too obvious. His memory would have to be enough, crowded as it was. If and when he needed to defend his pretense of girlhood, he'd be ready.
On the plus side, he'd texted Grammy with the exact time when Lara'd unilaterally declared the shopping trip to be all about her. The old lady had acknowledged, which meant he won the bet they'd made over how soon this would happen. He didn't know what he'd won yet, but he was looking forward to finding out.
Occasionally the thing in his chest would twitch and burn, usually right before a shop attendant came by. So far he'd kept the red stone out of sight, aided unintentionally by Lara's self-indulgence. She'd been off looking at other things while he'd tried on bras, and now she was trying on everything else instead of him. It was kind of a relief, really. He wasn't sure how to explain it if anyone asked.
"Lara! Hi!" And then there was another downside to this trip -- well, one that wasn't linked to his need to buy a bra in the first place. Everywhere they went, there'd be one or two people who knew Lara from somewhere, and once contact was made, the girls seemed obliged to chat, gossip, and bitch for five or ten minutes before parting ways. And he was expected to join in. His brain had no idea what to say; he didn't know these girls or anything about what they were discussing, but his mouth always seemed to provide the right responses. The other girls would giggle at a witty comment without laughing at him, which was a new experience, but he could tell Lara was annoyed every time something came out of his mouth.
He actually knew this girl. Dina Radford was in their grade at school, and he'd actually spoken to her before, socially. Imaginary warning sirens began to sound in his head.
"Who's your friend?"
"Oh, this is my cousin Patty. She's tagging along for the week. What do you think of this one, Patty?" Lara asked, holding up a one-piece dress with narrow black and white stripes. She looked like she was enjoying putting him on the spot like this.
"It needs a good top to set it off," his mouth replied. Random observations gleaned over the course of the morning assembled themselves in his forebrain and leapt from his mouth with wild abandon. "Something with a bit of color, but not too bright. Maybe that denim half-jacket from two stores back? The dark blue one with the embroidered flower designs? After that, we could get a loose belt to cinch the waist in a bit. Your blue sandals, the ones your wore last night? Those would go well with it too."
Lara was staring at him like he'd grown a second head or something, but his mouth kept going. "Now that light floral print skirt over there would go great with a darker color..." His eyes tracked around until they found a violet camisole with a low neckline and cut - out shoulders. "Perfect!" His hands grabbed it and swung it around, presenting Lara with a faceful of fabric. "Why don't you try it on?" he asked.
"Oh, that would look great together!" Dina agreed. Short brunette curls bobbed up and down as she nodded at his suggestions.
"I dunno..." Lara said. Then her eyes lit up and she smiled deviously. "Why don't you model it for me, Patty? I'm sure it would look good on you." What was the expression? Hoisted on his own petard? He didn't know what a petard might be, but right now he was hoisted so well that he was getting a metaphorical wedgie. There was nothing to do but be cool about it, so with a mental shrug he let his other set of instincts lead the way. Things went much more smoothly when his interests and coolness were aligned. If it weren't for the whole girl thing, he might even enjoy it more. But as he closed the fitting room door behind him, the coolness cut out, and it was just Patrick in front of that full length mirror. In a dress. With boobs. Looking way too hot.
Last night's panic returned, setting his arms and legs to shaking. He wanted to cry, to cry out and give a voice to all his doubt, his humiliation, his confusion, but his mouth was still sealed. The fitting room blocked sight, but not sound, he realized. As long as Lara and Dina could hear him cry, he couldn't.
Shakily he stripped down to his underwear. The chip of red showed up like a bloody little wound in his chest, and try as he might he couldn't stop staring at it. Finally, he clinched his eyes shut and pulled the top on. The skirt followed soon after. He was thankful there were no complicated fasteners or ties to do up, because he was going by blind touch here.
When he was (probably) ready, he opened his eyes to survey the scene. There he was, still looking hot, and Lara was right about how it would look, damnit. The elastic band in the skirt fit his hips snugly, and the top was tighter than he would have liked -- which was to say it showed off his cleavage perfectly.
The One of Wands, the Five of Swords... New territory, indeed. In over his head, definitely. Two of Cups... The outside and the inside were too different. He could feel himself squirming inside the outfit, and inside his own skin as well. It was... wrong. That was the only way to describe it. This hottie in the mirror moved as he moved, but that didn't mean she was him. He focused on that thought, focused on that disconnect between how he felt and how he looked. How was he ever supposed to get used to this?
"Hey, everything okay in there?" Lara shouted through the fitting room door.
"Yeah!" he called back, his mouth running on autopilot again. "Are there any pendants or necklaces available? I think this outfit could use a little extra something." Huh, where had that thought come from? His eyes returned to the mirror, and he realized. The chip of red crystal was plainly visible sticking out of his chest, and the outfit did nothing to hide it.
"Here." A hand, Dina's, appeared over the top of the door and dropped an item into his waiting grasp. It was a long leather thong, looped around once and cinched by a sort of buckle... a bolo tie? The buckle was a pseudo-silver arrowhead shape with plastic turquoise insets. It looked gaudy, but if he pulled it all the way to the ends of the thong, it fit around his neck and over the crystal perfectly.
"So, how does it look?" he asked as he stepped out. Pat was embarrassed and nervous and ready to run, but his body skipped along and twirled in front of the two girls. Dina was clapping while Lara looked sour but trying to hide it. Well, she had said he'd look great in it, and he did. The black girl did not seem to like being right this time.
"Wow, you look gorgeous," said Dina.
"Thanks," he said. "And also, thank you for letting me borrow this." He tapped the bolo tie with his thumb. Beneath it, he could feel the crystal pulse warmly.
"No problem. I had to get it for my little brother. Just good luck that it was in my bag. You're right, it really does accentuate that top. I'm tempted to let you keep it."
"There's no need for that," he said hastily. "I'm not sure I'm even gonna buy this..."
"Oh, but you should! Don't you think so, Lara?"
"Um, yeah." Lara looked like she was sucking lemons.
"In fact, weren't you going to come to my party on the ninth, Lara? You should bring Patty along, and she can wear this! It's perfect!"
"Perfect, yeah..." He and Lara seemed to be on the same wave-length here -- namely, 'no, that sounds perfectly awful' – but Dina didn't notice.
He slipped back into the fitting room and promptly collapsed against the wall. Who the hell did he think he was fooling? Everybody but himself, apparently. As he quickly changed into the flowery dress, he counted all the ways this could go so, so wrong. He might slip up, say the wrong detail to the wrong person and be outed. That didn't seem too likely, given his mouth's track record so far, but there was an even better chance that Lara would do something if he accidentally went too far.
Find your center, Grammy had advised. That was easier said than done. The way he was feeling, he was lucky to be able to find his own ass with both hands and a map.
It was a nice ass, though... He had to slap himself at that thought. This may not be his body, but he was riding in it, and the last thing he needed was to objectify himself like that. He could not, would not, dare not enter that line of thought right now.
"Where to next?" he asked Lara once they and Dina had said their goodbyes. The brunette was quite taken with 'Patty,' much to his dismay and Lara's disgust, and not only had they bought the entire ensemble for him, but the other girl had already called her mom to confirm one more guest for the party. It all left him a little dizzy.
"We are not going anywhere," Lara said, emphasizing the pronoun. Her eyes were fixed towards the far end of the mall, and when he followed her gaze he saw Terry ambling their way.
Behind his mask of coolness, Patrick made a face. They still had an hour left before they were supposed to meet Grammy, and he didn't want to spend it in the presence of Lara and Terry's smug power couple dynamic. Last night had been bad enough as it was.
"How about I wait for you in the bookstore?" he said, for once finding unity in his thoughts and his words. Before Lara could reply, he was walking away in the opposite direction. "Remember, Grammy said to meet her by the entrance in an hour!" he called behind, as much for Terry's ears as for Lara's. A scowl slipped across the black girl's face for a moment, but it vanished as quickly as it came. If he hadn't known to look, he would've missed it.
At least the bookstore was a good place to kill some time. It wasn't exactly part of the mall proper; it had been built adjacent and then connected by covered walkways. There was a good-sized reading area, nicer than his local library's, and an upscale cafe. He wandered up and down the aisles, letting his feet do their own thing. A few minutes later he stopped in front of the local history section and considered one of the books on display. Adventures Under the Arch: A History of Heroism and Villainy in St. Louis sounded like the kind of reading he might enjoy. The back cover mentioned an index of local and regional supers, both good and bad, which got him to thinking as well. From where he was standing, dress and all, it seemed too convenient that his changes came so soon after his close encounter with the action on the third, but he still didn't know who the guy in red had been or what the villain had been up to. Maybe this book could give him a clue or three. He picked up the paperback edition and went on.
Trusting in his feet once more, Patrick let himself walk around aimlessly until another section caught his eye: Sexuality and Gender Studies. One of Wands, lost in new territory... but what if there was a map available? His eyes swept across the shelves, only to get lost themselves in a forest of incomprehensible titles. That drew a sigh from his chest. He didn't even know enough to figure out what he didn't know.
Closing his eyes to shield them from the visual verbal onslaught, he ran a finger across the book bindings. At this point he was willing to trust in blind luck... but then something else happened. There was a flicker in his chest, not as full of heat and fizz as the usual, but something nonetheless. It grew warmer as he slid his finger one way, and cooler as he retreated back. Warm, cool, warmer... warmer... and then there was a gentle pulse as his pointer finger brushed up against a particular tome. Moving away from that one book caused the pulse to cut off, only for it to resume when he touched it again.
He opened his eyes.
His finger lay on a squat paperback, by its color scheme more a pop-sci book than an academic text. Pulling it from the shelf, he could see the cover was littered with little male and female signs, those funny circles with either arrows sticking out the top or plus signs coming out the bottom, only some of them had both bits, or neither, or odd variations. Gender in the Modern Age was the title, and one look at the table of contents was enough to grab his attention. Specifically, there was the third chapter: "Trapped in the Wrong Body: Gender Dysphoria in Teenagers."
"YES!" he shouted. "This, this, a hundred times this!" It took him a moment to realize he'd actually vocalized all of that, and that for the first time in two days he'd said something that was completely him, completely unguarded and unaffected by the crystal's influence at all. He traipsed down to the register, too excited to care.
Lost he may be, but not for long. Eight of Swords. Time to take control of his life. Now he only needed to figure out how.
"So Lara tells me you can play the piano, child," Grammy said after lunch. The three of them had sandwiches and tea in the old lady's kitchen, and Patrick was all set to retire to the guest room when his hostess dropped this one on him.
"Yes? A little," he said, which was the exact truth. He and Lara had taken piano lessons from the same tutor for exactly one month back in sixth grade. Then Mom had stiffed Mrs. Childers on the monthly fee and he'd had to quit. Pat hadn't so much as touched a piano in over a year, and he was pretty sure Lara knew that, so why even mention it?
Payback, he realized. Somehow, Grammy had known that her granddaughter had hooked up with Terry that afternoon, and there'd been a stiff, cool, and frighteningly polite argument about it when they were picked up from the mall. He hadn't breathed a word to Grammy, but Lara obviously suspected otherwise. This was her subtle way of reminding him that she knew all about Pat's history, and controlled how much everyone else knew of it as well.
"Play us a little somethin', child." There was an old upright piano sitting against one wall, with some sheet music leaned up against its face. Grammy was smiling and encouraging him to try, while behind her back Lara was grinning wickedly.
He could say no. He should say no. He wasn't going to, though. Lara thought she knew Pat, thought she could set him up for a fall, and he was getting tired of this game. Sitting on the piano bench, he stretched a little and got himself used to the position of the floor pedals. He'd really only learned the basics, and for sure his technique would be rusty as hell, but Pat thought he could manage something simple, like 'Chopsticks'.
Too bad the sheet music was all Beethoven, specifically the Moonlight Sonata. The little black notes seemed to wriggle as he stared at them, swimming like tadpoles in a pond, and his eyes couldn't catch them all. He was trying to make sense of it all, to figure out the time signature and key, when he heard the music play out in his head. It started out slow and regular, one hand playing a repeating set of chords while the other slipped in to add higher notes and accents... and then his hand reached to turn the page and he realized he was actually playing. It wasn't in his head at all.
It was beautiful.
He'd never been able to coax sound like this from a musical instrument; nothing had ever come close. All through middle school other kids had jokingly called him tone deaf, but that wasn't true. It might have been better if he was, because then he wouldn't have understood so sharply how far off the mark he was at times.
But now his hands begged to differ. Now, they could play anything, he felt, and he rode that feeling, rode that music and enjoyed himself as it worked its way up to more and more complicated harmonies until there was a sudden shift in speed and precision of notes and he was flying through new worlds of sound. He didn't even notice the passage of time until the fugue passed and the sonata ended. Then he saw the clock had jumped ahead by fifteen minutes.
Wow, what a rush. Maybe there was something good to this crazy situation after all.
At least Grammy had enjoyed it. Lara's reaction, once they had a moment alone, was much less positive. She pulled him out into the back garden and gave him a glare as prickly as the nearby rose bush.
"Why didn't you tell me you could play like that?" she hissed.
"Why'd you tell Grammy I could?" he countered.
"Had to give you a bit more background," she said, but he could feel the lie for what it was. Inwardly, Pat sighed. He was right after all. "But seriously," Lara continued. "When'd you learn to play like that?"
"I've been taking lessons." The falsehood came smoothly to his lips, but Lara saw through it fast enough that she could've been psychic.
"Not the way you play everything. Ms. Feldman finally stuck you with clarinet 'cuz it kept you in the back and easily covered up at recitals."
Ouch. That hit him right in the pride. It didn't help that she was right; it never did. Normally this would be about the time he'd back down, pull himself out of the argument before the other person could reduce him to a gibbering mass of emotional jelly, but the same sense of the perverse that made him take up the piano challenge now told him to stand his ground, that Lara's foundations weren't as strong as he'd imagined.
"There's a lot you don't know about me," he said, choosing his tone and words carefully. "And a lot I don't know about you, too. Like, no one told me you weren't supposed to be seeing Terry Lambert. Anything else I should be aware of, in case Grammy asks?"
"No." The syllable was short, sweet, and biting. "If she asks you anything about anything, then you play dumb. Seen nothing, heard nothing, know nothing. I find out otherwise, and I tell her everything. Do you think she'll be happy to hear she's got some sort of tranny freak under her own roof? Didn't think so," she said, watching his face. "Never forget, you're here to cover for me. I'll let you tag along when necessary, but no cramping my style, you hear? No reminding me of the time or anything in front of Terry, either."
"What happened to you?" he found himself asking out loud. "You weren't like this in middle school, or at our study groups." Pat couldn't quite get himself to finish with a comment about becoming such a bitch, but he was thinking it really hard.
"If you hadn't noticed, we're not in middle school anymore. We're in that little window of opportunity between social worlds when we can get ahead, before school starts and we end up stuck in the same loser position we were before. What were you gonna do, Pat? Spend the whole summer dodging trouble, because you'd need the practice come ninth grade? Stay the wimpy loser you always were, and blame Terry and Kyle for taking advantage of it? Well, I aim for better," Lara declared. "I've done my homework, figured out who's who at our new school, and when the semester starts I'll be ready to begin my four-year climb to the top."
"Terry's just the most convenient first rung on the ladder. Don't worry about him. Or me. Worry 'bout yourself." With that said, she stormed back inside, leaving him to smell the roses in peace and quiet.
He didn't bother going in after her. A little time to himself was just what the doctor ordered, as far as he was concerned. Warmth pulsed faintly from his chest, and he looked around, but couldn't see anyone. The fences and hedges which boxed in the garden were high enough to separate the sight of it from the outside world, but it seemed like someone was within earshot anyway. He shook his head. No point in worrying. The neighbors didn't know him from Adam -- or Eve, for that matter. If he stayed quiet out here, then it was all out of sight and out of mind.
From the loft window, Grammy'd had a good seat for her granddaughter's reaction to surprises, and so far nothing had changed her impression of the girl. Lara was too smart for her own good, and it wouldn't get her anything but trouble. Marnie was right to be worried; her daughter had gone plum rotten.
Patrick, now, that child was a bunch of different problems. Occasionally, she snuck a peak through the shutters to see if the garden was still occupied, and each time she did, Pat's head would shoot up and the child's eyes would scan back and forth like they were looking for someone. No doubt about it, Pat could feel that Granny could see him, but so far the child didn't seem to know how to use that sense to figure out where she was spying from.
There was power in that skinny body. She felt it last night when the cards did their thing without her having to shuffle them even once, and earlier when Pat had played so beautifully, but seemed surprised at his own skill.
Until the child came out and admitted to her that he was Patrick Dulles, there wasn't much more she could do except be open and inviting. She hoped he'd take the hint before anything too bad happened.
The rest of the afternoon passed without fanfare or explosion. He and Lara stayed out of each other's hair for a few hours, with her glued to the TV and phone and him curled up with a good book or two in the library. Grammy had an immense collection of classic and pop literature in there, with an entire wall for old fantasy titles. He was finding things the public library rarely had: old, out of print novels from the Sixties and Seventies, often entire series of them, that had never made a splash or gotten a second printing. There was a nice stack beside him now, just waiting to be sampled.
Right now, however, his attention was riveted to the book on St. Louis's supers. It was surprisingly thorough, starting with the original Spirit of St. Louis erupting onto the scene during World War II. The current blowhard with that name was actually the fourth hero to bear the mantle, apparently. He'd only started a few years ago, after the St. Louis Six had disbanded. Aside from the city's signature heroic lineage, every generation had had its own defining personalities. There was a foldout chronology noting when each one had appeared and subsequently disappeared from the public eye, with the four Spirits spanning most of its length. Another line, labeled 'Billiken', popped in every few years, with a starting point well before the chart's. The rest tended to stay in their respective decades, putting in a good four to ten years before hitting the symbols for retirement or death. There was really only one exception, he saw. One hero had a bunch of noted appearances in the Sixties, then dropped out in the early Seventies, only to reappear as a single point in the early twenty-first century, along with the little skull and X mark of a fatal encounter. Checking against the dates on the side, that had to be early in the year 2001. No details were given on the chronology, but there was a code name and a page number. His curiosity piqued, he flipped ahead to that entry.
"Pompatus," read the header at the top of the page in big, flashy comic book letters. The hero himself was a tall, muscular black man dressed in what would have been a normal, if very nice, dress suit -- except for the fact that it was bright red with golden trim. Rings shone on his knuckles, and even his shoes gleamed. The hero's tightly curled afro was pure white with veins of yellow and a golden pick sticking out.
"Code name taken from the Latin for 'done with great dignity,'" the info box text continued. "Pompatus was active during the civil rights crusade, beginning in 1959, and had several fights with members of the Ku Klux Klan, including the original White Knight. Source of powers is still unknown. Officially retired in 1972, but returned for one last battle on March 20th, 2001, when the villainess Deteriorata (p. 164) took thirty hostages on the Gateway Arch, including the hero in civilian attire. Pompatus successfully eliminated Deteriorata's allies, allowing other heroes to arrive and finish the battle. Unfortunately, Pompatus took a major hit from the villainess, and became the sole fatality of the day. He was buried quietly in an unspecified location, and to this day no one has revealed his secret identity."
Something nagged at his memory, something about the arch and a hostage situation years ago. It'd been something Grammy had said, he realized. Looking back down at the entry, he puzzled over the pieces, and the shape that was forming was an interesting one. He'd have to ask her about it later.
Later was a long time in coming, unfortunately. He didn't dare approach Grammy about anything while Lara was awake, and so the afternoon passed in a surge of nervous anticipation. He couldn't even rightly say what they had for dinner that night, only that it was good enough to make him want seconds. Conversation was light, with most of it coming from Lara's side of the table. Apparently her favored contestant on 'The Nation's Top Chocolatier' wasn't doing so hot.
By nine P.M., the girl was once more lost in the clutches of prime time TV, and by ten-thirty she was yawning more than watching. From his reading spot in the corner, Pat saw drowsiness slowly infect Lara, pulling her subtly and inevitably towards the land of Nod. By the official lights-out time of eleven, Lara was showered, groomed, and settled into bed.
As for Patrick, he wasn't sleepy at all. Despite going to bed in the wee hours the night before, and then sleeping all of six hours that morning, he'd had no trouble waking up fresh as a daisy. That must be part of the 'coolness paradigm', he figured, because it looked like he might be repeating it again tonight. After half an hour spent staring at the ceiling, he decided it was time.
"Grammy?" he said softly as he knocked on the old lady's door. "Is it okay to talk?" There was no answer, and after a short wait, he peeked inside to find the room empty.
"In here, child," came that voice with its touch of the bayou. He followed it down the hall and into the library. Grammy was waiting for him in that big armchair of hers, engulfed in green upholstery. On the table in front of her was the wooden box with its deck of cards, as well an old dog-eared book. "Now, what did you wanna talk 'bout?"
Pat sat down on the carpet across from her and considered. He had the feeling she was expecting something in particular from him this time -- though what, he couldn't say. "I was reading this afternoon..." he began.
"I saw, child. Local history, was it?"
"Yeah. Anyway, there was this one hero, this guy called Pompatus who took on a villain up on the arch back in 2001. Almost won, too," he added, echoing Grammy's words from the night before.
"Hmph." From the look on Grammy's face, this was most definitely not the subject of conversation she'd expected for the evening. "That man always did like his fancy words. Taught himself Latin, French, Greek, an' a few other languages, jus' cuz he was curious like that. Yeah, the newspaper people all loved that name cuz it was big and impressive, but most folks 'round here called him Maurice. Even inspired a song, second or thirdhand."
"So your husband really was a superhero?" he asked, wide-eyed.
"Yup, an' not just him. Didn't you read about a lady named Madame Mystique in that book o' yours?"
"I hadn't gotten that far yet..." That had been one of the names listed as a hero in the Sixties, now that he thought about it.
"Don't bother lookin'; that ol' costume was hideous," Grammy opined. "An' Maurice's wasn't much better. A lotta good things happened that decade, but fashion wasn't among 'em."
Pat gulped nervously. As a cape-watcher, he'd dreamed of close encounters with superheroes, but now that he was face-to-face with one, even retired, he wasn't sure what to say. This was Grammy, for crying out loud! It wasn't possible to imagine her in one of those crazy, underwear-on-the-outside outfits they used to favor, not with the wrinkly reality sitting before him.
Grammy picked up the cards, shuffled, then laid down three in a row. "The Sun, the Star, an' the Chariot," she said with a nod. "Drive, hope, and glory. We were needed back then, an' we did what we had to do. Not jus' me an' Maurice, either. St. Louis had more heroes in the Sixties than any other time since."
"What was he like?"
"Who, Maurice? A wonderful man. Got himself struck by lightnin' when he was seventeen an' workin' as a sharecropper with his pappy. Ever since then, it was like the lightnin' was stuck inside him, makin' him stronger, faster, an' smarter. Too smart for the farms, but no good for anythin' else. So o'course he joined the circus. I met him a few months later, an' we both knew right quick we was different from other folks. After not much time at all, we was hitched an' settlin' down. He got a job in construction, an' I did my crystal ball routine to make ends meet."
"You have a crystal ball? A real one?"
"Real enough. Durn annoyin' thing it is, too." The old woman shook her head. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention this to Lara. Girl's got issues, an' I don't wanna add fuel to the fire. Last thing we need is a teenage social climber with magic powers."
"Amen," he agreed. After a hesitant pause, he asked: "She's not going to get actual magic powers, is she?"
"Not if I have any say in the matter, an' I do." Grammy got up and pulled a single book off the shelf, from the middle of the fantasy novel section. This one was old and leather-bound with gold filigree. Pat had gone over that space on the shelf twice that afternoon, yet he'd swear he'd never seen it before. "Go on, try to open it," his hostess said.
Try to...? The wording did not bode well, and so he wasn't surprised when his tentative poking resulted in a loud snap of static electricity. Grammy chuckled softly as he sucked on his finger, then opened the book herself. Inside was line after line of neat handwriting, with the occasional mystic symbol framing a page.
"This is the family history," said Grammy. "Passed on to me by my grammy, and taught to her by her grammy. My four-times great grammy came over on the slave boats, y'see, after her village got sacked by a rival tribe. Her grammy, my six-times-great grammy, was a priestess o' sorts, and she passed on the juju, the magic power, to her granddaughter to keep her safe in the bad times she was a-seein'. So the juju got passed down, grammy to granddaughter, until here I am sittin' here with this book what's got itself charged up like the most magical battery ever and page after page o' magic spells inside."
"And it's supposed to go to Lara now?"
"Mercy sakes alive, child! But no! Ain't your eyes and ears workin'? That girl's a muggle, through an' through. Nope," she said sadly. "I been holding out, but it looks like there's no one available. Gotta be a blood relative, y'know. I keep askin' the cards, an' they come up inconclusive. Some'un's out there, but the time ain't right."
"So... why are you telling me all this?"
"Cuz even us old folks feel the need to unload from time to time? You're a trustworthy one, child; I can feel it. Now," she said as she returned the cards to their box. "There's the matter o' that wager of ours."
"I lost," he said. "We ended up getting something for me besides underwear after all."
"Extenuatin' circumstances, I'd say. If that Dina girl hadn't come by, you'd've won fair an' square. So, in the in'rests of fair play, I concede this one. Here's your prize." With that, she slid the box of cards across the table to him.
"What? But I can't... they're...."
"They's tools, an' nothin' more. I can do my thing wi'out 'em, an' I dare say you could use a hobby for all your free time. Here," she added, turning over the dog-eared paperback on the table. "Dug up a basic book on card readin' for you. Straightforward, nothin' fancy, none o' that complicated mystic claptrap cloggin' the pipes. Just the basics. So take 'em. Put 'em to good use."
"Thank you..." He wasn't sure what else to say. Even if she downplayed it, he could tell there was a lot more to these cards than met the eye. Picking up the box and book, he held them close and wondered what might come next.
"Well, child. It's gettin' late, an' we got church in the mornin'." She chuckled at his face. "Every Sunday an' Wednesday, child. Rule o' the house. Lara hates it, o' course, but I insist anyway. I got a coupl'a Marnie's old dresses outta storage, so you can wear one o' those. Get up early enough, an' I'll even let you have first pick," she promised with a wink. "Lara gets the other."
"These dresses wouldn't happen to be hideously unstylish?" he guessed, only to get a laugh in return.
"I daresay you could make anythin' look good, child, if you wanted to. But you'd better get to bed now. Services start at ten."
He nodded. Clutching his prizes tightly to his chest, he returned to the guest room. His mind was still whirling from the revelations, but he had to wonder why Grammy was being so open with him. Did she expect something in return? Did she... the thought sent a chill through him. Did she suspect he was hiding the truth from her? That was enough to set his heart to pounding and his palms to sweating. Without the warmth of the stone in his chest, he was left with the chills of fear and trepidation. What to do, what to say...
Wait. Grammy had given him the cards for a reason. He might as well ask them. All by himself, his shuffling technique was rather lacking. There were none of last night's fancy tricks involved. Nevertheless, as the cards passed beneath his fingers, he could feel something flow from the stone, a whisper of warmth that connected with his actions in a manner unlike the usual fizz. The cards flipped through, and he drew three in a row: the Fool, the Priestess, and between them, the Six of Swords.
The first was him, the second was Grammy, and the one in the middle... He did a quick search through the book. Despite what Grammy had said, the solid page of analysis and symbolism was far from being straightforward with nothing fancy. His brain wasn't ready to digest that much information at this late hour, so he noted the cards in his dream journal, returned them to their box, and went to bed.
---Wednesday, July 6th, 2016
He was up before the alarm again. There wasn't the least bit of trouble; as soon as his eyes opened he was alert and energized. Six hours really did seem to be his required daily rest now, and part of him missed that lazy morning feeling. Not too much, though. Last night's promise from Grammy rang in his ears, and he was looking forward to a little bit of fashion revenge on Lara -- even if it did mean he'd have to pick out a dress for himself.
God, he wished he hadn't thought about it now. A dress. On him. The fact that it'd look good was beside the point. That dress he'd worn yesterday, it had looked nice too, and yet felt so wrong at the same time.
What he really needed right now was some time alone with the other book, the one on gender and stuff. Reading it out in the open, or even in the middle of Grammy's library, was asking for trouble, though. If the old lady could remember his exact reading material from only a glance or two the previous evening, then there was no way she'd fail to notice today, either.
His eyes flicked over to the clock. 7:30. Half an hour before Lara got up, or at least began her slow ascent to wakefulness. Grammy seemed to operate on even less sleep than he did, and a quick sniff confirmed that someone was in the kitchen. Pancakes... and bacon. A large gurgle erupted from his belly. Reading could wait. There were some things a teen just had to prioritize over others.
The light cotton pajamas hung on him like an old coat, technically fitting but in reality two sizes too large. At least he didn't have to worry about sleeping in a bra. The twin wobblies on his chest felt embarrassingly large, but after getting measured he knew that was only his own imagination. If his A-cups made him feel like this, he didn't want to experience double-D's.
"Good to see you up so early again, child," Grammy said by way of greeting. "I'z afraid I wore you out with all my jabber last night."
"Never, Grammy," he replied with a grin, which grew wider as a big plate of pancakes got deposited in front of him.
"Well, feel free to talk 'bout yourself sometimes, too. Don't wanna dominate the conv'sation every night."
Thankfully, he was not required to respond to that, as his face was full of syrupy flapjack goodness. He had time to inhale a second plate well before the bedroom alarms chimed, and was off to brush his teeth as Lara stumbled in. That was a lucky miss, in his opinion. A grumpy Lara was harder to get along with, and she was never a morning person, it seemed.
For some reason, the bathroom and toilet were separate things in Grammy's house -- not that he was complaining. Anything was better than sharing a shower washlet with Mom. If it meant he could do his business without interfering with Lara's make-up time, then good. He only used the sink for brushing his teeth, anyway, and the mirror for making faces. His teeth were perfectly straight and white, he noticed. Idly he wondered if his condition also meant he could forgo oral hygiene, but he shrugged and brushed anyway. Better safe than sorry.
It was when he moved to put the toothpaste back that the odd thing happened. As his fingers passed over the edge of the mirror, he felt a spark, not unlike when he'd touched Grammy's book. This one didn't hurt, but it did make him take notice. Curiosity won out, and he opened the medicine cabinet to find... medicine. Lots of medicine. Bottle upon bottle were laid out in a row, like little orange pillars. Some were obviously arcane, with labels like something out of a fantasy novel. Pantetherine, Oncolastine, Mirabelux... and those were just a few that had doctor's prescriptions on them. The mystic stuff was actually easier to read, though no less difficult to comprehend. 'Poisoned dragon's liver'? Seriously?
He swung the door back as quickly and quietly as he could manage, wondering at the same time what this was all about. That was when the mirror ceased to be. In its place was a window, or perhaps a screen, through which he could see an office. Grammy was sitting there, talking to man with grizzled hair who wore the white coat of a medical doctor. There was no sound, but he could tell that whatever the conversation was about, it wasn't going well.
Patrick leaned in, squinting to see if he could read their lips, but his hand slipped away from the mirror's surface. The image cut out, and he was left staring into his own strange, variably colored eyes. Right now they were grey, shading to blue as he pulled back. He didn't notice the heat in his chest until it blinked out of existence.
Okay... what the heck just happened?
"Grammy... You have got to be kidding!" He could hear Lara's petulant protest from the other side of the house. The girl was completely awake now, and finally aware that she had no say in her choice of fashion this morning.
Well, he hadn't either, beyond the binary choice of blue or pink. Blue was the slightly less girly color, he'd decided, which was why he was now wearing a cornflower gingham dress, knee socks, a purse over one shoulder, and a ribbon in his hair. Grammy'd done that last one over his protestations, but he had to admit it didn't look bad. He still planned on pulling it out the second they were out of church, but for now he could only tug at it self-consciously. The girl in the mirror looked like she was auditioning for the role of Alice from Through the Looking Glass. That impression gave him one more reason to avoid touching the mirror at all.
Lara stormed in, pushing him aside solely by the force of her glare. Her dress wasn't just pink; it was at least five shades of pink layered one over the next, from a wispy almost-white to a deep salmon. There were ruffles. There were frills. He wasn't sure exactly what that thing was under the skirt, but it might have been a petticoat. It looked like some five-year-old girl's vision of a Disney princess costume.
Keep cool, he told himself. Don't smile. Don't smirk. For heaven's sake: Do. Not. Laugh.
It was a hard, hard task, not cracking up all the way to church. Without the bolstering effect of the coolness paradigm, he might not have managed. The familiar warmth formed a shell around his emotions, but this time he felt a difference. It was assisting him in his chosen presentation, not restricting him to one. He chose not to laugh, but if he wanted to, he could. This was a liberating change of pace, as far as he was concerned.
The drive to church passed in a stiff silence. He and Lara were in the back seat of Grammy's Mazda, but he was the one sitting closest to the old lady. Lara hadn't taken her grandmother's fashion edicts very well, with this latest spat only adding fuel to what was apparently an ongoing disagreement, so Pat's placement behind the driver's seat was uncomfortably like being a buffer state or demilitarized zone between two arguing neighbors.
Pat could only thank God that the girl didn't seem to realize his part in her fashion disaster. It was easier to gloat in obscurity.
St. Anastasia Catholic Church wasn't particularly big. It had that up-front, cozy, and slightly claustrophobic feeling that Grammy's house evoked. They arrived not long before the start of services, but there were plenty of seats left on the benches. This wasn't the most popular time on the weekly schedule, he guessed. Most of the congregation looked to be about Grammy's age, and he and Lara ended up being the little spring chicks in the middle of a flock of old hens.
He wondered what the service would be like. Mom hadn't worshiped at any church or temple -- unless one counted the blackjack tables, in which case she was as devout as any nun. Most of his spiritual knowledge came from watching the children's programming on Trinity Broadcasting. Actual religion and churchgoing had never been a part of his life, and he tried not to gawk at his surroundings. The front was dominated by this big crucifix, carved and painted with an excruciating level of detail. He winced at the little trickles of blood-colored pigment dribbling from the crown on Jesus' head, and the less said about the big gash in the guy's torso, the better.
Um, God? he wanted to ask. Are all Your followers into this sort of thing, or do they just ignore it?
No answer came, but he wasn't expecting one anyway.
Most of the old ladies in the front benches had already met Lara from previous visits, and he was pretty sure most of them shared in Grammy's opinion of the girl. He, however, was fresh meat. The last few minutes before service started were spent in gossip and introductions, during which he stayed quiet and smiley, giving basic "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am" answers when needed.
He was saved by the bell, sort of. The sound of church bells rang over the loudspeakers outside while inside conversation came to a silent, expectant pause. Grammy passed him a song book, opened to the appropriate page. He'd never heard the song before, didn't recognize the tune at all, but that didn't stop him from singing along with every ounce of skill the heat in his chest allowed him.
"Holy, holy, holy... Lord God Almighty. Early in the morning, our song shall rise to Thee..."
Every note was pitch-perfect; every tone was bell-like. He'd worry about standing out in the crowd of singers, but his bit of crystallized coolness was up to something again. The heat and fizz spread out from him in a gentle wave, picking up the voices of the surrounding churchgoers and subtly adjusting them, supporting them, encouraging them to greater heights. From the look Lara was sending his way, she realized something was up, and he didn't doubt Grammy was picking up on it as well. Everyone else seemed oblivious, caught up in the music and the moment.
"God in three persons, blessed Trinity..." The song came to an end, and so did the stone's strange effect. His skin buzzed with an emotional electricity, like he was picking up feedback. He could feel... something in the air, or maybe the ether. It had that odd, otherworldly feeling of the fizz, but different. Whatever it was, it thrilled throughout the church, but seemed to clump together the most over the big table in the front.
The preacher, or whatever it was they called the guy... Pastor? Priest? The dude in the robes was up at the big table leading the prayers and talking about life. A few times, other people came up to read from the Bible. He wasn't familiar enough with the book to recognize where they were reading from in it, but both passages were about brotherhood and tolerance. Those seemed to be the big theme for the day, as the robed man went on to read a letter from the Pope -- the actual Pope? The guy in Italy? -- and the whole thing seemed to be about acknowledging and accepting the 'special gifts' of others. The thing never said 'mutants' outright, but the message was there.
Pat paid as close attention as he could, but that odd buzz, so similar to his fizz and yet so different, kept distracting him. It had grown to fill the church, not quite there but at the same time close enough to touch, if he could figure out how.
There was a short piano number playing as three people brought up a small box, a big glass of wine, and what looked like a bottle of oil up the main aisle. After a short moment of silence as the priest-dude did his thing, the music started up again and people moved towards the center.
Oh yeah, communion. Grammy had told him about this part of the service, so he knew what to do here. Since Pat wasn't a baptized member of the Catholic church -- or any other church, for that matter -- all he needed to do was travel up the line to where the priest-dude was giving out communion wafers, keep his arms crossed against his chest, and the man would do a quick blessing on Pat's forehead. It was so simple, there shouldn't have been a way to screw it up.
Even the coolest of people needed to avoid that sort of thinking, he soon learned.
Dear Lord Almighty, was she regretting her decision to bring Pat to church now. Not that the child was doing anything wrong -- to the contrary, Pat was a polite, conscientious, and respectful churchgoer. She could only wish her own granddaughter might learn by his example. No, the problem wasn't how Pat acted, but more like how he was. There wasn't any other way to put it. The child stood out, no matter what he did.
Grammy had never been too sensitive to forces beyond the ones tied to her family lineage, and that had bitten her on the ass a few times in the past, yessiree. She'd learned a few cantrips to ease her inner sight along, but she didn't even need them now. Pat radiated every time he opened his mouth to sing, and the church ladies responded in chorus, none the wiser. The front pews outsang the actual choir during every hymn, grace of Pat's presence, and that was the least of it.
When Pat went up to get a blessing from Father Rogers during communion, it felt like every point of light in the entire sanctuary aligned itself to shine right on him. Most of the time few would have noticed, staying at least lightly blind to the reality behind reality, but this was church. Miracles were halfway expected here, even if they never actually occurred. So she'd had all of six seconds to organize the biggest no-see-um hex of her life while standing in line for communion, with none of her personal stores of juju on hand, in order to make sure no one was paying attention when Pat briefly turned to molten gold.
It took everything she had to pull it off. Long years of practice helped her as she called up the image of Old Man Spider's web, using it as the framework of a spell to trap and direct attention. She poured all of her personal juju into those ethereal strands of spider silk, and sighed in relief as they flew to cover Pat, sticking the way they were supposed to.
Father Rogers had the oddest look on his face when she came up to receive the host, but no one else seemed to have noticed. Pat's golden light turned off before her hex could, thank goodness. She wasn't even sure if the child even knew what had happened.
Wow, what a rush... He was pretty sure that wasn't part of the usual church experience, whatever it was. As soon as the dude in the robes made the sign of the cross on his forehead and mumbled a blessing, Pat found himself plugged in. There was no other way to really describe it. The buzz was like a huge wall socket, and he'd got plugged in. Every nerve had sung in angelic harmony, and the world was awash in gold. He half expected to see God.
No higher powers made an appearance, which was perhaps for the best. His own power was having enough trouble as it was. He could feel it, the fizz mixing with the buzz, like metaphysical pop-rocks in Coke. There was so much that he couldn't contain it all, and he felt the effervescent gold energy sloshing over the brim of his physical body to splash into the real world. The fizz and the buzz were reaching out, looking for attention, but then they came to a crashing halt. Something was in the way, something that caught the errant strands of attraction and blocked them. The fizz and heat faded immediately, like he was suddenly all alone. Except, he was in the middle of church. There were three or four dozen... no, fifty-three people within his direct line-of-sight.
He didn't know how he came by that number, but he knew it was right. Fifty-three people should have seen him, but none did. And since none could see, his power did what it always did when he was alone: it shrank back into itself and vanished. And with it gone, the buzz separated from his self as well. By the time he returned to his seat on the bench, his legs wobbling and his feet tripping, maybe ten seconds had passed, but oh what a busy ten seconds they'd been.
She kept an eagle's eye on young Pat for the rest of the mass. The child looked a bit shaken -- not that that was too surprising -- but kept up a good facade in spite of it all. Grammy suspected that managing a facade was what Pat did best. There was only one more incident before mass ended: during the recessional, in which Pat led the front pews once more in song, to the tune of "One in the Spirit.”
She hustled Pat and Lara out of there as soon as the recessional hymn finished and it was technically polite to do so. Neither child complained. Her granddaughter had caught on to the choir effect for sure, if only because she knew what to look for, but she kept her mouth shut all the way back to the car. It wasn't until they were all buckled in that Lara opened her yap to blast Pat, and Grammy was ready for it.
"Quiet, you," she commanded, shoving a finger in her granddaughter's face. The accompanying hex jumped from the tip of her pointer to embed itself in the girl's forehead, and then Lara's entire body went slack. The girl slumped back and stared blankly out the window.
"You mean you could've done that at any time?" Pat asked.
"Sho' could, but I'd hate to get into the habit. Ain't 'zactly ethical, y'know. No matter how nice it is to have some peace an' quiet. Now, child," she went on. "What happened in there?"
"What do you mean?" Pat asked, giving her the sunniest, sweetest, sincerest fake smile she ever done seen. The facade was up in full force, which meant... what? That the child wasn't ready to talk? Was just lying? Was freaking out? She wasn't sure how to read that body language that seemed to second-guess itself at every turn, much less do it while watching via the rear-view mirror.
"I mean that craziness durin' communion," she replied. "Took most o' what I had to keep you from makin' a real scene in there. Whatever you got goin' on, child, I doubt you need that sorta 'ttention. What you do need is to tell me what's goin' on. Been hintin' at you for days now, but if you're gonna pull this kinda stunt, then hintin' ain't 'nuff."
"I don't know what..."
"Patrick Eustace Dulles!" She was tired, drained by all the juju she'd thrown around so far this morning, and her temper was frayed to its last fiber. "You gonna haveta trust someone! You're in deep, child..." She saw Pat's eyes about bug out in the mirror's reflection, and then her own words caught up with her. "Aw, shee-yit...."
There was no room for conscious thought in his head. All the space was taken up by scared, panicky, completely uncontrollable and frantic thoughts. Grammy knew. How'd she find out? Had Lara told? Then why threaten? Threat! Threat! He'd get kicked out for sure! Freak! Mutant! Crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap! And in the back of his head, lodged snugly in his hindbrain, the loose coalition of instincts and subroutines which correlated to his coolness paradigm noticed the current logjam of consciousness and went into action.
Suddenly, the electronics in the door glitched, unlocking without a button pressed. At the same time, the clasp on his belt failed, releasing him from the seat. His hand found the door handle of its own accord, and he was leaping from the Mazda, landing on the hard asphalt of the road and rolling, hopping, and standing.
In the other lane.
With a station wagon incoming.
He was aware of the car, or at least of its driver's surprised stare, before the blare of the horn. His body jumped straight towards the approaching vehicle, using its bumper, hood, windshield, and roof as a set of stepping stones in the world's worst game of leapfrog. He was off the station wagon and onto the nearest patch of lawn before he or the driver really understood what had happened.
His feet hit the ground running, and he sped off in the opposite direction.
Ten minutes later, he found himself at a children's playground, inside a cute mushroom-shaped enclosure and safe from prying eyes. The fizz had faded away, to be replaced by the beating of his heart at twenty miles a minute. Sobs shook his body, and tears flowed like raindrops down his face.
Why oh why oh why oh WHY had he done that? Why panic, why run? Grammy wasn't like Lara at all, and the old lady had shared so much with him already. Why not trust her? Why not let his guard down just this once?
Because that's how they got you. That how they hurt you. Mom, the bullies, even Lara had gotten him good, because he hadn't known when to guard himself. That was why he'd wanted to be cool, so he could protect himself from the bullies, keep himself safe from people who'd use all his personal feelings and fears against him. He could feel it now; he understood what the fizz was doing. When he was panicky and afraid, it stepped in to protect him, to do the things that would keep him safe, even if he didn't know why or how.
Maybe it protected him too well. Maybe he'd just blown any chance he'd had with Grammy. Maybe...
His phone rang. He jumped in surprise, knocking his head against the top of the mushroom. Rubbing the bump, he checked the incoming call. It was... Lara? That couldn't be right. Lara never called when she could text instead. Hesitantly, he put the phone to his ear and said, "Hello?" in a low voice. The word was followed by a sniffle and a hiccup.
"It's me, child. Figgered you might answer this number. You okay over there?"
"N-no..." Sniffle. Hic.
"Care to talk?" The old lady's voice was slow and calm, without a trace of any bad feeling.
"Y-yeah... maybe... I dunno..." What could he say, really? His life was an absolute mess, to the point where no one in their right mind should ever believe it. Except, Grammy was a hero. Had been a hero, at any rate. And she was asking. And... and... it was just too much to take. Here in the mushroom, with no one to see, he blubbered and cried into the phone, with Grammy's compassionate voice comforting him from the other end.
"There, there, child. It'll be alright. Ain't gonna give up on you, y'hear? Let it all out."
It took a few more minutes before he could form a complete sentence in his head, and a few more before he could do it without stutters and sobs breaking it into incomprehensible chunks as it left his mouth. "It, it all started on the third. I s-sorta got caught up in the tail end of a super fight..."
To Be Continued