----Wednesday, July 6th, 2016
The clock struck ten in the evening, and she had the house to herself, as far as consciousness went. Young Patrick had gone down hard, once the adrenaline of the day wore off. She'd heard tell once that nervous energy burned more calories than anything else, and while she doubted it was true, the child was skinny as a stick with no sign of changing. Even the copious lunch Grammy had treated him and Lara to after mass didn't leave an ounce on him.
Him. All visual evidence to the contrary, that really was Pat's pronoun. Beneath that girly exterior, with its in-between skin tone and blended hair, Patrick Dulles remained, stuck and confused. She wished she could help him, intended to focus everything in her power towards that end, but her hopes weren't too high. Body shifting was serious juju; even most cosmetic changes took a great deal of time and power if the goal was permanent alteration. It was far more cost-effective to make someone think he was a frog than to actually turn him into one.
So, while she believed Pat when he said he'd changed overnight, likely in the span of six hours or less, she didn't like what that implied. There was some major power involved there, and it'd pained her to tell him that no, magic couldn't cure his ills. At least he took it well, even over the phone where his response was closer to natural. He'd only cried, poor thing.
Grammy checked in on her granddaughter, nodding that the girl too was lost in slumber. It'd felt too good, keeping Lara mesmerized half the day. She needed to think of a way to atone for that. Right now, the girl was snoring in a most unladylike manner. The sleepytime hex woven into her pillow did its regular job well; once again that girl was abed by a decent hour.
Up in the loft, she opened the standing cabinet and retrieved a boxy, silverish device, a bit like a laptop computer in shape, but simultaneously more archaic in construction and more futuristic in style. She'd had it since the Eighties, though she made use of it only a few times a year. It was all terribly out of date, of course, especially when compared to the techno-marvels the science heroes kept dreaming up, but she only needed it for one thing, which it did quite well even now.
It hummed and whined as it powered up, occasionally popping or clanging as it sorted itself out. When it was ready, it tooted once, like the world's saddest baby elephant, and then the screen lit up.
DEPT. OF PARANORMAL AFFAIRS, it read. ENTER CODENAME.
Madame Mystique. She hadn't called herself that in years, at least not out loud, but she held onto it nonetheless. Last thing she wanted was some two-bit starlet grabbing it up and ruining her rep. Anyway, the DPA needed a codename to attach to the odd jobs they threw her way. Nothing much, just the occasional de-ghosting, investigation of psychic fraud, or dealing with some youngster's hobgoblin issues. It supplemented the social security checks nicely. The occasional reports were short, simple and boring. Nothing like what she was typing in now.
There was a fine line to walk here. She didn't know how strong the connection was between the robbery on the Third and Pat's new state of being, and much of what she did know was speculative, if likely. The basics worked best: the close encounter with the villain, the dream, and some of the powers the child had shown so far. The gender issue, she left out entirely. That was a problem for another day.
The device ate her sentences up and then beeped, logging the report and sending it on, however it was that it did so. She'd never really understood the explanation, and the owner's manual might as well be written in hieroglyphs.
Hopefully her regular contact at the DPA could make sense of that, for Pat's sake.
--- Thursday, July 7th, 2016
It was a quiet afternoon, with the sound of paper on paper the only thing to break the silence. -flick, flick, flick- Grammy had declared today to be a Book Day. This seemed to be another of the old lady's quirks that Lara had learned to sullenly observe, if under threat of an extension to a grounding. The girl was reading the same pop culture magazine over and over. From the glazed look in her eyes, he suspected she was actually dozing off. As for him, he had taken the opportunity to get out the gender book and see what wisdom might be found within. Now that he knew that Grammy knew, he didn't care if she saw, but Lara was a different matter. A brown paper book wrap kept the girl's none-too-observant eyes from noticing anything untoward. This left him free to dig into the meat of the book and puzzle over the way it defined things he'd never had to think about before.
To quote the author, one Laurelle Genovese:
「Most of the time, we think of people simply and strictly in terms of 'man' and 'woman,' but sexuality is much more complicated and is made up of many different points. Biological sex is what is most often referred to when talking about someone's gender; it is defined by the organs one is either born with or will develop over time...」
See, that was how he'd always thought of it. He didn't have an obsession with his own dick, not the way some of the jocks did, but it had always been there, been a part of who he was. It wasn't until it disappeared that he realized how significant a part of his self it had been. For a piece that had never seen any real use, it nevertheless made its presence felt. And now its absence was felt even harder.
「How many times has someone called a sports-loving girl a tomboy, or a boy who cries a sissy? That is gender expression at work. Society as a collective creates gender roles which dictate what is appropriate, with gender expression being the degree to which a person conforms to, or breaks from, these roles. There are things we commonly consider 'boy stuff,' such as playing rough sports or getting in fights, and others which we consider to be 'girl stuff,' such as playing with dolls or wearing makeup. A boy who enjoys dolls and pretend tea parties is not necessarily gay or wishing to be a girl; he may simply prefer a more feminine gender expression....」
This section went on for a few more paragraphs, discussing how the perceptions of gender roles and gender appropriateness changed over time. It was interesting, like how pink used to be a color for little boys while blue was for girls, or the history of long hair on guys, but it wasn't one hundred percent relevant to his situation. On the other hand, even as a biological boy he'd had a preference for peeing while sitting down, and the old him had fretted about using the urinals at school. At the time, he'd thought about it in terms of privacy and defense against bullies, but he knew that if Kyle or Terry ever realized how he liked to do his business, they'd have never let him hear the end of it.
As noted towards the end, bullies tended to be the schoolyard defenders of the gender status quo, whether they realized it or not. Anything which they felt threatened their image of the way things should be automatically became the target of their ire. The irony, according to the text, was that those who fought hardest for the status quo were often the ones who felt least secure in it, so that when they put down deviation from the norm, they reinforced their own sense of rightness. It was an interesting way of thinking about it, and it fit with a lot of his own middle school experiences, but he had to wonder what, if anything, people like Terry thought. He sort of suspected they didn't.
「Gender identity is a much more subtle thing: it is the gender each of us identifies as, our natural answer to the question of "Are you a boy or a girl?" For the majority of people, gender identity aligns with biological sex, but that is not always the case. When the two do not match, a conflict called gender dysphoria arises.」
Yes, yes, yes; this was what he wanted to read about. The Two of Cups, in the negative: two halves that were not in harmony. That card currently defined his life, and now he had a name to pair with it. Gender dysphoria, he read on, covered a wide range of things, but boiled down to a simple feeling of wrongness with how one wanted to express gender versus how one was allowed to. At the extreme, there were those folks who strongly felt that they were born in the wrong body, to the point where they considered themselves to be the other gender despite all physical evidence. That was the deep end of the dysphoria pool, and he'd been dropped right into it. He knew, viscerally and with great certitude, that he was a boy stuck in a female body.
「With a more thorough understanding of how sexuality works, modern life is much easier for those who do not (or cannot) conform to what the majority considers to be the norm. Gender dysphoria is a difficult condition to live with, much less overcome, but modern medicine has made hormonal and surgical treatments available to people who desire a body more fitting to their gender identity....」
Oh, he could only wish. As the book went on to spell out how gender reassignment surgeries worked, he noted how even the most reasonable of techniques, in terms of money and time spent, were currently beyond his reach. And the most advanced of medical treatments wouldn't be able to change him back into Patrick Dulles. Magic had taken his old self away, and Grammy hadn't told him anything to make him hope magic could fix his mistaken wish. If anything, the old lady had impressed on him just how problematic a mystical solution could get.
The book didn't mention magical alternatives, or mad science for that matter. He wasn't sure if it was done out of ignorance, prejudice, or precaution to keep kids like him from doing something really stupid. Oh well, stupid had happened anyway. This was his world now, like it or not, so he really needed to keep all his options in mind. Pat flipped the page over to the last section of the chapter and read on.
「Sexual orientation is the final component of sexuality, and deals with how and to whom a person feels attracted, be it to boys, girls, either, both, everything, or nothing. This has no direct relation to gender expression or identity. Many gay men are extremely masculine in presentation, while many heterosexual men are effeminate. One may change gender expression to better attract a partner, but people in general are happier and less frustrated if they find someone who is attracted to their natural gender expression.」
That was a whole different can of worms right there. He could admit that he found his new body attractive -- the answer to that question stared him in the face every morning -- but he didn't want to think about how others might react. Didn't want to, but had to anyway. Just from experience with his circle of middle school friends, he could imagine. There was Alan Petty, for example: one of Pat's oldest friends, but also pervy as only a fourteen-year-old could be. Nope, it was only a matter of time before he'd have to put up with unwanted advances from someone.
Then there was the matter of his own feelings. He hadn't had much spare time to think about it -- and had squelched the thought whenever it had arisen -- but it was the big question now. The book may say that orientation and identity were separate things, but his situation was hardly a normal one. He'd been a straight male before, and now he was... what? Pat didn't dare think about his new self in a sexy manner yet, and any romantic crushing he'd had on Lara was, well, crushed by the reality of Lara's personality. It wasn't possible for him to find the girl attractive now.
What about other girls, though? Would he find them attractive? He sort of hoped so, because the alternative would lead back to those other things.... Dammit, there was too much to figure out about himself, and not nearly enough time to do it in.
---Saturday, July 9th, 2016
-ding dong- The bell on Dina's front door was a perfectly normal, two-tone chime that was quintessentially mundane in its doorbellness. It was impossible to make a sound that was more so, and it failed utterly to match the door it was attached to. That massive portal was formed of thick oak bars, elegant and old-style like the rest of the house. Four pillars supported the little balcony that provided a roof over the veranda and coincidentally framed the entrance.
Dina's place in Sunset Hills was done up to look like Old Money, and it was doing a reasonable facsimile of it from foundation to rooftop, spreading to the left, the right, and upwards in a grand facade of brick, mortar, and ivy. Right now, the lights were on in almost every window.
"Hey! You came!" And there was their hostess at the door, all smiles and ringlets. Her brunette locks were streaked with red and yellow, and her eyes were made large by her makeup.
Pat could appreciate it far more on her than he could on himself. Ever since Grammy had made the surprise announcement that Lara was conditionally ungrounded and allowed to attend all parties again -- a right she'd apparently lost and recovered several times that summer -- the girl had entertained herself by testing every possible combination of cosmetics on her hapless guest. She seemed to take a perverse, almost sadistic pleasure in it. He'd sat there and taken it, swaddled in a thick emotional cocoon of coolness to hide his burning embarrassment.
"Oh, I love your makeup!"
"Thanks," he said. "It's all Lara's." Credit where credit was due, after all. Pat still wasn't sure if Lara had tried to sabotage his face earlier that afternoon, but he'd felt the occasional low pulse of heat as she worked, like the fizz was guiding her hands. Anything was possible, he supposed. As it was, his eyes now sported delicate butterfly wings at the corners, as well as a subtle thickening of the outlines to make the eyes look larger. Lara had done something similar to her own eyes, though not to as good an effect. To his misfortune, Lara realized this.
"And you're wearing that top, like you said you would..." As their perky hostess steered them through the foyer and into the party proper, she held up her end of the conversation well enough to support them all. Every few steps, they'd stop, and Pat would get introduced to somebody else.
Lara would jab him in the ribs with her elbow from time to time, and it took a while for him to figure out why. Almost all of the introductions centered on him, with Lara as the afterthought. He'd assumed she already knew these people, and in turn she was assuming that he was using his attention-grabbing juju on everyone. Only, he wasn't. The stone in his chest was warm behind the agate cameo Grammy'd loaned him, but it was the static warmth, the fizz's normal state when it wasn't exerting itself. Whatever was going on, it wasn't his fault.
Nevertheless, the black girl was quick to dump him in the living room as soon as Dina was called away by her hosting duties. There must have been thirty or forty people in the house, all soon-to-be freshmen or sophomores, to judge from the conversations. He settled into the back of his own skull and let the coolness paradigm do the small talk for him, paying just enough attention to make sure his own mouth didn't go in directions he didn't want.
In the background, the sound system was playing the top twenty pop songs of the summer, none of which he liked. He made a game of inserting witty, snide comments on the music as innocuously as possible, but underestimated his own powers of persuasion. In ten minutes, he convinced a gaggle of teen fangirls to hate the current pop flavor of the week as sincerely as he did.
Wow, he needed to be more careful. Flashbacks to the red dream passed through his head, specifically some of the offers of fame and influence. This sort of thing could be dangerous.
"So how dangerous are we talkin' here?" Louie was asking. Grammy and her usual cohorts were gathered around the coffee table in the back room of Cynthia's antique store: she and the Georgia peach with tea, while Louie and Lloyd nursed their beers.
"Ain't figgered it out yet," she admitted. "Depends on how far the child's power goes, and what all's behind it. Just from what I've seen, there's some serious potential there."
"Whut's the ball say?" asked Lloyd, leaning back in his chair.
"Too much, that's what. Ever'time I ask it about Pat, durn thing goes gonzo on me. Like there's so much potential in that skinny body that it don't know where to start."
"Thaht's nevah a good sahn," said Cynthia.
"You're tellin' me! Hain't seen the old girl that confused ever." She was tempted to put it in Pat's hands to see what would happen, only she was afraid it'd explode. That would serve it right, the piece of slag, but that would worry Pat more than he already was. "Anyone heard somethin'?"
"Welp," said Louie. "That idjit gran'nephew of mine let somethin' slip when I talked to 'im yesterday. Looks like that MacGuffin what got stolen on the Third's shown up again. On the front steps of the SLAM, if you'd believe."
"What was it, 'zactly?" she asked. The news reports hadn't said what the villain had taken, only that it was part of a special exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum.
"According to him, the whole thing was this fancy necklace, like a dangly choker." Louie twisted his arm around to place his right palm on his breastbone, with the fingers hanging down. "'Bout like this. Big ruby in the middle, electrum and brass fittin's, and a whole lotta small stones. Garnets and carnelians."
"Som'un liked them the color red," Lloyd remarked. "'Sides bein' 'spensive, what wuz spesh'l 'bout it?"
"Nothin', far as any'un can tell," said Louie. "The museum's puzzled half to death over it, and if anybody does know, they hain't told the investigators. Only thing odd was that one of the small stones was missin' from its settin'."
"Oh?" Her ears were pricking; they knew a lead when they heard one.
"Yeah, one little garnet, mebbe the size of a half pea. Little Louie don't think it's a big deal, but..." Louie shook his head, making his opinion of his grand-nephew's intelligence obvious. "Great oaks from tiny acorns grow. Just 'cuz somethin's small don't mean it can't be powerful."
"A powah gem, pa'haps?" suggested Cynthia. Grammy could tell her friend was pointedly not looking at the ornate decoration on the far wall. "Hidden in plain saht?"
"An ol' one, if it is. That piece had doc'mentation back to 'fore the French Rev'lution."
"You're our res'dent expert, Cynthia," Grammy said. "Whatcha think?"
The bottle-red hair shook back and forth. "Hahd to say. Powah gems sometahms seems like they been 'round forevah, but then have their powah fade away if left alone for a few months. Some seem to get strongah the more you use them, an' othah's suddenly break while doin' somethin' simple." Now nobody was looking at the wall decoration, with its blue green stone at the center. "No one's sure where they come from, or how they'ah made, or even if they have anythin' in common with one another. For all we know, every gem could have a unique origin. Without the stone in mah hand, Ah can't say more.”
"Think there's a connection?" Louie asked Grammy.
"Mebbe." Probably. Almost certainly. She knew there was a stone in Pat's chest, because he'd told her so, but she'd refused to look at it. Some things were better taken on faith, and others were better left unseen in case she needed to deny all knowledge later.
"What sorta powers do gems normally come with?" she said, turning the conversation back to Cynthia.
"Physical powah is the most common. Supahman stuff -- speed, strength, mebbe even flight. Then there's mental powah; some stones ah good for all that psychic mumbo-jumbo."
"I'm familiar with that much," said the group's resident mumbo-jumbo specialist. "But if Pat's got this hyp'thetical power gem, it ain't workin' like that, s'far as I can see."
"Ah heard tell of some that could do more. M... m... the Star of the South had a mix o' powah, as y'all can remembah." The name escaped through gritted teeth, and everyone tensed a little at its mention, but Cynthia wasn't letting that stop her. "A few, well, Ah heard of some that were enahgy channels, or mebbe batteries. Didn't do anythin' in particulah, just givin' powah to other things."
Grammy sighed. "We need more info."
"'Bout tapped out over here," Louie said. "I could push a bit, but I think Little Louie's startin' to wise up. Durn fool picks the worst times to be smart..." he continued in a low mutter.
"Well, who else can we..." Lloyd paused in mid-sentence, then turned to the shelf behind him. On the cluttered surface, the largest object was a polished wooden statue of a cherubic figure, sitting down with oversized feet sticking outward. There was a serene smile on its face. "Yo, Billy. Been list'nin' in?"
"It's just a statue, Lloyd," said Cynthia. "Ah haven't seen it do anythin' in years."
"Little Louie says the bugger's been poppin' up again lately," said Louie. "Worth a shot."
Lloyd hoisted the statue onto the tabletop, and they took turns rubbing its feet. Grammy thought she might have felt something at one point, but the statue stuck to its silent routine. Billiken may be in town, but he wasn't feeling talkative, it seemed.
The four of them finished their drinks a few minutes later, making their various goodbyes before they went on to do other things that evening. Cynthia locked up the shop, gave one last look at the burned-out Star of the South as it hung on the wall, and then went upstairs for a bubble bath and an early night's rest. She was well on her way to dreamland when Billiken hopped off the table, snuck into the kitchen for some milk and cookies, and then returned to his original position with none the wiser.
He'd missed Cyndi-chan's snickerdoodles, he had.
Over the last few days, Pat had come to understand his people-sense a little better. He could tell, for example, that there were twenty-five people in the two rooms he could see right now. If he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could even tell the adult chaperones from the teens, somehow. It still wasn't clear to him what he was feeling, or how he was feeling it. The knowledge just came to him, bringing with it random details he'd never have considered, normally.
Territory, for example. Once he relaxed enough to let the flow of impressions pass through, he could note divisions in the crowd, such as who was grouped with whom, or how specific gaggles of teen girls accepted or repelled attempts to join them. He and Dina were the only ones who could pass from group to group with ease -- she because she was the host, and he because he was a cipher to everyone there, and thus interesting.
His whisper campaign to improve the musical tastes of the next generation was put on hold when his new sense picked up something different. It was a stare, a focused beam of attention emanating from someone's eyes that was drilling its way into his consciousness. The feeling was so unlike anything he'd felt from others that he had to excuse himself from the current conversation to scan the room for its source.
A young man, a little older than Pat or anyone else in the room, lounged at one end of the big sofa, body splayed across the cushions in a blatant grab of extra personal space. This was his territory, that pose screamed. Any who entered were expected to be subject to him.
Pat almost snorted out loud at the ridiculous levels of teen testosterone this implied, when that stare stabbed at him again. Come here, it seemed to say. Be beside me. Be mine.
No, not seemed. It did say that, in words that bypassed the party noise and his ears, that tried to do a runaround on his brain and make him follow orders. Only the protective pressure of the coolness paradigm kept him from losing his shit right there. Instead, the anger seethed behind a polite mask as he pretended to notice the jerk on the sofa as if for the first time, then wandered over to introduce himself as herself. Stepping up to the edge of the space his sense defined as the jerk's, he stuck out his hand. "Hello, there. My name's Pat. What's yours?"
A smile slid across the the jerk's face: thick and slimy, like a banana slug. "Hey there, baby, why don'tcha sit by me here? Plenty of space available." There was something behind the words that made Pat really want to take that gentlemanly offer. Or at least, it was supposed to have that effect.
He kept his face cool and let the invitation break against him. "Sorry, I prefer to stand."
That almost got a frown from the jerk, but he recovered quickly. "Now, baby. No need to be like that. Smile a bit, why don'tcha? Perk your face right up." He mimed pushing the corners of his own mouth up with both pointer fingers.
"I don't smile at strangers, pervs, or jerks, and from where I'm standing you're at least two out of three. I told you my name, so use it if you have to. Not baby, and not anything else. Just Pat. And not even that, now. I'm outta here." He turned to leave.
"Stop." The jerk was up on his feet, grabbing at Pat's arm. The stare was back at full force, lancing through the cocoon of heat and fizz, trying to score a hit on Pat himself.
Fool didn't know what he was dealing with. Not that Pat knew much more, but he understood enough. Pat let the stare work its way in, giving it and the jerk just enough rope for hanging. What he did next was a first for him. He reached inside himself and drew the fizz from the stone, willing it into action.
Heat exploded from behind the cameo on his chest, tangible to him if no one else. For the jerk, it felt like someone had grabbed him by the brain, twisted the offending grey matter into a wrestling hold, and then given it the world's greatest noogie. For the rest of the room, it was as if every conversation hit its natural lull simultaneously, just as the sound system switched between albums. In this empty, hollow silence, the sound of Pat's hand slapping the jerk upside the head cracked like a whip.
Every eye was upon him, observing. Their ephemeral touch sent thrills across his skin, empowering the words which flowed from his lips.
"No means no. It does not mean 'Try harder.' It does not mean you may try and force me into anything. It does not mean anything other than no. One more word, one more anything out of you, and I shall shout to the sun, moon, and stars what a worthless sack of bullshit you are, what an impotent, imbecilic pick-up artist you are, that you must resort to the dirty tricks you do." Oh, he had such an audience now; even the sound system remained mute for the duration. He wouldn't have to say a thing after this. The entire party was listening in, and better yet they were believing every word out of his mouth. Leaning in, he delivered one last message for the jerk's ears only: "And don't think I didn't notice that mental push from you. It's a good thing you didn't give me your name after all, because otherwise I'd be calling the MCO on your rapist ass."
He let the jerk collapse back onto the couch. Without a single word more, Pat strode confidently past the staring throng of teenagers. Their eyes followed him out; he could feel each and every pair of orbs like they were tethered to him on elastic bonds. This was his audience, his support and his power, and he wanted nothing more at this moment than to escape to some place quiet and remote where he could freak out in peace.
Out the front door he went, the door slamming firmly but not too loudly. Only then did the silence break, as the sound system overcame its mysterious malfunction and continued to the next song.
All in all, it was a good exit.
"Wait!" Pat was halfway down the block when the shout stopped him. Even from many yards away, he could feel Dina's focus on him. It reeled him in like a lifeline, and then there they were, the two of them standing under the drooping branches of a willow tree.
"I'm sorry," he said before she could. "I spoiled your party."
"No, I'm sorry. We told Dylan not to try anything and he promised he wouldn't but of course he was lying..." The words tumbled out of Dina's mouth one after the other without space for air. By the end, he had to pat her on the back to help her catch her breath.
"Slow down. Dylan is...?"
"My brother. My older brother," she explained. "He's going to be a junior this year, and he's already got such a reputation. We didn't want him hanging around, but..."
"He does this a lot then?" She nodded. "Picking up girls and then throwing them away?" Another nod. "And the Jedi mind trick business?" It was pretty dark out by now, but even so he could see those brown eyes go wide.
Had he ever met Dylan Radford? He must have; they'd all gone to the same school, he thought. Two years was a bit of a gap, but the older boy would have to have attended events with his little sister from time to time. Vaguely, Pat could recall a pimply, older kid with bad posture and a worse attitude. Dylan had buffed up a lot since then. Suspiciously so.
"You know he's a mutant, then?"
"And that he's got a mindscrew power?"
"Yes. We ask him not to use it, and he promises, and we believe him."
"Because he makes you believe him." That prompted one last nod. "Christ. Why not call the MCO, or the DPA, or even the Spirit of St. Louis, if you all are so desperate?"
"Mother didn't want the scandal at first, and then Dylan started getting really good with the head games. He lets us keep everything normal-looking on the outside, but when he's stuck in the house and bored, it can get so bad. I tried calling the police, but I couldn't even finish dialing. He was really angry after that."
"Is this why you were absent from school for a week and a half last year?"
"Yes! Um, how'd you know that?"
"Not important now." Whoops, he needed to be more careful. "Better question: how's Dylan feeling right now?"
"Like death warmed over. He went up to his room after you left. What did you do to him?" Dina's voice was curious and hopeful. It was hope that whatever Pat had done could be done again, and that sudden tidbit of understanding only made him angrier at her big brother. He'd had his fill of head games while living with Mom, and to see the same thing here on a bigger scale was just....
"Do you have your phone on you?" Pat plucked the device out of her hand as soon as she unlocked it. As the phone rang on Dylan's end, Pat concentrated, recalling everything he'd ever heard Dina say, at parties or at school. Not the specific information; what was important was how she said it. Then the phone clicked as Dylan picked up, and it was showtime.
"What?" Over the phone, the groan was obvious.
"Um, it's me? Dina?" Pat squeaked in a decent imitation of his host's own voice. Dina herself was staring at him, which boosted both his confidence and his acting ability, it seemed.
"Yeah, I know. Caller ID, remember? Moron." There was another low groan.
"Um, yeah. Mother is wondering how you're feeling now?"
"Same as before. That bitch friend of yours packs a wallop. I swear, I'm gonna call the cops on her."
"I don't think so," Pat said, shifting back to his usual voice. "You know why?" Because I've got your name, Dylan Radford. Names have power, and by that power I have you as well. There's no escape." Anger fed the heat in his chest while his audience of one continued to enable it. "If I hear, even once, that you're abusing the power God gave you, I will be back, and I will break your mind like an egg. You know I can."
"And you lie. You always lie, don't you? Well, I'm being honest here. You've hurt your sister, and she's my friend, so that means you've hurt me as well. I don't take kindly to that sort of thing." Dear Lord, where was he getting this from? It was like the fizz was translating emotion straight into words, and only after did his brain realize how cheesy it was. "Consider this your first and final warning." With that, he cut the connection.
Dina was staring at him still. If anything, she was even more wide -eyed than before. What did he see in those eyes? Relief? Fear? A bit of both? Once he left, there'd be nothing to stop Dylan from messing with her head again, he realized. Was there anything he could do? he asked himself.
The stone in his chest pulsed in reply. Its glow brightened until it was dimly visible through the layers of the agate cameo. He heard with his ears a gasp of amazement from Dina, while with his heart he heard something far more abstract.
"Do you trust me, Dina?" he asked.
He cupped her head in his hands, brushing aside curly bangs to bare her forehead. Bending down slightly, he kissed the space just between and above the eyebrows. There was another, fleeting pulse of heat which traveled from his chest to his lips, then made the jump to Dina's bare skin. She sighed, her voice low and trembly, and when he pulled away he could see an imprint, an outline the complexity of which he could barely begin to notice before it faded into her forehead.
"Secrets shall remain forever safe," he murmured, though he didn't know why. "Dylan can't get to you."
"That was..." Dina searched for the right word, rubbing at her forehead as she considered. "That was so awesome." When it finally arrived, the word came in a hush, like she was afraid it would break if said to loudly.
"I get that a lot--oomph!" And then she was in his arms, returning that small, chaste, magical kiss with plenty of interest. There was heat between them, some but not all of it coming from the stone. He could feel her -- not only physically; he could feel everything about her. Emotions, dreams, desires, fears, the sum total of Dina Radford was exposed to him, if he dared look.
He broke off the kiss, broke off the strange contact that was at once so frightening and so exhilarating. Ragged panting filled the silence beneath the old willow tree, following in a moment by quiet sobbing.
"I'm... I'm sorry, Patty," said Dina. In the moonlight, tears left dribbly lines of silver down her face. "I shouldn't have. It was too forward, it was rude..."
"It was wonderful, thank you," he said, which stopped the sobs right there. For a moment, he wondered what he should do now, when he remembered he still had her phone in his hand. Dina watched as he quickly tapped in his own digits and mail address, then handed it back to her. "Call me?"
That was the coolness paradigm reacting, and for once he was more than happy to let it hijack his voice box. On the inside, he felt like he was going to throw up from sheer nervousness. His first kiss, and it was beyond bizarre, in the most exciting way possible.
"Y-yes, I'd like that." For a moment, it looked like she might kiss him again, and he wasn't sure what to do about that, but then something else crossed her mind. Her body drooped, and she said, "We should go back to the party now. People will be wondering."
"Okay. I should be leaving soon, though. No doubt Lara is mad at me for causing a scene."
She giggled at that. "She needs a reason to be upset? Fancy that."
"Yeah, I blame it on the hormones. Oh. What about your family? I should do that trick on them, too, while Dylan's out for the count."
Dina nodded, and led him back to the party. The numbers had thinned considerably while they were out, and he wasn't surprised to hear that Lara had already left with a friend. It was like she wanted Grammy to ground her again, or something. Still, this made it easier for him to wait till everyone else was gone. Dina had time to take her mother and father aside to explain some things, and so after the last guest had left he was called upon to do the sealing trick on her parents and her little brother David. It was too funny, watching the eleven-year-old turn bright red at that.
That was about when he realized he didn't know how he was getting home. He and Lara had planned on catching a ride with the same friend the girl had already left with, since Grammy had nebulous plans for the evening. Mrs. Radford called him a cab, and even gave him enough cash to pay the fare and then some.
As the taxi drove off, he stared at the screen of his phone, where Dina's own digits were on display. He'd found answers to two of his questions, at least. He was still attracted to girls, and girls could definitely feel the same about him. The reality was slowly sinking in. He, Patrick Dulles, had a girlfriend. He wasn't sure why, he wasn't sure how. In the back seat of the cab, unwatched by the driver and alone as he'd ever been that evening, doubts began to sprout like weeds.
Was Dina really attracted to him, or was she attracted to the glitter and shine of the coolness? She didn't know -- couldn't know -- who he was, and what would happen if she found out? When she found out? Would she still like him then? Would she call him out as a fake?
Would she be able to say anything at all? That line of thought chilled him. He still wasn't sure what he'd done, or what the limits were for him, for that matter. For all he knew, he'd broken Dina's brain worse than her brother had. And if he had, what did that make him?
It was a long ride home that night.
"What in tarnation..." Her hand went to her phone and dialed, though her eyes never left the screen before her. When she'd arrived home -- earlier than expected, but still well into the evening -- she'd been happy to note that one particular ornament in her front hall display case had lit up. It was a pretty little thing, a quartz carving that looked absolutely charming with the light on inside, but it had more purpose than simply looking cute. When the light was on, it meant she had a message waiting. She'd never figured out how it knew, or what signal it might receive from a gadget that was clearly turned off at the time, but then again she'd never asked.
Three days had passed since she'd made that report, and it was high time someone acknowledged it. The reply left her with more questions than answers, though.
-click- Someone picked up on the other end, and a tired "Hello?" could be heard.
"Janceena? Did I call at a bad time? Convention run you ragged?" The younger woman was at a big event up in Chicago, last she'd heard. "How was the witchy stuff?"
"The Wicca convention was alright," came the reply. "I was called away by business, though. Just spent the last day and a half giving a new mutant a crash course in magic."
"Better you than me."
Janceena snorted. "Goddess preserve me from overly precocious students. This one's got tons of tricks already, all of them from a video game."
"Shee-yit, sounds like you got your work cut out for you."
"For the next few days, to be sure. She's a quick learner, and a good student at that. You'd like her."
"Send her down sometime then. Better yet, come on down yourself. We could use you in St. Louie right now."
"Me as in me, Grammercie? Or me as in the DPS?" Janceena Sevcik, mystic field agent for the Department of Paranormal Affairs, was one of the few people who ever used her full name, and Grammy likewise never referred to her as Jan or Janny. Personal history and professional courtesy both insisted on it.
"Heard 'bout that business on the third?"
"Luke's forwarded me the juicy details. What's your connection to the case?"
"Not me. But I met a young man who had a close call with the big chase scene afterwards, and his life's gotten sure weird since then. I made a report via the usual channels, but the reply's... Well, somethin' smells off."
"Never hearda the sender, for starters. Luke's on the case, you said?"
"Not exactly. The apparent perpetrator, Malypense, has a reputation for mystic thefts, so we're keeping tabs while the local talent does their job, but unless he resurfaces in the area, we're to keep our hands out of it."
"Malypense... There's a name that bodes no one good. Here's a different name, though. You got anyone in your office named Litwick?"
"Litwick?" Over the phone, Grammy could hear the witch tapping on a keyboard. "There he is. Attached to the OKC office, but in a different building than I usually work in. He's a desk agent in our artifact-tracking division."
"Would he be involved in the case at all? I heard tell that the stolen item was already returned to the museum. No one seemed to know why."
"No, he's clerical, not cleared for the field, and in any case if we sent someone officially it would probably be from the Chicago field office unless the agent was either in the area already or was specially requested. Why are you asking?"
"Only," Grammy said. "I got an official message over my DPA gadget right here, signed by this Litwick feller, demandin' -- not askin', mind you -- that I hand over the boy to DPA custody if he's still with me, or to give up all information I have regardin' an artifact called Proserpina's Tear, which I can tell you is a new one on me. Quotin' a buncha laws and reg'lations, too, none o' which I ever seen before. Gotta ask myself if this is really how the DPA normally handles matters."
"No." Janceena's voice was flat and cold. "It's not. I don't know what he's up to, but Agent Litwick should not be making statements like that. And I've never heard of an artifact by that name, either. I need to talk to Luke about some housecleaning issues, I think."
"Well, I'm gonna tell him plain an' square that the boy ain't with me, that he ran away from his awful home earlier in the week, so best of luck to him. An' I can't tell him squat 'bout Proserpina's Tear cuz I don't know what the heck that is." Oh, but she could guess. How she could guess.
"Be careful, Grammercie. I have a bad feeling about this."
"Me too. That's why I got my crystal out for a look-see."
"Your... it's that bad, then." Grammy could imagine the witch's grim face now. "I thought you'd throw that thing out for sure, after Maurice...."
"Gotta put the past behind me, Janceena. Future's what's important, and I ain't walking into it blindly."
"Let me know the instant anything changes. Don't take any risks."
"Who do you take me for, Janceena? I already done taken the risks, an' now it's time to deal with the cons'quences 'fore some'un else gets hurt again."
"Just cuz I don't speak your funny language don't mean I can't tell when you're cussin', Janceena. Trust me," Grammy added, her voice serious. "One way or 'nother, I'll find out what's goin' on an' let you know."
"It's the 'nother' part that worries me, Grammercie."
"As well it should. Worries me too."
A minute to say the proper goodbyes and well wishes, and then she let Janceena go to her well-earned slumber. Her terse response to that Litwick person took far less time, but only because she didn't pad it out with all the dirty words she wanted to use. She could hope the man could read well enough between the lines.
It was only when the message was sent and the gadget powered down that she heard the music, down below.
The lights were on when he got home, and Grammy's Mazda was sitting there in the driveway. He paid the cabbie and hopped up the steps to the front door. It was unlocked, but he could swear he felt the tingle of something running all over him as he passed the threshold. Grammy had better security options than simple lock and key, he reckoned.
Then the taxi drove off, and with it the attention of its driver. The heat and fizz fell off him like an old coat, leaving him cold and exposed to no one but himself, and he was his own worst audience. Already, the metaphorical tomatoes were flying.
"Idiot!" he mumbled to himself. What was he doing, really? It was all fake, all a lie. His coolness was nothing but a shared illusion -- no, a hallucination -- that he sold to the world. All it did was trick people into acting like he was the star of his own life-movie, and then it made him dance like a puppet on strings.
His legs wobbled like jelly, and he tripped on the edge of the hallway's rug. It was the first misstep he'd made all week, and it was depressingly familiar. This was how his life used to be: clumsy and fumbling. The base condition of his life. Only when he was alone was he really himself, and himself was a nobody, a klutz, a victim waiting to happen.
But was it any better, being a big fake? Yes, people liked him more. Dina liked him a whole lot more. But it wasn't real, wasn't anything more than a delusion he spread to the world. And it was... tempting, so tempting. Addictive, almost. He didn't want to be himself anymore, not this real self that only came out when he was isolated, but he wasn't sure he wanted to be the self he became when the audience was present. It felt so manipulative, so wrong at times.
He needed to sit, and the first seat to present itself was the piano bench. His fingers poked at the black and white keys, more for lack of anything else to do. - plink plink plink- Nothing. No connection, no fugue. When he focused, he could do a few basics, like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Chopsticks," but that was the extent of his musical ability. All the joy he'd felt, that last time he'd played this old stand-up piano, it had been fake, too. So fake that it had gone all the way around to feeling like absolute truth to him, if that was even possible.
Was that how his life was going to be from now on? Constantly fooling the world, fooling himself? He'd asked to be cool, but was it worth it? A life of constant cheating, that was what it was.
Beneath his fingers, the piano keys gained a life of their own, pulling his digits to the proper places and inviting them to press, to push, to caress the ivory pieces until they sang in ecstasy. Heat sparked again in his chest... And he slammed his hands down, ending the fugue before it began. Behind him, he could hear Grammy walking up the hall.
"What's the matter, child?"
Pat shook his head, not trusting his own voice.
"Bad time at the party?" He shook his head. "Good time?" This time, he made a complicated shrug, with his arms waving in small circles. "Okay, child, we need to have some actual words in this conv'sation." Vigorous head-shaking this time.
The old lady sighed and left the room. He heard her shuffling steps go all the way back down the hall, and to the stairs. Past that point, his people sense cut out, and the fizz died down once more. Pat relaxed again.
His phone rang, and he nearly fell off the bench. "Hello?"
"Child, you obviously need to talk, an' just as obviously you don't want to out loud. I think I can guess why. How 'bout this way then?"
He thought he might cry. Someone understood, at least a little, how he was feeling. "I, um... The party was..." How best to put it? "A lot of stuff happened."
"Tell me 'bout it, child." And so he did.
--- Sunday, July 10th, 2016
Pat's morning started with a beep. It wasn't the loud, long blaaaat of the alarm clock, but a smaller noise, more of a peep- peep-peep. He was lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling and finding pictures within the cracks of that white expanse of plaster, when the beep happened, and he sat up in surprise. Next to the bed on that little table dominated by a big old ceramic lamp, his cell phone was winking at him.
A message? At this time of the morning? It was... He checked the clock on the wall. It was six-thirty in the ay-em. Who'd be sending messages now?
*Let me know when you're awake -- Dina* The text was accompanied by a cute kitten emoji. That answered the question of who, but not the why of the when.
*Good morning* he sent back, adding a sun with dark glasses. The phone rang less than twenty seconds later.
"Um, hello?" His voice sounded sleepy, even to him, and without the support of the fizz his usual hesitation curdled the words in his mouth. He'd spent an hour crying into this phone the night before, and his throat still felt off.
"Patty!" Dina, on the other hand, was unnaturally chipper for this time of day. "I didn't call at a bad time, did I?"
"No, no... Um, I was awake. No problem. Er, what's up?"
"Me!" The giggle that followed was straddling the delicate border between happy and manic. "Ha-ha, sorry. None of us got a lot of sleep over here last night -- I barely slept a wink, I was so excited! -- and when I noticed the sun was up I decided to text you, so here we are!"
"Yes, um, right." Dear God, he had broken her brain, hadn't he? "What happened after I left?"
"Well, Dylan came out of his fortress of solitude around ten-thirty, all grumbly and sorta hungover-ish, and then he asked Mother and Father to call the police on you. And you know what they said?"
"NO!" crowed Dina. "So then he told us -- really told us, y'know, in his special way -- to call the police and have you arrested, and all four of us said 'NO!' in our loudest voices! You should have seen the look on his face! He was trying so hard to screw with our minds, but he just kept looking more and more constipated!" Dina's overclocked levels of joy were contagious. Pat was grinning in spite of himself.
"So Dylan went back to his room, with all the windows barred and the door locked, and the rest of us celebrated the whole night. Father called the DPA office in Chicago, and someone's coming by in a few hours to get Dylan properly checked out. Mother wanted to do something nice for you to say thanks for all you've done, so I asked if it'd be okay if I took you out on a date, and they said sure, why not?, and would eleven be a good time to pick you up?"
"Wait, wait, what?" In the rush of words, it was hard to make sense of everything she'd said, but the 'date' had stood out pretty prominently. "So they know you, er..."
"Like girls? They do now! I figured that was as good a time as any to mention it, since everyone was so happy."
"How long have you, um..." Was he going to go more than two sentences without tripping over his own words? It didn't look like it, today.
"Oh, I realized about a year ago. I actually had a crush on Lara for a while, if you'd believe."
"Yeah, me too," he admitted. Inside, he was relieved to hear this wasn't something he hadn't forced onto Dina somehow. He would hate to have that much control over another person. "A crush on Lara, I mean. It lasted up until I had a chance to know her better."
A giggle. "I know what you mean. Now, speaking of knowing someone better, Mother said she could pick you up around elevenish and take us up to the new mall near the Arch. You're staying with Lara, right?"
"We're both staying at her grandmother's place." Quickly he rattled off the address to Dina. "I think Grammy's set on us going to early mass today, so eleven should be good. So, er, the mall? As in shopping?"
"Not a big fan, huh."
"You could say that. Last time, when you ran into me and Lara, it was mostly her doing the shopping. That one outfit you liked was the only thing we got for me, because you managed to put Lara on the spot about it."
"Glad to help." Dina's voice twinkled with barely repressed giggles. "It looks wonderful on you, but I'm guessing from your voice that it wasn't your usual thing?"
"Yeah. I mean, I'm glad you like me in it, but I wouldn't have picked it out for myself."
"So what do you usually like to wear?"
"Um..." Now there was a tricky question. What Patrick Dulles used to wear barely resembled what he had to wear now. Out of his old wardrobe, all he had left were some t-shirts, some socks, and a pair of baggy jeans. Everything else was handed down from Lara.
Oops, he was taking too long. he decided to skirt the truth as close as possible, and said, "My usual style's a bit more, er, boyish, I guess you'd say."
"Shirts, pants, nothing frilly or pink?"
"Hmm... I think we can work with that. Oops, gotta go! See you at eleven, okay? Mwah!" Then the connection was cut, and he was left wondering what he'd gotten himself into this time.
On instinct, he reached for the deck of cards, and with a new familiarity he quickly shuffled. Nine of Cups: happiness, fulfillment. Two of Cups, followed by the Star: attraction and hope. Well, that was encouraging.
"You." Lara Washington managed to pack a lot of meaning into that one syllable. It was easy to imagine what words would naturally accompany it if she continued, words like 'idiot' or 'bastard'. From across the dining room table, he could feel her stare pushing at him. "You... have... a date ..." she continued, pausing heavily after each word as if to make it sound even more unlikely.
"That I do," Pat replied, radiating good cheer like an entire display's worth of Christmas lights. Behind the facade, he still felt as full of doubt as ever, but like hell he was going to let her see that. "Dina wants to repay me for all the help I gave her last night."
"You slapped her big brother silly!"
"An' he deserved it, too, from what I've heard." Grammy interrupted the conversation with two big plates of breakfast: bacon, hash browns, and two eggs over easy for each of them. "Already had a nice talk with Mr. Radford last night after you went to bed, child. You done good, so enjoy the rewards." The old lady winked mischievously at him before returning to the stove to finish her own breakfast.
Pat added a dash of hot sauce and tucked in, but Lara just sulked.
"Why does she get to go out and I can't?" the whining continued.
"'Cuz she didn't abandon her friend at a party an' then come home past midnight," Grammy replied.
"But Pat made that big scene and embarrassed herself in front of all those people!"
"First, you mean Pat embarrassed you, and second, you don't know the half of what went down last night, so fill your mouth with breakfast 'fore it gets you even more grounded." Grammy set her own plate of eggs and toast on the table, then sat down and crossed herself before saying grace.
It was a quiet meal after that. Lara picked at her food, and once or twice it looked like she was about to speak, but then thought better of it. Only after the plates were washed and the old lady was out of the room did Lara say anything more: "I don't know what kind of mutant trick you're using to make everyone like you, but it won't last forever. It's all gonna come crashing down on you soon, see that it doesn't."
As it turned out, they skipped church that morning. Grammy claimed it was because she was feeling poorly, but Pat suspected she didn't want a repeat of last Wednesday's insanity in front of a much larger congregation. Either way, Lara was under house arrest, and he had a date.
At ten fifty-five, Dina's mom pulled the Radford family mini-van into Grammy's driveway. Pat was out the door before the wheels stopped rolling. He wasn't about to give Lara the chance to do whatever it was she was plotting. Likewise, he refused to let her words after breakfast bother him too much. His powers, however they worked, weren't making Grammy or Dina do anything they wouldn't want to. Of that, he was pretty much certain now. Well, mostly. If he did have that sort of mind-controlling juju, he'd be using it on Lara for sure.
With a wave to Grammy as she held the front door for him, Pat bounced into the back seat of the green mini-van. Dina greeted him with a hug and a quick peck on the cheek that sent a completely sort of fizz bubbling through him. Her hand found his after he'd buckled in, and they remained clasped the entire way to the mall.
The Gateway Shopping Center was a large structure, so new that some of the ornamental bits were still under construction. Fancy and modern, it rose opportunistically from a section of downtown that had gotten itself flattened about five years before when a villain called Blaster Master had thundered through with his horde of rock 'n' roll feline battle drones. Pat had seen it all on the news from a hotel near Branson, where his family had been on vacation. There was no sign of the destruction now, unless one counted the big fountain in front that stubbornly refused to work right.
"So, where do we start?" asked Mrs. Radford as she parked the car. She'd asked him to call her Debra, but he wasn't comfortable with that yet. "Macy's? Or one of the smaller stores?"
"What do you need, Pat?" Dina inquired.
"A decent pair of pants, I suppose." He patted his own knees. The old pair of jeans was currently in the wash. "These are on loan from Lara, and to be honest they're a little short."
"To pants!" cried Dina as she jumped out of the car.
"Is she always like this?" he whispered to Mrs. Radford.
"She used to be," came the reply, as quietly as the question. "She had to keep it all pent up this past year, so I think she's overcompensating. Bear with it, Patty."
"Will do--urk!" Dina'd got him by the arm and was dragging him out of the mini-van.
"C'mon! C'mon! We gotta find you something nice!"
Mrs. Radford followed behind them at a safe distance, grinning all the way.
"Thanks again, ma'am," he made sure to say the next time he and Mrs. Radford had a moment alone. The two of them were sitting on a bench inside the mall, in a spot that overlooked the busy first and second floors. Behind them was the entrance to the ladies' washroom, where Dina was currently preoccupied. Near their feet were several bags of clothes, including three new pairs of slacks and a nice dress shirt in pale blue.
"What for? And call me Debra, please."
"Okay, Debra. Thank you for letting Dina take me out like this. When she said she came out to you last night, I wasn't sure what to think."
"Well..." Now Mrs. Radford shuffled her sandals and quickly glanced behind her. "We knew already. A few months ago, Dylan forced Dina to go on a date with one of his friends, and let's just say that it didn't end well. Her orientation was one of many details to emerge from of that debacle.”
"But she said..."
"She doesn't remember." Mrs. Radford had a thin frown on her face. "Dylan saw to that."
"Christ." He wanted to slump down on the bench from the weight of that particular datum, but his body maintained its perfect posture. Physically, or outwardly at least, he was an emotional bomb shelter. Inside was all a jumble.
"Just please, be kind to her," said Dina's mother. "She needs someone good in her life for once."
"Understood, ma'am. Debra," he corrected himself quickly as the woman sent him a mock-angry glare.
"I'm back!" Dina called from the washroom entrance, ending the little tete-a-tete.
"Okay, Dee. Where to next?" her mom called back, grabbing the bags. Turning her head, the woman managed to wink and give him a thumb's up, hidden by the shopping, without Dina ever noticing.
Well, he thought as Dina locked elbows with him and led him away. At least I've got the general support of the grown-ups around here.
Thirty minutes later, after some discussion over whether a cravat would work with his new dress shirt, teenage stomachs began a basso chorus that no one could ignore. Mrs. Radford laughingly called for a time out on shopping, then insisted on taking the two of them to the nicest restaurant on the fourth floor. Pat tried to protest, claiming that burgers or tacos were fine with him, but maternal largesse could not be swayed. And that was how he ended up sitting in a real French restaurant for the first time in his life.
They were seated in the far corner, half-surrounded by plush curtains that muffled all sound from outside. There was a lace tablecloth. There were cloth napkins folded neatly. The silverware was real silver. It was the nicest place he'd ever eaten at in his whole life. Mrs. Radford ordered, for which he was grateful. The menu was a mystery to him, full of random words with funny spellings, like 'avec'. He wasn't sure what that might be, but it showed up in a lot of things. Instead, he and Dina admired the scenery. The walls were covered in portraits and still-life paintings, presumably all French in origin.
"I've heard that the mayor dines here sometimes," Mrs. Radford was saying. "And sometimes the Spirit of St. Louis or Red Kite, too. Their headquarters are just above us, you know."
"Really?" said Dina, but Pat was nodding.
"Yeah," he replied. "The upper floors of this building are supposed to be split between government offices, businesses, and the Gateway Guardians HQ, right? I'm a bit of a cape-watcher," he admitted when Dina arched an eyebrow at him.
"You and most of the boys in my class," she said.
Conversation paused to allow for the soup and salad course to arrive, and once everything was tasted Mrs. Radford said, "So what about our own young heroine, hmm? I must admit, I'm curious to know more about you, Patty." Beside her, Dina nodded vigorously, sending brown curls to bounce up and down.
"Where to begin..." He let the question hang in the air, buying himself a few more seconds to think. What could he say? What dare he say? He could feel the fizz rising to his defense, but he was able to quash it, to keep it from putting empty words in his mouth. He didn't want to lie, not to Dina or her mother, but at the same time, he wasn't sure which way to go.
Mother and daughter waited patiently as he organized his thoughts and feelings. They were equally nice, equally smiley. Dina was essentially her mother in miniature, already cute and destined to be beautiful. There was a pang in his heart at that thought. Nine of Cups, Two of Cups, Star, he reminded himself. It all had to start somewhere, and if it was to go anywhere, then honesty was necessary. Better they heard it from Pat's own mouth, and not from someone like Lara, later.
"So..." he started over again. "As you probably guessed, I'm not normal."
"It was fairly obvious, Patty dear," said Mrs. Radford.
"Are you a mutant?" asked Dina, keeping her voice low but no less curious.
"Yes? No? Maybe? To be honest, I'm not sure. Things just went crazy about a week ago, and I'm still sorting it all out. But there was one thing I needed to mention..." He took a sip of water, because his composure wouldn't let him gulp or otherwise show hesitation. On the inside, where no one could see, he was shaking like jell-o. Could he? Should he? The silence stretched on, and he realized this had to be the longest sip in the history of awkward moments.
Now or never, dude!
"You've probably heard that a lot of mutants change in one way or another when they come into their powers..." Mother and daughter nodded at that. "Well, a week ago, I didn't look like this. At all. I was scrawny and weak, with jug-handle ears and a spotty complexion, and..." Time to bite the bullet. "I was a boy."
Dina and her mom sat and stared. And stared. And stared. Perhaps he didn't need magic to break people's brains after all. He seemed to do it well enough on his own. It took a lot of willpower not to bolt, not to flee like he had with Grammy, but even so he was on the edge of his seat and ready to run for it. All it would take was one word, one frown or other sign of disgust, and he'd be out of there in a blink. Not knowing what else to do or what else to say, he waited for the other shoe to drop.
Then Dina took his hand. Their eyes locked; his clear and ever-shifting and hers blurry with held-back tears. "Pat..." she said, her voice stumbling. "Patrick? Patrick Dulles, from school?" It was his turn to nod. He wasn't surprised; he'd given her more than enough clues by accident. What came next didn't surprise him either -- it astounded him. The girl slipped out of her chair, her hand never leaving his, and curled up on his lap. Arms wrapped around him, and he could feel drops of moisture as her head lay on his shoulder.
"And I thought my life was crazy," she sniffled into his ear.
"It was," he said. "I'm sorry I didn't see how bad it was for you this year. I saw the signs, but..."
"You couldn't know." Her tears flowed along his skin and down the front of his shirt. They washed across the stone in his chest like a cooling stream, and to his shock the ever-present warmth flickered and faded until it was the barest glimmer.
To cry by himself was to cry alone, he'd learned. To share tears with another, that was something else entirely, as Dina taught him now. He clung to her as tightly as she to him, and by the time the main dish arrived they were a soppy mess. But at least they were a soppy mess together.
"What?" Pat asked.
"You're awesome." Dina planted a quick kiss on his lips. "The mutation just made you awesomer."
"That's not even really a..." Pat stopped himself, then shrugged. He wasn't in any position to complain. It had been over an hour since their mutual meltdown in the restaurant, and now they were snuggled on a bench amid the statues on the first floor. Heroes of the city, both past and present, had their posterity preserved in granite along either side of the mall's main thoroughfare. The adventure that was shopping with Dina hadn't left him with time to examine all of them yet, but he was curious to see if Pompatus and Madame Mystique were represented.
"So you all are really okay with this? Me being a, well, you know?"
"That doesn't change who you are now," she pointed out. "Or what you've done for us. And I think Mother is looking forward to surprising Father with the news that his daughter's girlfriend is also technically her boyfriend," she added mischievously.
"When is your mom getting back, anyway?" Mrs. Radford had left them here to rest after all that crying, saying only that there were some supplies she wanted to get before they went home. Not that he was complaining, he thought idly as he returned Dina's kiss.
"In a little while, I suppose." His girlfriend yawned. She curled up beside him, resting her head on his chest. "I think I'll take a nap now, if that's all right with you." Adorable little snores vibrated his shirt fabric a moment later.
"You two make a cute couple."
"Y'think so?" he mumbled, stroking his girlfriend's hair.
"I know so. Seen my fair share, I have. People were made incomplete, they say, so that we may have the chance to complete one another and be stronger for it. I daresay the two of you make a good set."
His girlfriend -- and how he never tired of that word!-- stirred, then raised her head. "Who're you talkin' to?"
"This guy..." He paused. There had been someone here, right? But he hadn't felt anything, hadn't had a blip on his person sense at all. The only heat he'd felt came from his contact with Dina's body. So who had been speaking? Pat craned his head around, puzzled. The daily tide of shopping was at its ebb, and the mall's population had gone down dramatically from just a few hours ago. It was just him and Dina in this little corner of the floor.
Beside the bench, the statue of the God of Luck and Things as They Ought to Be beamed serenely, as only a figure reminiscent of a Buddhist sumo wrestler hobbit could. Billiken approved.
"Would you like to come in for some tea?" Pat asked as Mrs. Radford parked the mini-van in front of the little house with the white picket fences. Grammy had told him to make the invitation, had seemed quite happy about it in fact, but he had a sudden shiver of anxiety all the same.
"That sounds nice. Thank you, Pat." Dina's mom nodded to the back of the van. "We should help you with your things, too."
"On it!" Dina shouted, bouncing out the side door like a rubber ball. Pat had to catch her before she could load herself with more than she could carry. He finally grabbed the pants and shirt off of her, but she wouldn't relinquish the bag of mystery supplies her mom had bought.
Grammy was there to greet them in the front hall, and in a short moment they were all comfortably seated in the library with glasses of tea in hand. The adults took the two armchairs, while Pat and Dina got the couch. There was space for a third, but Lara opted to sit on the floor, near the edge of the room's old Persian carpet.
"Looks like you enjoyed yourselves," the old lady noted, with her eyes on the bags. Lara was glaring at them enviously.
"It was an experience," Mrs. Radford said with a laugh. "Between Dina's super enthusiasm and Pat's complete lack of it, we managed to find a happy shopping medium."
"Shopping wasn't that bad," Pat admitted. "At least, not with good company." That got Dina to blush and Lara to grimace.
"Oh, don't listen to them," Dina insisted from her spot beside him on the couch. "It was fun dressing Pat up. We all enjoyed it by the end."
"Once we determined what I liked and what looked good," Pat added. "And I wasn't complaining too much, was I?"
"You were the model of patience with my daughter," Mrs. Radford assured him.
Dina started going on about what they'd found and where, in such detail that Pat could see the whole mall flashing before his eyes. On the other side of the rug, Lara was getting fidgety. If he focused, he could practically see the resentment and envy pouring off of her. Shopping was her thing, after all, not his. Her eyes burned their way into his consciousness, like bomb-pumped lasers of self-righteous anger. When she finally interrupted Dina's shop-by-shop analysis of the action, it surprised exactly no one.
"I can't believe you all!" the black girl cried, throwing her hands in the air. "Wasting your time and money like this, and on Pat! Pat, of all people! The one person here who'd never appreciate it properly! No," she said to her grandmother, holding up a flat palm in the woman's face. "I'm not finished. I hate to say this, but Pat's been fooling everyone. I know it, Pat knows it, and everyone should know just what a freak he is. Yes, he," she spat, glaring at him a moment before moving in on Dina. "Your new girlfriend -- and I still don't know how that happened -- your new girlfriend's really a freak, a disgusting thing that used to be a boy and now, now... Who knows what he is, really!"
"Lara, girl," said Grammy, who'd been carefully noting the Radfords' reactions. "We should be callin' you Li'l Miss Obvious."
"Yeah," said Dina. "We all know that already." From the other armchair, Mrs. Radford was nodding.
The girl's confident expression collapsed faster than a busted souffle. It was a wonder to watch; each muscle seemed to slump independently of the rest, her face slowly sliding downward until her jaw was about to hit the rug. Chocolate brown eyes bugged so far out that they seemed to hover above the rest of her features, like a cartoon gag reaction shot made real.
"And for your inf'mation," Grammy added. "Pat may be female, technically, but he is still such a boy. Get with the times, girl."
"I'd say he's actually quite the gentleman," added Dina's mother.
"Best boyfriend I ever had," the little brunette chimed in. "Or best girlfriend. Just the best, either way." She planted a kiss on his cheek.
Lara's mouth worked its way up and down, making way for the words that failed to form in her throat. He'd seen that same expression years before, when his dad had taken him fishing in the Ozarks to the south. In this moment, Lara was the spitting image of a rainbow trout.
"Well, um, er..." the girl spluttered. "Fine! Keep your freak! Go parade him around and have freaky sinful lezzy tranny times, for all I care!" Lara tried to stand up, but tripped over her own two feet. Once she peeled her face off the Persian rug and found her balance, she stormed out of the room. A door slammed behind her in the hallway.
Grammy sighed. "Better go make sure she don't do somethin' stupid." The old lady eased herself out of the armchair with a wince and the sound of popping knees, followed by a muffled curse.
"We'll dress Pat up for you," Mrs. Radford said with a grin. "Got to show off what we bought, after all."
"You do that. Gimme somethin' to look forward to."
Pat was sort of nervous, letting a girl into his room. He knew he was being silly. The room wasn't even really his, after all; he'd only been borrowing it for the past week. Still, it was more his, more of a home than his actual room at the trailer in the Shambles ever was. No way he'd ever let someone into that mess. Simply getting anybody into the trailer would've taken a miracle. So despite his usual cool demeanor, his stomach was filled with a flock of glass-winged fractal butterflies as he opened the door to welcome Dina and her mother inside.
"Okay, strip," Mrs. Radford ordered, dropping the bags onto his bed.
He didn't ask "What?", no matter how much he was thinking it. The whole point of coming in here was to change clothes, and they were here to comment and assist. There was no point in resisting, so with a shrug he pulled off his top and dropped his pants to the floor. Even now, the coolness paradigm guided his actions, making a simple maneuver graceful and flawless. And sexy, too, judging from the subtle pink shade now coloring Dina's face.
"That was easier than I expected," her mom snarked.
"Trust me, Debra ma'am, on the inside I'm bright red and half dead from embarrassment." Seriously, if they left him alone right now, or even just turned their backs to him at the same time, he might puke from nerves. He hadn't bared all in front of someone in years. The fact that he wasn't technically naked, having on a light blue bra and matching panties, did nothing to help. He could feel himself shifting position, but not the way he'd intended. Instead of being shy, his body was subtly flaunting itself, arching the back and swaying the hips in front of Dina's interested stare.
"Dee, please look away for a bit," her mother said. "I doubt Pat's used to being ogled."
"Mother...." Dina turned bright red at that, but did as she was told.
"Good. Now, Pat. Off with the bra."
"Eyes off, Dee." From the bag of mystery supplies, Mrs. Radford pulled a big roll of white material. She pulled on it, stretching it a little in demonstration. "Any guesses, Pat?"
"No." Seriously, he had zero idea what the woman was up to right now. He'd assumed Mrs. Radford didn't share her daughter's romantic interests, and there didn't seem to be anything sexual in the way she looked at him now, but he was still at a loss to explain.
"ACE bandages." Well, that was about as enlightening as a candle in a blizzard. "I used to do a lot of theater stuff in high school and college," she continued. "And occasionally there'd be a situation where we didn't have enough men to fill all the male roles. So guess what we'd do?" The roll made a thin noise as she pulled more off of it. "Especially in college, we'd need to do it a lot on some productions. Julius Caesar comes to mind. Got lots of practice with that one. So, give me, oh... seven minutes, and I can make a man out of you." She gave him a big and not at all maternal wink. "The girls in my theater group used to do this all the time. If it was a slow weekend, we'd talk some guys into going drag, and we'd pretend to be their boyfriends. Oh, remind me to tell you about my first date with your father sometime, Dee."
"Mother!" Dina screeched, in that tone of voice reserved for young teens who do not at all, under any circumstances, on pain of immediate death by embarrassment, wish to know about the very existence of a parental sex life.
It took ten minutes, but that was only if you counted time spent tying a cravat. When he looked in the mirror, the results spoke for themselves. It was still him in the glass -- the new him, at least -- but the outline of his body was different. The bandages, drawn tight across his chest but still loose enough to breathe, took his already modest breasts and flattened them, redirected them to the sides and armpits. Not painful, but not terribly comfortable either. His hips were hugged by a panty girdle, altering the curve of his ass to something less obviously feminine. In a nice, loose pair of slacks with his fancy dress shirt and cravat, he looked like a guy. A sort of feminine, metrosexual guy, but a guy nonetheless. He turned his head this way and that, noting how the in-between nature of his facial features complemented his new look just as well as they'd had the old.
Everything I'm not, he'd told the spirit in his dream. That had somehow resulted in a face and body that could be anything, depending on how it was presented. He should've been annoyed by this new insight into how he'd managed to screw himself over, but his heart wasn't in it. Brushing a stray lock of hair away from his forehead, he instead reveled in the feeling of not looking like a girl, if only for a little while. The shirt was silk, dyed in a pattern of dark colors that swam over his skin with the slightest movement. The cravat was light green, in contrast to both his shirt and his general complexion. Its color was currently reflected in his eyes. There was a matching suit vest, which went on and off his shoulders several times as he imitated the models from his mom's favorite fashion reality shows.
Dina was clapping harder with every pose. "Yowza," was the only comment she made.
"I thought you didn't like guys?" he mother said, poking the girl in the ribs.
"I don't. But this is Pat we're talking about." Dina stared at him dreamily. "Wish I could see that infamous stone of yours more closely, though."
"You missed your chance earlier because you were focusing too hard on what was under the bra," Mrs. Radford said, which sent her daughter spluttering again. "And it didn't look like much. Maybe the size of a pomegranate seed? If it weren't for the color, I'd think it was a beauty mark." She considered for a moment. "You know, with a bit of putty and the right foundation..."
"Something for me to think about, Debra ma'am. Thanks."
"Now, before my dear daughter stains your bedsheets with all her drooling, shall we show Mrs. LeRoi how well you clean up?" Dina squealed in mock outrage, and brandished her chosen weapon in what might have been a threatening pose if she were not four foot ten and it were not an oversized pillow. It took them a while longer to recover from the laughter.
She found it all too easy to shut her granddaughter down this time. That didn't sit well with her, but the girl was going out of her way to be difficult. Her mother Marnie had been a handful, but Grammy herself hadn't been so old back then. Aches and pains shot up her back, hammering the point home. No, no, she wasn't in the best condition to deal with her granddaughter, and so she kept turning to the easy way out, much as she feared she was slowly damning herself in the process. This wasn't the first time she'd placed such a hex on Lara, and while its shadowy web took the girl's attention span and put massive blinkers on, at least her granddaughter had fought it for once. Normally, Lara didn't notice at all. There may be hope for the girl yet.
Lara was now watching her favorite reality TV show with a rapturous look on her face. All thoughts of flooding the local teenage gossip mills with news of Pat's condition were gone, though it had been a close thing. Grammy'd caught up with her right as she was about to press the button to send. That hex would ensure the girl remained glued to the boob tube for a long time.
Then there was the phone call, to her land line for once. That had only taken a few minutes to sort out, and afterward she had plenty of time to sit down and rest her weary bones before Pat and the Radfords made their appearance.
Oh, but what an entrance they made! If her brain didn't already know better, her eyes would've fooled it into believing there really was a handsome young man now strutting into the room. Mrs. Radford took the other armchair and shared her enjoyment at the sight, but the young sweetheart grabbed Pat by the hand and started to dance.
Did Pat even know how to dance? Probably not, judging by the flash of surprise on his face, but the two of them cut the rug like Astaire and Rogers, all the same. It was a sort of freestyle affair, not too old-fashioned but not too modern either, just two kids having fun. And they were really getting into it, too; flips and twirls and an over-the-back maneuver like something out of Dirty Dancing.
She could feel the slightest prickle of juju on her skin, noticeable only because she'd spent so much time with Pat lately. When Mrs. Radford leaned over to comment that she didn't know her own daughter could dance so well, Grammy nodded. Pat's power was supporting the two of them, much the same way he'd boosted the front row singers at church. It was only right that she sit back and let them enjoy themselves. The two teenagers were completely lost in each other, and she was slightly jealous, but mostly sad. She and Maurice had had something similar, and she still occasionally shivered at the memory of some of his lightning-charged kisses. Oh, to be young and in love again... When the dance began a subtle shift that would have turned it from a tango into a lambada, she clapped loudly to remind the two children that yes, they had an audience outside themselves.
Mrs. Radford, for her part, looked happily embarrassed by her daughter's moment of intimacy.
"Grow up so fast, don't they?" she whispered to the woman, who only nodded wistfully. Perhaps Mrs. Radford had her own fond memories roused by proximity to Pat and Dina's happy aura.
"Sorry, Mother," said Dina, looking flushed and excited, but not the least bit contrite. "I guess we got carried away there."
"I understand, Dee. Your father and I used to dance like that when we were younger. Of course," she added, "we usually had most of our clothes off by this point."
"Mother!" Dina's ears could have been used to direct traffic; they were glowing such a red. Grammy had to laugh at that.
"Stop teasin', Mrs. Radford."
"Awright, Debra. An' I'm Grammy, so don't forget. Oh, speakin' of almost forgettin'. Didn't want to mention it 'fore, since them two'uz dancin' so nicely, but your hubby called while you'uz dressin' Pat."
"I got the text," said Debra. "They finished checking your brother," she explained to Dina. "He'll be going to Chicago for a while, I'm afraid."
"How much trouble is he in?" her daughter asked, eyes blazing.
"Not as much as he should be, seein' as he's still a minor and they don't have hard ev'dence of anythin'," Grammy spat out. "But he's gonna be on some sorta parole until he turns eighteen. Standard situation is to stick a psi damper on him, and school him on psionic ethics until he's prop'ly got his brains dribblin' out his ears. Or so I've heard," she added. The Radfords were giving her the oddest look now.
"Darn. I was hoping he'd go to jail or something."
"Only thing that'ud do is teach him how to be a real criminal faster," Grammy said. "No, no, let the psi-guys take care o' him, see if anythin's redeemable. In any case," she continued, "the reason they called me is cuz the DPA man wants to talk to Pat."
"Me?" the faux boy asked. "What for?"
"Dylan squealed," Dina guessed.
"That, an' som'un noticed that Mr. Radford and his youngest had 'mazin'ly good mental shields. Pat told me all 'bout that night, an' I was sorta 'specting this."
"Thus the invitation to tea?" asked Debra.
"Well, that was just me bein' polite." There was the faint sound of a car door outside. "Whup, there they are. Pat, help me up, if you'd please."
Today was not a good day for her knees, crickly and crackly as they were. She grabbed the boy's arm to pull herself up, and held on as he walked her to the door. The juju thrummed around her, about as she'd expected. Working with Pat on something allowed him to share power, however and whatever that may be. Already she could feel her joints easing up, the telltale ague of the senior lifestyle fading into the background for a while. By the time they made it to the front door, she was able to face anyone.
She smiled. It was always easier when 'anyone' was someone she knew.
"Why, Little Louie!" she cried, taking the man by surprise with a big hug. "Ain't seen you in ages! 'Course, your uncle keeps me up to date, but really! Time does make a difference. I remember when you didn't come up to my knee!"
The man known as Louis Farnham the 4th was stiff as a board in her arms -- mostly out of shock, she supposed. "Mrs. LeRoi... Grammercie..."
"Grammy," she snapped. "You know better'n that, Little Louie."
The other man, the one in the blue suit with the discreet lapel pin identifying him as a DPA man, snickered. "And how do you know, er, 'Little Louie,' Mrs. LeRoi?"
"Grammy," she repeated, wagging her finger his way. "An' I used to work with his great-uncle, back in the day.
Little Louie really was the image of his uncle -- and of his grandad too, since the two them had been twins. Tall, strong, with wind-chafed skin that was only starting to get that leathery look the senior Louie had. The man must have been in his mid-thirties by now, and his dark hair was going salt and pepper. His companion looked younger, but had the sort of face that always would, no matter how old he really was. Short-cropped, brassy hair topped blue eyes and a whole mess of freckles. "Agent O'Keefe," he said by way of introduction. He held out his hand.
She ignored the hand and went straight for the hug. "An' welcome to you too, Franklin." The embrace didn't faze him, but the use of his first name sure did. One thing that years of fortune-telling taught you: it was always good to have the inside scoop on visitors before they ever came a-visiting. "Come in, come in! Sit a spell, have some tea!"
The two men found themselves hustled in, and there was nothing quite like an old lady hustle -- especially one of hers. The bit of juju she'd sponged off of Pat kept her going straight and sure, and while the men tried to help her, she did all the directing to make sure they ended up on that couch toot-sweet. Dina and Pat -- Lord bless 'em! -- already had a tray of tea and shortbread cookies ready.
"Um, thank you, ma'am -- Grammy," the DPA man hastily corrected before she could whip her finger at him. "But really, we're just here on-"
"On bizness, yes." She nodded. "Pat, present yourself, please."
The boy gave her an odd look, but did as he was told. Planting his feet firmly on the Persian rug, he managed to stand stock-straight and serious, while still looking like a model. All he needed was a spotlight, and Grammy was tempted to mess with the local luminescence for just such an effect. That'd be a waste of juju, though.
"And this is Pat?" O'Keefe asked. He checked the file on his lap, confused.
"Patrick Dulles, at your service," the boy said proudly, almost growling the words to make them sound deeper in pitch.
"I thought Pat was a girl. At least, the report said..."
"Appearances can be deceiving, sir." Grammy nearly snorted her tea at that one. To her left, Dina was biting her lip. "If you mean to ask if I was at the party, and if I slapped Dina's brother Dylan, then yes to both counts." Pat stood up straighter. "Someone had to do it."
"Er, yes. And the shielding effect on the Radfords?" He nodded to the mother and daughter pair. "I notice they're here now. We have them on record saying that you placed it, but our expert's never seen anything like it. What did you do?"
"What had to be done."
"Now, see here, boy," said Little Louie. "Whatever it was, it was big stuff, and the feds don't like not knowing 'bout that kinda thing. Could you be a little more detailed?"
"No, he can't," Grammy said. "Pat here's got a mystic knack or three that he came looking to me for help for, an' we ain't got it all sorted out yet. Oh yes, my card, Franklin." She had the ID ready, and when she flicked it his way she used the last of the borrowed juju to send it sailing through the air in a delicate arc. It landed on the man's lap with all the grace of a butterfly. "Now as you can prolly guess," she continued as he examined it. "I done worked with your agency 'fore now. I was the one who turned Mr. Radford onto you folks in the first place. Now, I already done made a preliminary report to my contact in the OKC office about Pat an' his abilities, so if you want a nicely organized file, just ask Agent Sevcik."
"He still needs to be tested..."
"Janceena's 'spectin' him by the end of the month, and he ain't shown no signs of bein' dangerous while I've known him. I s'pose my word's still good 'round here?" she added, smiling warmly at Little Louie.
"Yes, of course," the younger man replied quickly. Agent O'Keefe looked like he wanted to say more, but his eyes were still stuck on the ID card. The name MADAME MYSTIQUE was printed large enough to be visible from where she was sitting, and she could tell that Debra was at least as surprised as the DPA man.
Heh-heh, some days made you love them despite the aches and pains.
"Yeah, that's her right there." Pat's finger tapped the image of a dark-skinned woman in a bright lavender bustier and matching butterfly mask. She was standing on the left end of a group photo. Seven costumed heroes posed with the Gateway Arch in the background and a funny statue in the front. Beside and to the left of Madame Mystique was Pompatus, his gilded suit glinting in the sun. Next was an older version of the costume he'd sometimes seen flying over the city this summer, standing shoulder to shoulder with a black boxer whose gloves rivaled Pompatus when it came to sheer glitter. There was a red-haired woman wearing a skimpy pink outfit and a big blue gemstone around her neck. Taking up the right-hand side of the photo was a short man, shorter than anyone else in the photo, dressed in a fancy robe with kooky symbols all over. He was holding the hand of a tall amazon with a severe big cat fetish, if her outfit was any sign. The picture formed the centerfold of his book on supers in St. Louis, and bore the caption "The Beginning of a New Era."
"Wow," Dina said, properly appreciative. "One of the original Guardians?"
"That I was, girl." Grammy took the book and held it closer, squinting over her glasses to see properly. "Yup, there's me an' Maurice, then the Spirit of St. Louis -- Big Louie, Little Louie's uncle -- Golden Gloves, Mirabelle, Bantam, and Scratch-the-Cat. Oh, and Billy, doin' his usual thing." She pointed at the small-bodied, big-footed statue in the foreground.
"I didn't realize any of you were..." Mrs. Radford began, then shut herself down.
"Around? Alive? Nah. Maurice, bless his soul, died in 2001, but the rest of us just faded away. 'Cept for Billy, of course. Little bigfoot's still around and about. Banty and Scratch both left in the late Sixties. Never officially said why, but I heard the mayor was threatenin' them. Two o' the first officially identified mutants," she explained. "Too bad, a shame really. Both good people at heart. As for the rest of us, we get together occasionally to do old fogey stuff. You remember, Pat? On the Fourth?"
"That was them?" He grabbed the book back and searched the photo for any resemblance to the senior citizens he remembered.
Dina giggled. "You need to work on your cape-watching skills, Pat." She'd dropped the feminine ending to his name entirely, though he'd told her it was fine with him if she kept using it. Her response to that had taken a lot of time to tell, but not a single word had been said. His lips still tingled at the memory.
"So the man who just left with Agent O'Keefe was....?" Mrs. Radford asked.
"The Spirit of St. Louis, number four to the mantle. Dunno what exactly is up with 'em, but it runs in the family. You might wanna update your cape journal, child," she added, running a hand through his hair.
That was putting it mildly, he thought. If Grammy was telling the truth -- and there was no reason to think otherwise -- then he'd met five actual superheroes in the last week. Or maybe six? His mind went back to that strange half-there conversation at the mall. That statue was a bigger copy of the one he now saw in the book's centerfold. He needed to do more research on this Billiken guy, he decided.
The Radfords left around four o'clock, after several glasses of tea and a few choice stories from Grammy. Then it was time to tidy up, say the farewells, and give Dina one last goodbye kiss, which the adults pretended not to notice for the first two minutes. During the extended lip lock -- and how nice that was! -- he once again had the sensation that everything between him and Dina was laid bare. The world receded until all that was left were two forms of light and passion, him and her. Last time, he'd pulled away, scared by the intensity, but now he fell into the feeling, knowing somehow that Dina was staring right back into his soul as well. So much of his power seemed bound up in facades and appearance that he desperately needed someone who could see the real him.
She could. She did. They only had that two minutes to fathom the experience before Grammy's sharp -ahem- signaled that they'd reached their allowed limit of PDA for the day. It was just enough for them to get a taste of each other, but that was enough for now. There'd be more time; there would always be more to share.
The mini-van was gone and the front door locked before Lara finally came out of her TV trance in the den -- just in time to see Pat, still in male drag, walk by on the way to his room. Whatever Grammy had done to her, the effects were lingering. It took a moment for the girl's eyes to process what she was seeing, and when all the synapses connected right, the shock blew out all the fuses in her brain, forcing a reboot. She stared, slack-jawed, as he passed. For a moment he thought she might say something, and she even had a finger raised as if to make a point, but then her posture slumped in defeat. With a tired shrug, she turned around and went back to her programs, muttering unintelligibly.
Achievement unlocked: Brain Breakage!
Pat sort of felt sorry for her, but only a little. She'd built up her own attitude, and now she was stuck with herself. He, on the other hand, was feeling free for the first time in forever. After that kiss, he was practically floating to his room.
It was late, and she lay like a pile of old skin and bones upon the soft cushions in the loft. What a day, what a day. She should let herself sleep, but she couldn't just yet. Hours spent unconscious were a luxury she couldn't afford, and not for a long while now. The evening spell maintenance passed as usual, though she noted with dismay that certain vital elements were fraying from the strain of the past week. Too much had been worked, too much had been spent, and she had more to do before it was all said and done.
No more hexes on Lara, she decided. The sleep charm on the girl's pillow was set and self-sustaining, but the rest, the little attention grabbers and wards that directed her granddaughter away from certain things and actions, those could be let go. If Lara wasn't trained out of bad behavior by this point, then she'd never be in the time that was left, at least not without resorting to tricks that lay on the far end of the moral spectrum. With a sigh, Grammy let the assorted spells dissolve into the general ether. At least she could feel better about herself now.
She gathered up the freed juju, careful and meticulous in her ways. Most of it went into the book, the core of her legacy. It would stay safely bound until the right person came along. The rest, she gathered into herself as she prepared to face her worst nemesis.
The crystal ball lay in its bed of crushed velvet, winking irregularly in the lamplight. "You and me, we had our differences," she said to it. "You'd show me more'n I asked, or less if it suited you. Everyone said I should toss you, but other crystals just weren't as clear, so I held on like a stubborn fool. An' then you did what you did with Maurice."
The reply came, as it often did, in images. She let them flow in, gritting her teeth at what she knew was coming. The past played before her, showing what she'd done, willingly if not without regret. It'd started with a simple reading, an augury into her husband's health. Maurice had been getting the occasional ache, and for someone as tough as he, that was unusual. She'd looked, and seen --
His fate, in the sense that the word shared a common root with 'fatal.' Lightning had struck when he was seventeen, and for five decades after, he'd carried a bit of that lightning inside him. It was a sort of spirit, she thought, though she'd never been able to determine just what sort. The juju didn't work well at all with it, at least not when applied directly. Fifty years was a long time to keep something like that bottled in, and as his body aged, it could barely contain the lightning any more. So she saw. Maurice was doomed to a long, lingering decline ending in a short and powerful explosion. For a man as full of vim and vigor as he, it was a terrible way to go.
And so the crystal had shown her a way, an option that would change the path of Maurice's final years, removing the possibility of nursing home hell, and probably saving the lives of a few nurses in the process. The only catch was that her loving husband would leave her sooner rather than later.
How she'd agonized over that choice: days and days spent in the deepest funk. Maurice had tried to cheer her up, not realizing the cause of her malaise, and she still loved him for that. Even more, she hated the winking crystal for making her consider the options, for leading her on with image after image connected to Maurice's two fates. Most of all, she hated herself for making the decision, for telling her husband that what he needed was some fresh air, and recommending he apply for that part-time tour guide position he'd been thinking about.
That was the one detail of the story she always left out. Her Maurice had died a hero, fighting a villainess in an epic duel atop the Arch, and all because she'd sent him there to die.
She suffered the visions, the third-person television view of her own life, with patience and grief. This was her penance for abusing her power this past month. This was her price to pay for making one last difference in the world to come. The tragic tale came to its conclusion, and reality clicked back into place. The crystal sat before her again, winking like an old friend, the sort that you held on to for so long because they were so familiar, not because they were friendly.
"Okay. To bizness," she said, feeding a thread of juju into the ball and bringing new visions to light. These were scattered, fragmented, the future as a broad and indeterminate mess. Focusing on Pat brought no results, as was usual. The boy was an entire constellation of possibility unto himself. But... what about those who surrounded him? She turned her focus to Dina. The little brown-haired girl was a simpler target, now that Grammy'd actually met her. Her life wasn't as complicated, though as it made its orbit around Pat she could see it going in some mighty strange directions. It was enough to prove her idea, though. The best way to plot out Pat's future was not by seeing where he was going, but how everything else reacted around him. She'd seen something like this on an art show, of all things. Negative space. See the shape of the things that aren't there, by looking at the things that were. More juju poured in as Grammy expanded her sight, taking in everyone who had or would meet Pat in the next week. Lara, Dina, the Radfords, the Guardians, herself....
And that was where the visions became weird again. Not fractured weird, or blurry weird. These were a strangely sharp and detailed weird, with little to no fuzzing at the edges to show that there was some level of indeterminacy to it all.
Among fortunetellers and seers, it was generally seen as a bad idea to do readings on yourself. Having the ability to sense the future at all meant that a seer had a disproportionate amount of influence on the world around her, and trying to find your own future was a good way to drive yourself batty. There should have been a blizzard of maybes and alsos and could-bes cluttering her sight right now, but instead it was amazingly clean-cut. This wasn't a standard vision, no; this was a premonition provided by the crystal, recommended for the good of... who? Herself? Pat? The darned crystal itself? She watched it play out, a shadow play with herself and Pat as the only definite figures. By the end, she wished she hadn't, and then smacked herself for that thought.
She gave the old crystal ball one last glare as she wrapped it back in its nest of velvet. The thing she hated the most about the glassy sphere was how its worst visions always had to be the most necessary ones. And this one, this one... she sighed. As choices went, it would've been hard for anyone, but then again she'd had practice at this, hadn't she?
From a drawer in her desk, she pulled out a thick pad of stationery paper, lilac in color and scent, as well as a package of envelopes. There were a lot of things she needed to note down for posterity's sake, and it didn't look like she had a lot of time to get it all writ before the events in the vision occurred. No rest for the wicked, tonight.
---- Tuesday, July 12th, 2016
Pat's mood was sunny and bright, a fact which was not at all reflected in the state of the skies above. Leaden and grey, with occasional wisps of white mist or darker roils of rain cloud, they promised that any picnickers foolhardy enough to set their blankets down today would soon regret it. He paid the weather no mind. His feet were bouncing in place as he willed himself to stand still and wait. Just a little longer...
There! The familiar green mini-van turned the corner, and his heartbeat revved in time with the engine. Inside his shell of heat and fizz, he was shaking with... what, exactly? Not fear, not nerves. Excitement? Anticipation? He counted the possibilities, but nothing really fit. He missed Dina, that was all, and even though they'd had a wonderful dinner date the night before, he'd found himself missing her from the second she was out of sight.
"Cut it out. You're acting like a puppy at the window who just saw his kid coming." Lara was standing with him in the driveway -- though the word 'with' implied a sense of proximity or togetherness that was sorely absent here. The girl was leaning against an ornate lamppost that formed the cornerstone of Grammy's lawn display, trying and failing to look bored and disinterested. "Dunno why I'm even here..." she muttered.
"Well, you wanted to get out of the house, right?" In fact, Lara had paced like a panther in the zoo all the day before, hungry for the wide world but confined by bars of grandparental edict. Grammy had made it abundantly clear what she thought of people who tried to betray their friends the way Lara had, and the granddaughter had enough sense to be ashamed of the way she acted, even if she'd never admit it. When Dina had mentioned an upcoming trip to the movies for today, the two of them decided to invite Lara along, out of memory of the friendship they'd sort of had in school. It took some talking before Grammy came around to the idea, but one little detail had clinched it.
The mini-van pulled in, and the side door opened to reveal Dina, her little brother David, and two of David's best friends. Pat and the girls were there as designated chaperons for this cinematic excursion. Once she heard that, Grammy'd declared it a wonderful penance for Lara, and said yes.
Now, with three pairs of pre-teen eyes ogling, he was having second thoughts too. Then third thoughts intruded, noting how nice Dina's outfit was, and he ceased caring about what David and company were looking at.
"So, what are we seeing today?" he asked.
"Machine Gun Bunny II: Trigger Happy Trickster!" shouted the boys in the back.
"Cannot believe you two are using that as a date movie," said Lara out of the corner of her mouth. The black girl settled into the middle seat, leaning left against the side door to give them some space. Behind them, the three boys were already arguing over proposed superhero team-ups and brawls.
"Hey, she asked me," he pointed out. His bra strap was pinching, and he adjusted it without a second thought. Under Grammy's advice, he hadn't done any more cross-dressing since the Tenth, partly because he wasn't good at binding himself just yet, and partly because the retired heroine thought it best if they made the 'boy' Pat disappear for a bit now that he was on multiple DPA reports.
"We wouldn't tell if you wanted to text Terry and meet up with him for a bit," Dina added.
"Nah, thanks but no thanks. Grammy always seems to know anyways. And to be honest," Lara said with a frown. "Terry was getting a bit grabby."
"So what about your big plan for high school?" he asked.
"Eh, I'll just wing it and survive."
For the rest of the trip to the theater, they managed to maintain a polite, if not always friendly, appearance to the rest of the van. Mrs. Radford was keeping an eye on them as much as on the road, he noticed, but the three boys carried on as usual, none the wiser. He kept the conversation going for Lara's sake. They'd been friends once, and he hoped that there was something of it left to salvage.
She watched them go, Pat and Lara together, and sighed. The world worked in mysterious ways, and the timing of this entirely coincidental afternoon excursion, planned weeks in advance by someone in a different part of town, was too good to pass up. Her biggest concern for the day had been how best to keep Lara safely out of her business, and the world had provided a way. Sure, she'd made a big show over it, convinced everyone that she didn't want Lara going nowhere, no-how, but that had only galvanized the girl's resolve. At first, Lara'd been more against going than anyone, but as soon as old Grammy put her foot down, the girl's rebellious streak wouldn't let her not do her darnedest to see a movie she had no interest in. At least her granddaughter was consistent.
Tea was set on the coffee table in the library, with some cranberry scones on a plate to the side. On the lamp table beside her chair was a lilac-scented envelope, stuffed thick with paper. The room was recently dusted, as only handy cantrips could do, and the book bindings and collectibles shelves gleamed. Grammy settled her old bones into her chair and waited for company. It didn't take long.
"Come on in; the door's unlocked!" she shouted, before her visitor could knock. There was a slight shuffle of feet on the welcome mat, and then the handle turned. From where she sat, Grammy couldn't actually see the entryway, and her strangely precise visions of two nights before had not shown her the visitor's identity, or anything beyond a person-shaped blot. So it was that when her guest entered, she was more completely taken by surprise than she'd been in ages.
"Banty? 'Zat you?"
The man in the doorway grimaced. "No one's called me that in a long time. Bertram, or Berty if you must." At her beckoning gesture, he stumped in on his short legs and sat in the guest chair. The man formerly known as Bantam had the look of a dwarf to him -- not one of those people born with bone-growth deficiencies, but a fantasy dwarf, like out of a Tolkien novel. A neatly trimmed beard, orange as carrots, ran along his jawline, and the matching hair on top was tamed into a conservative mold, instead of the rooster comb she remembered.
"You're looking good, Bertram." And he was, for someone at least as old as she. Without those whiskers, his face could almost be described as boyish.
"The blessing of good genes. Or at least strange ones," he replied. "You're not looking too shabby either, Grammy."
"Now we both know that's a lie. I'm old, Bertram. Simple as that. Got a granddaughter, even."
"Yes, I saw her leave. And the other girl?"
"Her friend. The two of 'em are stayin' with me, since I'm feelin' a mite poorly these days." She offered him tea, which he accepted gracefully. A minute passed quietly for tea and scones, while she wondered which of them would start the real conversation.
"And the boy?"
Bertram would, with a question that revealed a lot more about his sources than he realized. How he was connected to all this, she didn't know, but she knew she'd have her answers soon enough. Then she'd pay the price of knowing.
"The boy ain't here. Ain't no males what been in this house since the DPA man came 'round two days ago. I'd give you Patrick's home address, but he ran away from his mom over a week ago when the power started comin' upon him. Dunno where 'zactly he is now, either." All strictly true, though only because she'd made a point not to ask which theater they were going to. "Now Bertram, tell me, please. What brings you here today, and more specif'cly, why you? Never thought I'd see you again."
"I came... I came for old times' sake, I suppose. Because it has been fifty years since we saw one another, and because I did treasure our friendship while it lasted."
"We woulda stood up for you an' Scratch, if you'd told us what was hap'nin'. Took us years to put all the pieces together."
"I'm sure you would have, but the zeitgeist was not in our favor." The mutant mage's eyes were a sad color of slate blue. "It was a bad time for many. Scratch and I did what we had to do."
"Heard 'bout that, too. Ran with Molochi for a while, was it?"
"A mistake; one which we worked hard to atone for later. The MCO kept us on a watch list for decades, and they finally caught up in '89. Scratch didn't make it."
"I'm sorry." Another sip of tea to soothe the sadness in her breast, and she continued. "She was a good friend, and she didn't deserve the slander."
"None of us ever did. Which is why we fight still. The world's only become more dangerous to those with power, mutant and non. To quote the great Benjamin Franklin, we must hang together or we shall surely hang separately."
"That sounds like a recruitment spiel, Bertram."
"It is, if you are willing." Those sad blue eyes held hers, begging for understanding and support. She was sad to let him down the way she was about to.
"I'm dyin', Bertram." Her guest stiffened, dismay written wide on his face. "Been dyin' for a long time now. My granddaughter Lara an' her friend, they're s'posed to be watchin' out for me in my decline, but neither of 'em really believes it. I'm just too stubborn to die so easily, an' they don't realize I ain't immortal."
"How long do you have?" Coming from his lips, he managed to make the question sound even more sorrowful than it should have been. The man had always been the morose type, and she could see that hadn't changed one whit.
"Doctors gave me six months, but that'uz two years ago. Been survivin' on modern medicine, mystic potions, an' reg'lar infusions of juju. An' all that's runnin' thin, so pretty soon I'll be goin' on pure cussedness. The end won't be long in comin' after that." Her own dark eyes locked onto his, and they were hard with determination. "So answer a dyin' woman's last request, will ya? What's so darn important about a kid from the poor part of St. Louie?"
"It's not who he is, but what he now holds."
"Yeah, yeah, the thing in his chest." She waved down Bertram's startled reaction. "Never saw it with my own two eyes, only heard it from him. Shy boy at heart. Bit of a crystal, mebbe a power gem?"
Her guest's eyes darted back and forth now, scanning the four corners of the room, and his face was uncertain. "I'm not sure if I should..."
"Ain't no one listenin'. No wires, no microphones, no watchers set or spell circles drawn, an' I keep my scryin' wards up to date. Also, I've invited nobody into my house today but you, an' all my windows is hexed to prevent snoops. All this I swear on the memory of my dear departed Maurice. That enough for you, or should I keep on swearin'?"
"No, no... That's enough." Bertram hesitated, tugging on his beard for a moment longer before making a decision. "The stone, the garnet is a spell-bound gem, one of great antiquity. It appears from time to time in the akashic records as Proserpina's Tear."
"That tells me 'zactly zilch. Proserpina was... who? Queen o' the Dead?"
"Queen of the Underworld, known to the Greeks as Persephone, married to Hades Pluton, bound to the deep earth for four months of every year for eating four pomegranate seeds while she was kidnapped and held in Hades' kingdom. The Tear is described alternately as either one of those four seeds or as her actual tear, shed when the judgment was passed and made crystal afterwards."
"An' which is it?"
"Either? Neither? Both? Who can say? It is a poetic origin, and those are nearly always metaphorical in nature. The stone itself is a key and a conduit, tied to a wellspring of chthonic essence the likes of which was never meant to be tapped by man. Please, Grammy, tell me where to find this young man, because he does not, cannot, comprehend the danger he is in."
She was tempted to tell him, so passionately did he beg. Chthonic meant the deep earth, the power that supported the world. It meant hidden riches and unknowable secrets. It included both the power of the grave and rebirth through fertile soil. That sort of force really was more than one person could handle. The future had spoken to her, though, shown the many shapes of the world to come around Pat's existence, and nothing the boy might do seemed as potentially disastrous as handing that power to an unknown side. She knew Bertram, but not who he was working with -- and to be honest with herself, she didn't know what kind of man Bertram had become in five decades, either. "He seemed to be handlin' it well enough," she said instead. "Even if his wish turned a bit odd on him."
Bertram didn't quite pounce on that tidbit, artfully let slip from her lips. "So he actually made a connection, did he? And what did he wish for?"
"To be cool." She chuckled at the look on the man's face. "A rather open wish, and the boy's still tryin' to figger himself out. He told me it offered to make him like a god, but he turned it down. Prolly for the best, I think."
"That most likely would have reduced him to a cinder, a half-second before it destroyed his neighborhood."
"An' you wanna mess with power like that?" she demanded. "Don't care what you're fightin' for, but as soon as you put that much power in the hands of a committee, there's trouble. Better it gets lost an' forgotten, like the gods of old."
"They're not. The gods, that is. Which is part of the problem." The short man pursed his lips, not quite frowning. "I and my organization, we have supporters in magical circles across the globe. We hear things, just bits and pieces of information, but when we bring it all together... Grammy, what if I were to tell you that between the years of 1989 and 1992, the Olympian Gods somehow found a way to be reborn into the world, returning for who knows what reason? That at least three of the nine Faerie Queens, including the Queen of the West, have returned, possibly to raise up her Court even as we speak? That the White Buffalo Calf Woman gathers and unites the shamans of all the tribes across the continent? That the Asian pantheons are active for the first time since the war? The great spirits of north and south, east and west? That a cult for Kelith, daughter of Gothmog the Virile, is growing and ... Stop smiling!"
"Can't help it. Good memories on that last one. Oh, the Seventies...."
"Please, take this seriously. Grammy, the old powers are on the move. These are entities so ancient that their worldview cannot match ours. They are relics of a past wherein humanity was a race of servants, or slaves and thralls, or even pets. There is no place for them in the 21st century, and so they must carve one out for themselves at our expense. It is our duty, our necessity, to gather power of our own to prevent them from returning the earth to the dark ages of myth. Humanity has grown, Grammercie," he concluded. "We no longer need them, and that shall lead to war. We need the Tear, if only to deny it from them."
"Sounds like you folks got to get yourselves a nice lion to ride. Mighty, fierce. Hope it don't bite your hand off."
"Ever with the riddles."
Grammy shrugged. "I'm a fortune teller. Can't help it. A question, though. All those words 'bout defendin' humanity, but then there's that scene at the SLAM. Two guards dead, an' not in a nice way." She saw him wince. "Well?"
"We'd tracked down the Tear, but the owners would not part with the necklace long enough for us to determine which stone it was we wanted. This is war, and time was of the essence. What was done was unfortunate, but deemed necessary. Shame be on him who thinks poorly of that," he added at the end, with the air of a refrain or ritual expression.
"Honi soit qui mal y pense," she said, nodding. "You an' Maurice, always with the fancy words an' phrases. Well, I thank you for honorin' my last request, Bertram. Time to get on with it."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You done told me too much, an' I won't be joinin' your cause. No recordin's, but that don't mean I can't blab it all to the boy or the DPA later. Only one solution out there for you, Bertram."
"Grammy, you can't be..."
"Deadly serious, Bertram. I've got a month left, mebbe two at most, an' I'd rather avoid the worst bits, if it's all the same. Hate to leave Lara an' her friend like this, but at least this way they don't get caught up in stuff they shouldn't. Already laid out my last will an' test'ment," she said, waving to the stuffed envelope beside her. "Don't worry; nothin' in there 'bout this meetin'. Just make it quick an' natural-lookin'. I know you can do that. Hurry up, now; the girls'll be back before three." She reclined the chair, propping her legs up and crossing her arms over her chest. With eyes gently lidded, she chided him. "I'm ready for my final scene, Mr. DeMille."
Bertram DeMille, mutant magus and founding member of a society best known locally by the mask of the villain Malypense, left the house a few minutes later. His face was set as stone, with tears held back by force of will. Do what is needed, and shame be on him who thinks poorly of that -- the very motto of his society, and never had it been more difficult to live with those words. He tugged at his gloves, warm in the Missouri summer air but necessary to hide the scars of rituals gone both terribly wrong and hideously right. Locking the front door behind him, he made one last check for peeping eyes, then stepped into a shadow and disappeared.
From the curio shelf in the front hall, at a vantage point for both the library and the entrance, a small obsidian statue of a pot-bellied dwarf with oversized feet bore witness. Grammy hadn't invited him in, but when had Billiken ever needed permission, after all?
Mrs. Radford's footsteps were a muffled shuff- shuff-shuff on the carpet, but that wasn't what woke Pat up. The heat in his chest, drowned out by four hours of crying with Dina and Lara, had spiked as soon as the woman laid eyes on him. That was enough to rouse him from his half-sleep, and he was surprised to find both girls curled up against him. Lines of dried tears gleamed in the low light of the room, signs of the worst afternoon they'd ever lived.
The movie itself had been a bust, in the sense that his gut had just about busted from laughing so hard. Even Lara had enjoyed the madcap comic violence. They were all riding high on good feelings when they arrived home, which meant they had that much farther to crash down from when they made the discovery.
Grammy was gone, just like that. He could feel the tears crying for release behind his eyes, but in front of Mrs. Radford nothing would come out. That was probably for the best, considering all the tears he'd shared so far. He gently nudged Lara and Dina awake.
"Lara?" whispered Mrs. Radford. "Your mother called. She should be here in a few minutes."
The girl nodded, but didn't try to speak. A sob caught in her throat instead. Dina reached across his body to take Lara's hand and squeeze it in solidarity.
"We'll get washed up," he told Mrs. Radford.
It took a few minutes to get Lara upright and walking, and a few more before they could all exit the bathroom with faces scrubbed free of saline tracks. Mrs. Washington was there by then, so they left the girl in the living room for some mother-daughter consolation time. Lara's mom had flown in from wherever she and her husband were spending their summer, and spent the time since then dealing with police and doctors and whatever sort of red tape that came with the death of a family member. He wouldn't know -- he had a brief flash of anger at his mom, but he shook it off. Instead, he cuddled with Dina, trying to make the most of a bad situation.
"Pat?" his girlfriend's mother called again. "Could you come over, please?"
In the next room, the scene was dominated by Lara's mom. Marnie Washington had the look of a businesswoman with a capital B. Her dark blue suit was immaculate, and her hair, cut short and frizzy, provided the only soft curves to be found around her head. Her frown was, if not a permanent feature, so often in use that the lines of her face had evolved to accommodate it. The resemblance to Grammy was there, but with none of the edges sanded down by time or good humor.
"So, this is the famous Pat," the woman said, scanning him up and down. "My mother told me a lot about you during our phone calls. She said you were helping Lara take care good care of her grandmother. And vice-versa," she added, which made her daughter wince uncomfortably.
"It was an honor and a pleasure, ma'am," he replied, unsure of what else to say. How much did this woman really know?
"You're a good girl, Patricia." Not much at all, it seemed. He glanced over to Lara, who met his eyes and shook her head. "Mother also mentioned your family issues, and that she wanted to get you a bus ticket at summer's end to get to your cousin's house back east. I see no reason not to do so in her place, as a thank you for all your help."
Cousin back east? As far as he knew, Mom was his only family, and it was likely they no longer qualified as blood relatives at all. "Thank you, ma'am," he said, trusting in the old woman. "Grammy never said, but..."
"That was Mother's way," Mrs. Washington said with a sigh. "Plans within plans."
"Ma'am, would it be okay for me to attend the funeral before I go?"
"Of course, Patricia." That opened the conversation to plans for the next few days. Pat let himself float along. The big question, no one would be able to answer.
What was Grammy up to, even now?
"No, no, no!" The tripled negative was followed by a long, loud sniffle and the honk of nose blown into tissue. "Why do you have to go?" Dina cried, clinging to his arm. The two of them were in her bedroom, and in their pajamas. Under better circumstances, Pat might have thought himself living a dream come true.
He held her, but couldn't give any answers. Grammy had said, and that was all. No explanations, though surely there were reasons. The old lady had hinted at possible danger and trouble for Pat, even if she wouldn't say how or why. Maybe she hadn't known either.
Rocking his girlfriend back and forth, he considered his options. He had no family, at least none who would accept him as such, little money, and the better half of his possessions still fit in the bag that was now at the foot of the bed. The rest, mostly new clothes, was still at the house with the white picket fence.
"You know what Grammy would do now?" he asked, mostly to himself. Dina shook her head, no. "She'd ask for advice."
"B-but..." -sniff!- "Who could you ask right now?"
He reached down and pulled the wooden box of cards out of his bag. "Did I ever mention that Grammy used to tell fortunes?" Another shake of the head answered him. "Well, she did, and she was teaching me how to. It's not much, but it's a start. Let's see what the cards have to say."
Dina had him show her each card in turn, and he explained what he knew of them. That was a quite a bit of information by now, as he'd read the dog-eared book of fortune-telling four times through by now. Then he entertained her some more with his card tricks, pulling all the fancy shuffling action he could imagine. The stone in his chest pulsed warmly, and he felt its power transfer to the cards as they flew. Finally, he drew blindly and slammed the card down on the bed sheets. He removed his palm to find --
A letter, in a light purple envelope scented with floral perfume.
"That.. that wasn't in the deck before, was it?" his girlfriend asked.
Now it was his turn to shake his head. "Nope. As Grammy would say, the cards are getting uppity." The envelope had his name, his real name, scrawled across the edge of the flap. Pulling the letter out, he unfolded it and began to read.
"Dear Pat, I am so sorry to have left you all in this way. Believe me when I say that, as awful as it may seem, this was the best way for me to go. By now you should know of the plan to get you out of town, but there's a lot Marnie can't know. St. Louie isn't safe for you now, I'm sad to say. I can't give you specific details right now, but if my guess is right, old Billy can tell you more.
"Now, here's what you'll need to do for me and for yourself..."
The letter became a checklist of things to do before he left, and he had to stare at some of the odder items. Dina read along with him, eyes wide, and together they came back to the very first thing: "Don't worry about tonight. Give your girlfriend a great big kiss, and repeat as necessary until you both feel better."
That was just what they needed, as it turned out.
---Thursday, July 14th, 2016
Grammy's funeral was a mirror to how she lived -- serious, but with a sense of humor and style strung throughout. She'd requested a jazz procession, and Father Rogers, pastor of St. Anastasia Catholic Church, had to put up with the sound of saxophone all the way to the cemetery. Pat had a chance to meet Lara's father, as he and Mr. Radford led the pallbearers who carried the coffin the final yards to its resting place. The two Louies, big and small, held up the rear along with Lloyd. If anyone else in the crowd realized that three out of the five men were superheroes, no one gave it away in their face. The plot already possessed a headstone, a wide marker in Ozark granite with Maurice's name inscribed on the right-hand side. After a decade and a half, they would finally be reunited.
Pat and Dina were standing with Lara, the three of them in matching black dresses with little old lady hats and veils. They went up as a group, he and his girlfriend supporting their friend, to throw bouquets of lily and mums upon the casket. It was a wonder they didn't all fall in, as unsteady as they were from sobbing.
A little while later, once the service ended and the crowd loitered aimlessly, he noticed the group of people standing off to the side. The latter three pallbearers were among them, as was Grammy's friend Ms. Cynthia, a younger woman, and two younger men. Nearby, a statue of a cherub with oddly sized feet just happened to find itself beneath the same oak tree. It was time to check the next item off Grammy's list. Pat walked over to the group, greeting those he knew by name, and surprising Little Louie in the process.
"I thought you were a boy," said the hero, with the oddest look on his face.
"Appearances can be deceiving, sir." Thank goodness he now possessed the best poker face in the state, when he wanted it.
Cynthia and Lloyd gave him big hugs, and introduced him to Ms. Gantry, Mr. Ford, and Mr. Wellesley, or the 'junior members' as Big Louie called them. Their presence in the group made him pretty sure he'd seen them before, at least on the local cape-watching sites. He kept mum on that part for now.
"Thank you for coming, everyone. I'm sure Grammy would've appreciated it."
"Appreciated? Hell," said Big Louie, holding up a light purple envelope. "The woman done gave us marching orders!"
His nephew nodded, grumpily. "And especially where you're concerned, Patrick, er... Patricia?"
"Just Pat, please."
"Like she said a few days back, the DPA office in OKC is expecting you eventually. I s'pose you know the when, why, and how?" Pat nodded. "Good. Grammy's regular contact there is Agent Janceena Sevcik. Remember the name."
"No need to worry," he admitted. "I got a letter of my own to follow. And if it's not too big a fuss ..." He drew his cape-watcher journal from his handbag. "Could I get everyone's autograph?" The last page already had Madame Mystique's curly scrawl, and right next to it was a taped-in scrap of paper with the name 'Maurice' in thick black ink. There was room for a lot more. "Grammy sorta spilled the beans," he added with a wink.
Big Louie's grin about cracked his face as he wrote out 'Spirit of St. Louis II' in a bold hand. Little Louie followed right after with 'Spirit of St. Louis IV.' Mirabelle and Golden Gloves added their own signatures, and then Pat's suspicions were confirmed when the so-called junior partners turned out to be Red Kite, Gear Grinder, and the MoMo Master. After that, he listened raptly to a few stories, hands and journal behind his back. He didn't know when or how it happened, but when he finally returned the journal to his handbag, it had one last signature, of sorts: a circle of red ink, with angular, oriental letters inside it.
No matter how long or hard he stared at the cherub, however, it remained just a statue.
--- Friday, July 15th, 2016
And now it was time to pack. He had a new, slightly used suitcase, courtesy of the Radfords. In exchange, Pat let Dina's little brother David have his old bike, thus earning the eleven-year-old's eternal gratitude. There was enough room in the suitcase for all his clothing, and for the first time in more than a week his backpack had extra room in it. The blue and black knapsack slumped limply on the bed, practically begging to be filled with something, anything. Time for item three on the list.
"Mrs. Washington?" he called out as he dragged the suitcase to the front door. Would it be okay if I grabbed a few books to read? It's gonna be a long bus ride."
"I don't see why not," the woman replied as he leaned his bag against the curios shelf in the front hallway. "Mother had more than enough, and we'll be donating most of them to the library anyway. Take as many as you want."
He nodded, happy at the broadness of the way she said it. Grammy had been very specific that he would need permission for this step. Browsing the fantasy shelves, he picked out a few with interesting cover art before moving onto the real purpose of the request. Pat placed his right forefinger on the edge of the shelf and closed his eyes. Cold, cold, warmer, warmer -- the stone in his chest led him along as he slid his finger down the row of books.
There! He opened his eyes to see the one book no one was supposed to notice. Grammy's family history sat like a stately old queen in between newer, flashier novels. He stroked the binding, then held the tip of his finger to it. For a moment there was a prickly sensation, sort of like how a bar code scanner might feel if light were harder. Then, without a fuss, the book fell into his waiting palm.
Grammy's written words were imprinted on the back of his skull: "Keep it safe, child. I named you as its guardian, until such time as my successor can claim it. That person is out there, so don't you worry. It's all a matter of time...."
Mrs. Washington didn't give two looks at his selections, and soon enough they were in his bag and heading out the door. And if one little curio in particular was missing from the shelf, an obsidian statuette with oversize feet, well, who was going to miss one item out of such a huge assortment? Pat didn't even notice the few extra ounces that had added themselves to his load.
Greyhound was upgrading its entire fleet, he'd heard on the news a few months back. Something about increased fuel efficiency and comfort. The metal behemoths rolling before him were some choice examples of the company's drive for improvements, each a sleek steel figure with molded features like a rocketship from a 1950s book cover. It was all flashy chrome and bold colors, with remarkably little exhaust in the air. As one passed by, he could swear he smelled potpourri. Through the windows, he could see people relaxing in comfort.
It sort of made him wish he was actually going on one.
"Ready?" Dina asked. Only she accompanied him into the Civic Center Bus Terminal, not far from the Arch. The Washingtons were all busy with Grammy's old house full of knickknacks, and the Radfords had opted to give the two of them one last moment alone.
"You're handling this better today," he remarked. There were no tears, no sobs, though he could bet they weren't buried too deep behind his girlfriend's cheery exterior -- and he was the expert on facades, after all.
"Well..." Dina shuffled her feet, then pulled something out of her handbag. At first he thought it was a surprise gift, which he couldn't have accepted after everything else her family had done for him, but then the shape, color, and scent registered. An envelope, light purple and aromatic with lilac. "This came in the mail today. I managed to grab it before anyone could see." She opened it up to show him Grammy's neat handwriting. "Most of it's just a pep talk, but at the end... well, according to her, we're going to be classmates again next January, somehow. Said she'd seen it in her crystal ball." Dina sounded a little dubious as she finished.
"I believe her." Pat wrapped his arms around his girlfriend and kissed her between the eyebrows. "Grammy's trustworthy like that."
They walked together, right past the big counter where he was supposed to purchase a ticket, and out the doors on the opposite end of the terminal. Around the corner from the building was a different sort of station, one for the city's MetroLink rail line. Here, Pat got a much cheaper ticket, and a much more thorough goodbye kiss.
"Every night," he promised. Her mother had helped him get a new phone on the cheap to replace his old one -- a precaution in case his mom ever decided to report his old identity as missing -- and the wad of bills Big Louie had passed him after the funeral would ensure that he had lots of minutes to spare. "You'll be sick of my voice before too long."
"Never. You're cute when you stammer, y'know? I only get to hear that on the phone."
"Only time I'm truly myself," he said with a shrug.
"That's not true." She brushed a stray lock of hair from his forehead. "You're awesome any time, and don't you forget."
The next MetroLine car was trundling up the track. This was it, the big farewell scene. Ignoring the stares of people on the platform even as their attention pushed him forward, he swept Dina off her feet in a kiss worthy of the movies. When he got on the train, she was wobbly but still standing, and the wave she sent him as as shaky as it was enthusiastic. Pat watched as the station shrank into the distance, and sighed. He really hoped Grammy's posthumous predictions were right. All of them.
He rode the train all the way to the Blue Line terminus in Fairview Heights. The MetroLine crossed the river and state lines to deposit him in the middle of lower Illinois. The entire area was new to him, and he had to read Grammy's instructions two more times before he could orient himself properly. Heading due south from the station, he followed the main road until he found a cheap motel, one of a chain that stretched all the way across America on the old Route 66. This one looked cleaner than most.
The parking lot was full, and the selection was eclectic. He spotted an electric blue sports car sidling up to a dingy yellow Camaro, and one of those super-new electric cars was barely visible behind the bulk of a VW micro-bus with an atrocious paint job.
Ignoring the front desk, he went up the stairs to the third floor, counted the door numbers carefully, and finally came to his goal: 316. Why was he here? Only Grammy knew, and she'd neglected to explain in her letter. It was up to him to take the leap of faith and knock. All alone in the hallway, it was incredibly hard to do. The old doubts, well and banished by the power of Dina's kisses, were returning to fill new niches in his psyche.
This is crazy, they said. You're all alone, vulnerable and trusting in the word of a dead woman. There's nothing about this situation that's even remotely sane!
Oh well, he thought back. That's about par for the course, isn't it? Craziness had worked so far. Three deep breaths followed as he tried to still the racing in his heart and shaking in his hands. This was the most deliberate, the most himself decision he'd taken since this had all began. Pushing the doubts aside, he reached out and rapped on the door.
A woman answered. A little taller than him, with dark hair and bright blue eyes, he guessed she was in her mid-twenties. He tried hard not to stare at her boobs, as bountiful as they were beneath her t-shirt. Behind her, he could see two other people -- a boy and a girl, about his age or younger. The boy didn't look that special, except that he was in the middle of dis- or re-assembling something hideously complicated and mechanical. The girl, though, she had weird green eyes and her skin had this odd --
All this took a split second to enter his conscious mind, soon followed by the words, "Well, you did show up. I owe Janceena ten bucks."
"You're Pat, right?" The blue-eyed woman held up an envelope, one that was made of the by-now quite familiar lilac paper. "This was waiting for us when we checked in this morning. Our contact in the DPA says it's legit, and that you're headed in for testing, just like us."
Us? It dawned on him that the things he'd just noticed were not normal -- though in his defense, his standards were pretty loose by this point. He followed the woman inside, and was confronted by a young, happy, and incredibly energetic mutant girl.
"Hey! I'm Na'Chessa Rakia, but you can call me Chessa -- everyone does, really -- and this is Myra, and that's Marcus over there with his toys." The boy gave him a Scout salute before going back to his oh-god-that's-a-death-ray-isn't-it. "And the letter said we should be open and upfront about everything so you'll feel okay to do the same, so I guess it's okay to say that I used to be dead. Oh, and a boy," she added, like it was an afterthought.
"Chessa!" the woman, Myra, shouted. "Don't break her brain just yet!"
"No, it's okay." Actually, it was not okay, deep inside where his surprised mind was trying to get its act together. His mouth was running on its own, like it always did, and for once it was saying the right things. "I have a strange story of my own...."