It's a new school year, and with it a bumper crop of interesting and entertaining young students just brimming with potential. The main story sequences of the Second Generation narrative are busy enough as it is without going into the details of each and every side character, but that doesn't mean we can't explore a bit of what makes them tick.
And thus, we have an anthology for you all today. Five stories about five kids at Whateley, from before they ever arrived at school. Each of them has appeared in the main story before, sometimes in major roles and sometimes not, and now's your chance to get to know them a little better.
I hope you all enjoy.
Dear diary... the words sat on the page for a long moment while Daniel figgered out what to write next. It wasn't that he didn't have anything to say -- quite the opposite in fact.
Miz Debby told me I should write stuff down, he continued. She said it would help me think better. Sorry it took so long to start. I been kinda busy.
He paused to stare at the guard dog that blocked the only exit to his room. It stared back, not in a friendly way but not in a bad way either.
Got all the time in the world right now. It's a good time to start, I guess? I can write about how I got here...
The pencil slipped from his fingers, and he sighed. Daniel took a bite out of a chocolate donut and picked the pencil up again.
--- Three months ago
"Momma, my head feels funny." Felt like a bat was cooped up inside, it did, all fluttering round. Weird, not hurting or nothing, just... weird. He didn't even mention it to momma til that evening, but it had been hovering on the edge of everything since the early morning.
"Oh? Let's have a look at you." Momma patted her hands dry on her long skirt and stepped away from the sink full of dishes. "Don't want you getting sick, not in this weather."
Idaho in winter wasn't that nice a place to visit unless you liked snow, and Daniel sorta wished they didn't live there. Only sorta, 'cuz he couldn't say it out loud. His papa and momma were proud to be a part of Revered Barkus's little community up here, and he needed to be happy with them and his brothers and sisters. He was the oldest, and that meant he had to be strong for the little'uns.
"Hm, no fever," momma was saying. She patted his forehead and brushed his blond hair back. "Skin doesn't look flushed or anything. Mouth open." She checked his tonsils and tongue. "Nope, all looks okay. You're not trying to get outta chores, are you?"
"No, momma. It's just a funny feeling in there."
"Okay, let's see your eyes. Hmm..." She stared him right in the eyeballs, and he couldn't miss that something was wrong. Her mouth went all post-box shape. "I think you need some rest, Danny. I'll speak with your papa and get the chores reassigned."
He spent the rest of that long January night not sleeping at all. He lay up in his bunk and listened. None of his brothers and sisters tried to crawl in. Not Jimmy or Jordan, or even baby Terry, who was always wanting to snuggle. Samantha and Rebekah didn't run in to bug him with anything, either. It was the quietest night he'd had in, well, ever. That scared him.
Some time that evening, he could hear momma and papa arguing about something, real quiet-like. He prayed to God Almighty that it wasn't about him, even though he knew he shouldn't waste prayer time like that. He felt a little better after he did, though.
When he finally did sleep, it was like the righteous dead waiting for the Second Coming. When he woke up, it was already well past ten in the morning. Something was up. Children had to do their chores every day, lest they be tempted to idleness. So said Reverend Barkus, and so everyone in the community followed.
He felt his forehead. Warm and dry, but no fever.
No breakfast on the kitchen table either, unfortunately. His stomach was gurgling something fierce. Momma and papa were waiting for him, though. That wasn't a good sign.
"Um, where's everyone else?" he asked.
"Missus Hatty is watching the boys," said momma. "And the twins are over at Madeline's house. We told everyone you were real sick, and we didn't want them catching nothing." She gave papa a long look.
"Er, son," the man began. "I understand that, er, a lot of boys your age can feel, um, strange at times. You're thirteen, almost fourteen, and it's a big time in your life for changes and, um, things."
What were they talking about? He looked back and forth, but couldn't puzzle it out. Momma looked worried, and papa flinched when their eyes met. "Am I... am I gonna die?" he asked, all scared and confused.
"No!" cried momma.
"If the reverend hears..." papa began, only momma shushed him before he could say more.
"He ain't. At least not yet."
"Um, what's going on? Momma? Papa?"
"Seen a mirror recently, boy?"
"No..." His momma had one in her hand before he could ask. What he saw didn't look weird at all. It was still him, with his pudgy face and blond hair. Only... only his eyes looked kinda funny. They were, he realized, kinda pink. Not the white parts, but the color parts were almost the color of Pepto-Bismol, or maybe the icing on the twins' last birthday cake.
"What... what..." He couldn't finish the question. What... was happening to him? ... going to happen? ... did it all mean? ... was he going to have for breakfast? That last thought pushed its way in with a gurgle of his stomach. He was so confused, and stress always made him hungry, so to put all that on top of a missed breakfast... His stomach was growling like a cougar.
It was times like this he really wanted a donut. One of those simple, glazed ones like he could get when he was little and they hadn't moved all the way out here yet --
His parents gasped. Right there on the table in front of him was a perfect glazed donut. Daniel picked it up, sniffed it, then took a bite. Suddenly he felt a lot better about life.
"Folks in the community are starting to talk," momma said. The three of them were back around the kitchen table, staring at the pile of things Daniel had made appear out of thin air. A dozen donuts, two of every sort he could remember tasting, sat on a plate. A couple of dinner rolls were set to the side. He'd tried for an apple pie, but gotten only a headache for his efforts.
"Been the better part of a week." Papa poked a coconut donut doubtfully. "We gotta tell them something. It'll be obvious soon the boy's not really sick, and people will connect the dots fast enough."
"What can we say? 'Oh, our boy's got his eyes done pink, and he pulls pastries out of thin air'?"
"It's the truth, Lacie."
"Well I don't know what else we can say!" Momma threw her hands up in the air. "They didn't teach us how to fake illness in nursing school, so I'm making half the stuff we're telling folks up as we go along! If we're going to hide it any longer, it'll have to be something so severe that he'd have to... leave..." Her mouth clamped back down into a post-box shape.
They couldn't all unhear it. Daniel really wished they could. "But I don't wanna leave!" he cried. Didn't want to leave them, at least. Family, the community, it amounted to the same thing, he knew.
"You know the reverend," papa said. "And his sermons ain't changed none in eight years. If he thinks you're, ah, weird, then he'll be like to send you down to the fire and brimstone himself if he can."
No one had said the M-word yet, but it was all on their minds. The revered claimed that the M-words were people who'd lost their souls to the fires of hell and damnation. He really, really, really hoped that wasn't true.
Daniel nibbled on his donut and felt a little better. Momma and papa did the same, with papa dunking his in strong black coffee. Their diet for the past few days had been half full of donuts, because what else were they going to do with them? People'd ask questions if they just gave them away!
"I'll call Debbie in Twin Falls," momma said finally. "She knows some folks. We might be able to fake an ambulance visit, get you out that way."
"No! No, no, no, no, no!" Not even a nicely glazed donut could make him feel better right now. Was his own momma seriously saying...?
"We've got to, boy. I can tell you just what Barkus will do -- been telling you -- and while I can agree with him on most things... well, this is family. Family's different." Papa stroked his beard nervously. "I don't know what God's got planned for you, boy, but I want you to live long enough to find out."
--- back in the present
And that was that, Daniel wrote carefully in his makeshift journal. The little blue notebook was one of dozens scattered all over the room like a bunch of autumn leaves. This one had only two pages covered in densely inked diagrams and equations, which he'd carefully removed and placed inside the next notebook over. He really didn't want to anger his host.
His guard dog was half asleep in the hall outside. The other half was watching him intently. It hadn't budged an inch from where its master had commanded it to stand guard, the day before.
He summoned a meat pie to hand, then slid it across the floor to the dog. It sniffed, gave him a look, then shook its head and pushed the pie away.
With a sigh, he returned to his journal: Momma's plan worked. Syrup of icky-cap lives up to its name, too. Ick, ick, ick. They told everyone that the light was hurting my eyes, so I was blind-folded half the way...
--- a bit over two months ago
"Welcome to my humble abode," Miz Debbie said with a flourish. Daniel wasn't feeling good enough to appreciate it. That icky-cap stuff tasted something vile, and it lingered in his mouth. Momma's friend was a retired nurse who ran a cafe in Twin Falls, and her house was actually the back end of her business. People still came for the skiing, so she was busy enough. It was... nice, he figgered. Smelled nice, at any rate.
"Now," Miz Debbie was saying. "Your mother signed you over to me more or less indefinitely, so mi casa es su casa, eh... Don't know Spanish, huh," she said at his confused expression. "Anyhoo, help with chores and the cafe, and we'll get you in school as soon as we can figger up a good explanation for those shades of yours."
That had been papa's idea. If he told everyone how much light hurt his eyes, then no one would wonder why he wore sunglasses in winter. The oversized frames kept slipping over his nose, and needed constant fixing.
"Your mother told me a little of what you can do. Care to show me?" The woman's eyes bugged as a pile of glazed donuts appeared on the kitchen table. "Can you do others?"
"Um, maybe. Only managed stuff I know pretty well."
"... what if I teach you some more?"
Debbie Browning did more than simply run her little cafe during the ski season. She also did all of the baking for it. That wasn't much, compared to some of the big resort restaurants, but it meant she was well stocked and her oven was always warmed up. She worked Daniel hard for the next two months, teaching him the basics of baking as well as all the little tricks she'd picked up over the years. After they got him a pair of shades that fit, she had him waiting tables as well. It was a bit like taking lessons from your maiden aunt, Daniel figgered -- if auntie were also a drill sergeant.
Then came the day he presented her with two almost identical cinnamon rolls. She sniffed each one carefully, examined them with a critical eye, and then took two careful bites.
"Okay, I give up. Which one's the magic pastry?" That had been her challenge, issued early on in his apprenticeship. He could create pastries as good as anything she could muster, but could he make them?
"Neither," he said with a grin. "The whole batch turned out so good, I figgered I didn't need to magic one up." They still didn't use the M-word, even when it was just the two of them, but "magic" filled the blank easily enough.
"You've learned well, grasshopper! I'll be sure to tell your mother all about this, next time she calls." Debbie and his momma spent an hour on the phone every week, though he only got a few minutes of that. They'd told everyone that he was still recovering from something nasty and complicated-sounding, and they didn't want to chance anyone else overhearing him being all fit as a fiddle. He didn't think they'd told his brothers and sisters the truth, even.
He tried not to think about it too much. When he did, a donut always helped.
"Now, Miz Cordelia is waiting for her lunch. Don't forget those cookies she likes."
"Never do," he said. Daniel pulled two snicker-doodles out of thin air and placed them in the delivery bag. Their next door neighbor was ninety if she was a day, and was practically family to Miz Debbie. "Anything else?"
"Take your time coming home. Visit the library, learn something, you hear?"
"Aye-aye, ma'am." He saluted, grabbed the bag, and was out the door before she could hit him with a cinnamon roll.
--- back in the present
Daniel woke from his short-nap-turned-long atop the ratty old mattress in the impromptu guest room. It was lumpy and uneven -- looked a lot like a fallen souffle, in fact -- but beggars couldn't be choosers, as Miz Debbie would say.
The rest of the room was in almost as bad a shape as the bed, with strange nick-knacks scattered all over. He'd thought one of them was an alarm clock, but since the thing had melted when he tried to reset it, well, he wasn't ready to touch anything else just yet.
His right thumb was still sore from writing so much the day before, and he hadn't even got to the important stuff yet. Writing it all in order like this helped, even as it reopened all the hurt from having to leave his family behind. All because he was an M-word, a...
Mutant. A freak. Miz Debbie helped him be positive about it, but that never changed the basic facts. He was never going home, and aside from pastries, the only thing his power was good for was attracting trouble.
Trouble raised its head as he stood and stretched. The guard dog was still at its post, for the third day running. It never left to eat, and seemed to sleep in shifts. A pair of doggy eyes stared at him, and he tried to stare back. Unfortunately, he was outnumbered.
You couldn't expect a mad scientist to have a normal guard dog, and Doc Talltale was madder than a shaved skunk. Four eyes stared at him from two heads, which merged into one set of stocky shoulders and a body the size of a pony. Daniel wasn't sure what kind of dog the doctor'd used to begin with, but he thought it might've been one of those, what was the name, Boston terriers. The thing was smart, enough to understand the doc's commands at least, and loyal too, to stand guard for so long.
Doc Talltale hadn't been seen since Daniel arrived. If the boy weren't capable of feeding himself, this might have been a problem. Daniel munched on an apple fritter, watching the dog's eyes as they watched him. Then he magicked up two more meat pies and slid them to the hungry canine. It didn't eat, but it didn't refuse, either. Maybe he was making some progress here.
He put pencil to paper. Now to the reason why he was in this crazy situation...
--- earlier that week
It was the same day as the cinnamon roll taste-test challenge. He'd delivered lunch to Miz Cordelia next door, then sat and chatted with her for a while after that. The old lady was full of even older stories. Some of them were even true, he figgered. Not the ones about giant gophers, furry fish, or rabbits with horns, though. Even he'd heard all the tall tales about the mountains and the strange critters people used to say lived there. It was all in good fun, meant to fool the tourists. He knew it, Miz Cordelia knew it, everyone knew it.
But that evening as he walked home from the library, he found out that the critters themselves might not have known it.
At first he thought it was a deer, a young'un, curled up on the grass by the side of the road. Then the ears shot up, and he could see it was more of a rabbit. A really, really big rabbit. It turned to look like him, and he could see two jagged horns sticking from its forehead.
He couldn't get more of an impression than that, because the thing charged straight at him. Run! was all he could think then.
Daniel was in remarkably good shape for someone with a five-a-day donut habit, but even an Olympic athlete would have trouble outrunning a jackrabbit the size of a half-grown deer. The thing clicked and clucked as it ran, and suddenly more of them were there to Daniel's left and right. They blocked the side roads and kept him on a straight course. The one right behind him never actually caught up, but it grunted aggressively whenever he slowed.
There was nothing to do but go where the things -- the jackalopes, as nutty as it sounded -- were herding him. This happened to be a field at the edge of town, a dark space far from any houses. Daniel shivered and pulled his jacket tight. He'd been warm enough during the day, but it was getting dark fast. He had to take off his shades to see anything.
He wished he could summon up something warm, but all his pastries came at room temperature, every time. Hmm... maybe the jackalopes would fancy a carrot cake? No, he decided, as the nearest critter bared very non-vegetarian fangs as he sidled up to it.
Soon, it was completely dark, with only the stars in the sky, the lamps on the distant road, and the beady red eyes of the jackalopes for light. The pack was all facing east, to the mountains. Only his personal guard rabbit kept an eye on him, but he was not about to run. They hadn't ate him up yet, and there was no point tempting fate.
Instead, he prayed: "Lord, I know You created all things, including these here critters, maybe. I'd be real thankful if they don't kill me and eat me right here..." As far as prayers went, it wasn't the best, but it sure was to the point.
There was a dark shape in the sky. It blocked the stars and swooped in, to land with a big flapping of wings. This new critter was sort of a bat, sort of a bird, and sort of something else entirely. Daniel couldn't tell much else in the darkness.
"Hey there, boy! Yer alright?" The voice was hollow and booming. It didn't sound like its owner cared much either way. "Didn't eatcher, did they?"
"Um, no!" he called back.
"Goodie." A man-shaped bit of shadow slid off the bigger form of the sorta-bat. A gloved hand grabbed Daniel by the arm and dragged him over to the belly of the beast. "In yer go!" The gloved hands held him down and strapped him into this cushioned bag that reminded him of those papoose carriers for babies.
Then he felt the sorta-bat flap its wings, and he regretted having so many sweets that day.
It was a short flight, but it felt so, so long. Daniel wasn't sure how many prayers he actually finished, 'cuz most had been cut short by panicked screaming or desperate attempts not to toss his cookies. The sorta-bat bobbed up and down like the world's worst roller coast or the Devil's own yo-yo. When it finally came back to earth, and the fabric cocoon opened to let fresh air in, he couldn't keep himself from collapsing to the earth and kissing it.
"Quit yer retchin', boy." Those rough hands grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him back up into the lamp light of reality.
And the reality was, his apparent host was as weird as his pets. A pair of goggles like Coke bottle bottoms covered his eyes, and a bandanna hid the rest of his face. Around the goggle straps, the man's white hair stuck out in five directions at once. The rest of him was dressed up in an old Air Force pilot's suit, decades out of date. Then the goggles came off, the bandanna was pulled down, and there was another surprise for Daniel.
"Mr. Carlyle?" It was hard to say under the lamp light, but Daniel was pretty sure he had it right. The old man was an occasional customer at Miz Debbie's cafe, appearing once every week or so.
"Who yer callin' what, boy?" Daniel got dragged up a set of dark stairs and into a house, with his captor mumbling all the while: "I swear, kids these days, can't trust their own eyes. Maybe you could do with a new pair? Yes!" he shouted, letting go of Daniel and letting him fall to the floor. "New eyes! I could grow them on the shrub out back. Pluck the old ones out and replace 'em in a trice!" The man's pupils were little dots in a sea of blue.
"Um, Mr. Carlyle, what are you..."
"No Carlyle here, boy! Jes' me, Doc Talltale. And boy, yer... yer got somethin' special to yer." Old light bulbs popped into life, revealing the worst mess the boy'd ever seen. Every counter top and inch of table in the kitchen was covered with some stain or plate turned moldy. The smell was enough to make him feel sick. Sicker.
"Now!" The table was cleared with a crashing sweep of an arm. "Boy! Do it!"
"Don't play dumb with me! Do what my spy spied with his sly spy eye, that wonder yonder donder way!"
"Spy?" This guy was not singing with a full hymnal, as papa would say.
"Spy, spy, shyly spryly spyingly spying! We saw whatcher did last weekend. Whatcher did for that little sassy lassy! Oh, woe! No mo' donuts! Lying truth and truthful lie! You made one more donut, dough nut deny!"
Last weekend... last weekend was the last time he'd seen Mr. Carlyle at the cafe. The old man had been sitting in the corner, sipping his tea. There'd been a family in as well, stopping on their way up to the resort. It was late afternoon, so all the pastries were sold out, but the little girl was so upset... So he'd lied, broken the eighth commandment, told her there was just one more left. Little white lies never hurt no one, right?
Wrong. This one was hurting his shoulder right now. The doc had his arm in a twist, forcing him to sit.
"Donuts!" came the order.
What was he to do? He piled donuts up high on the table, of every sort he'd ever eaten or made, and then crullers and fritters and little cupcakes, until he was more wrung out than he'd ever felt in his life. He barely remembered collapsing in his chair, or the doc moving him to the so-called guest room. The guard dog, he remembered clearly, but he'd been too tired to be frightened.
That was three days ago.
--- back in the present
And this was now. His journal was up to date. It hadn't done much more than pass the time between meals and trips to the little toilet attached to the main room, but he'd needed something to focus on until the time was right. He glanced at his guard dog, and saw what wasn't there.
The meat pies were gone. All of them, piled up over three days of attempted bribes, had vanished. The dog's four eyes were all locked on him, but not the way they used to. Those weren't the eyes of a vicious guard dog. They were puppy eyes pleading for more.
"Did you like those pies?"
Both heads nodded vigorously, one going up as the other went down.
"Want some more?"
The heads nodded so hard that the poor dog overbalanced and fell right on its noses. Daniel didn't dare laugh, much as he wanted to. Instead, he dared to reach out with both hands and scritch two sets of ears at the same time.
The dog allowed it -- enjoyed it, even. Its stubby tail was wagging hard, and one hind leg thumped the floor. Now that it wasn't trying to be threatening, Daniel could even call it cute. Like a Boston terrier, its ears were black, and the dark patches ran around its four eyes and down its back. The muzzles were white except for twin noses and pink tongues. Its four feet, each the size of a big dinner plate, had white stockings.
Daniel magicked up two more meat pies and fed the dog by hand this time. His guard was a dainty eater, picking the treats carefully from his fingers. A moment later, Daniel was bowled over by many, many pounds of happy puppy, and got his face licked from two directions at once.
"Okay," he said after washing his face off in the room's little toilet area. "What's your name, pup?" There was a plate hanging from a chain between the dog's two necks. "Hmm... Doctor's Precious Little Bad-ass Ni... ni..." The name went on and on, and while he didn't recognize all the words involved, they certainly didn't sound nice. "Doc named you during one of his special moods, huh?"
One head nodded while the other rolled its eyes.
"Well, this is too long for me to say. How 'bout I call you Cookie? Would that work?"
The two heads glanced at each other, and the funniest looks passed over their muzzles as the dog considered. Two short nods gave its consent.
"Cookie it is, then. I don't s'pose you're gonna let me leave the house, are you? Nope, didn't think so..." he said as the heads shook a negative answer. "Shall we go for a walk, then? You could show me around."
This proved more acceptable. Cookie stood up and gave itself a full-body shake, then padded down the hall. Daniel followed after.
The house in the mountains was bigger than he'd realized. Besides the floor with the kitchen, the guest room, and some odd spaces that might've been a lab, there were at least two more floors below, and one above. Set into the side of the mountain as it was, all the floors had doors outside, though Cookie wouldn't let him near those yet. There was no sign of Doc Talltale, just the mad scientist's menagerie sleeping in their pens.
It wasn't until they reached the upper floor by a separate staircase from the bottom that Daniel saw another human face, and it wasn't quite what he was expecting.
"Mr. Carlyle?" It really was him this time. Daniel was sure of it. The resemblance to Doc Talltale was there, but the hair was neatly combed, the clothes were washed, and the body language was completely different. The old man was drinking coffee and reading a newspaper at the table, in what appeared to be a completely different, much cleaner kitchen.
"What?" The old man almost fell out of his chair in shock. The coffee spilled over his white shirt, but the man didn't seem to notice. "D-daniel? From Debbie's cafe? What are you doing here?"
"Um, this crazy dude brought me here three days ago. Is he... like, your evil twin or something?" Really, Doc Talltale and Mr. Carlyle looked about as alike as too complete opposites could.
"I pray to God sometimes that this were so. No, no, I'm afraid the doctor's not so easy for me to escape as that. Three days, you said?" Daniel nodded. "Then I am sorry. I am... not well at times, and I can't recall what he does. I woke up yesterday covered in crumbs, and no idea what had happened. I don't usually venture into the rest of the house, so I did not know he'd brought in a guest."
"It's alright. I can feed myself, at least."
"Yes, I saw that, at the cafe... Dammit!" The old man held his head and wept. "That's how he knew about you. I am so, so terribly sorry, Daniel."
"Um, sir. Mr. Carlyle?" Daniel waved his hand over the table and a small fried apple and cranberry pie appeared. The old man looked like he needed a pick-me-up. "It's okay. Y... he never hurt me, really."
Mr. Carlyle stared at the pie for a long moment.
"That's your favorite, right? From the cafe?"
"Yes, so it is. Thank you for remembering..." Mr. Carlyle took a bite and savored the taste. "Yes, thank you. This... I think I can understand what the doctor was curious about. Ngh!" He clutched at his head. "Speak of the Devil, and he shall appear. I'm afraid you'll need to leave, Daniel. I wish I could explain more. Dog! Er, whatever it is you're called!"
"Cookie's the name I use."
"Well then, Cookie, I know I'm not exactly your master, but I'm asking anyway. Please get Daniel home. Twin Falls is thirty miles due west of here. Hurry! I'll call for help, but that'll take time. As soon as the doctor is back, he'll send out the jackalopes, the flittericks, the rubberados, and maybe even the splintercat." Mr. Carlyle took another big bite out of his fruit pie. "Yes... yes, we've got a little time before he's back, but you must leave now!"
Mr. Carlyle held the door open as the boy and his dog ran out into the morning light and vanished into the woods. "May God have mercy on my soul," the old man muttered to himself as he picked up the phone and dialed the last number he thought he'd ever use.
They made better time than Daniel expected. The Doc's place wasn't terribly off the beaten path, and they came across a logging road within a half hour. The graded stretch of dirt and gravel stretched far into the distance, and Daniel could feel his legs ache just thinking about walking it.
Cookie had other ideas. With some snorts and head-waving, plus some very expressive eyebrow wiggles, the dog convinced its boy to climb up on its back.
Somehow, with all its puppyish expressions, Daniel had overlooked just how big Cookie was. He wasn't the biggest kid around, though he knew he could lose some weight, but Cookie was easily twice his size and all of it was muscle. Daniel grabbed the collars and hunkered down as the dog snorted and began its dash down the logging way.
About an hour later, the first of the Doc's forces caught up with them. The list of strange names had run through Daniel's head over and over again, and he thought he recognized them from Miz Cordelia's stories. The jackalopes were an obvious threat, and he'd expected to see them first. Instead, the first sign of trouble came from a different direction.
There was only a tiny bit of shadow passing overhead, but Cookie saw it and veered hard right. Daniel wasn't about to ask why, and his unsaid question was answered quickly enough. A large furry body smashed into the ground where they'd been, hard enough to send bits of dirt and gravel flying. Looking back, Daniel could see the pointy ears and beady black eyes of an oversized squirrel pop up and chitter nastily before the shape ran off.
Flittericks, Mr. Carlyle had called them. Miz Cordelia had once described them as overgrown flying squirrels with super hard noggins. They'd climb trees and then swoop down to smash people in the head. On the ground, they didn't seem so tough.
Looking up, he saw a new shadow, then another, and kept counting until he reached a baker's dozen. Then the sky was raining squirrels. Cookie jumped this way and that, moving too fast for the flittericks to follow, with Daniel hanging on for dear life. The attack was over as fast as it had begun, with a gang of oversized squirrels left cussing in their wake.
After that, they stuck to the edge of the forest. It was slower, but Daniel couldn't ride any more. His legs were aching like they'd never done before, but he pressed on. Cookie led the way, stopping frequently to let him rest. At one point, they hid under a fallen tree as some monsters that looked like porcupines, only blown up like balloons, bounced past. Those would be the rubberados, he figgered.
For lunch, he treated Cookie to a couple chicken pot pies, which the dog gulped down greedily. Daniel's own croissants and jammy donuts vanished almost as fast. As usual, he felt a lot better after eating. The world had always seemed less frightening after a donut or two, and it seemed Cookie shared this outlook. Down by a stream, surrounded by trees in the height of the afternoon, the world seemed perfectly peaceful, like a little alpine Eden.
He did a quick check for serpents. Mr. Carlyle hadn't mentioned hoop snakes or spring-tail rattlers, but that didn't mean Doc Talltale didn't have any in his collection. Nope, it all seemed clear.
Daniel was about to climb up on Cookie's back when the dog's ears perked. They swiveled back and forth for a few seconds. Cookie moved to place itself between its boy and the northeast.
"What's wrong, Cookie?" The dog was growling now, low and angry, and in the distance there was an answering noise. It sounded like a yowling, hissing chainsaw.
And then Daniel was on the ground, landing on the soft moss alongside the stream with a grunt. Cookie'd bowled him right over, and even as Daniel realized this, the yowling grew incredibly loud and dangerously close. The source of the noise zipped through the spot where he'd stood, and continued until it hit a tree.
The old pine trunk shattered on impact, sending sap and splinters in all directions. At the base of the blasted trunk, a spiky-furred critter was moaning and shaking its head. It was about half the size of Cookie, and even stockier. Four legs stuck out sideways, and a bushy tail stood straight. When it turned around, Daniel could see two yellow eyes like dinner plates, and a broad smile filled with sharp teeth.
The splintercat. Miz Cordelia'd had a lot to say on this one. It was super fast, but couldn't change course that good. Usually it rammed trees to get at the critters that lived in them, but it'd attack anything else that came near. As the splintercat hunkered down for another mad dash, he remembered something else, too: that all those blows to the head made it crazy and irritable.
No wonder Doc Talltale had made one. It was practically his spirit animal.
Cookie was on the 'cat before it could launch itself again, and the fur started to fly. The dog had the weight and two heads to bite with, while the 'cat had its claws and its nasty attitude. Daniel kept a good distance from that fight, but he picked up a hefty branch, just in case.
Overhead, there was a rustle of leaves. Daniel jumped back just in time, as a beachball-sized mass of skin, claws, and needly quills landed on the bank of the stream. With the hollow -doink- of a basketball hitting the pavement, it launched itself back up into the branches.
The rubberados had returned. Daniel gripped the branch harder and kept his eyes turned upward. Porcupines were pretty good climbers, and these things could probably catch branches on the way back up. But when they were falling, they could only move up and down, right? Daniel prayed that was the case.
Back home in the community, the Reverend Barkus had never been big on sports. Hard work and chores were more his thing, but he'd had a soft spot for baseball -- said it encouraged teamwork and discouraged pride, somehow. So when the next rubberado dropped in, Daniel was ready to hop back and swing his makeshift bat with all his heart put into it.
Whew... Rubberados lived up to their name. He'd hit that one out of the park, for sure. The critter squealed like a pig for a long moment as it crashed through the brush.
Daniel didn't pay it no mind. There was already more rustling coming from up above. The rubberados weren't too smart, he figgered, since they kept trying the same tricks over and over. -doink, doink, doink- they went bouncing on the forest floor, and then bouncing harder as he whacked them away.
For the last one, he managed to angle the hit so the rubberado flew towards the other fight. Cookie was holding its own, but the 'cat was a nasty customer. There were scratches all over the dog's muzzles and sides, plus a couple of nasty bite wounds. At that exact moment, the 'cat had tripped Cookie up, taking advantage of the dog's short legs and getting it to overbalance. Poor Cookie had fallen right on their faces and was struggling to get up again.
The 'cat was grinning maniacally as it stood tall on its hind legs and extended its front claws with a snickety-snick loud enough for Daniel to hear. It would've done Cookie a whole world of hurt if that last rubberado hadn't flown straight into the 'cat's face.
Awright! Grand slam!
The rubberado bounced off into the distance, but it left a lot of quills behind. Daniel ran over and mashed a lemon meringue pie into that the 'cat's face for good measure. He bet that wouldn't feel good at all.
Mmmgrrrrrrrrrrrowl! And he'd be right. Even with the 'cat half-blind from meringue, it was hard to avoid the furiously flying paws and their wicked sharp claws. Cookie'd recovered enough to clamp down on the 'cat's tail, and while it was distracted by that, Daniel whacked it over the head with his branch.
Then he did it again...
... until the meringue was turned red. The 'cat had stopped moving well before then, but he was taking no chances.
"You okay, Cookie?"
The dog nodded, but slowly and gingerly. When it walked, there was an obvious limp. The scratches were already healing up, but they'd been bad enough before. They'd linger for a while.
"Good pup." He scratched Cookie behind the ears. "I guess I should study how to make doggy treats, huh?"
Cookie's stubby tail wagged at that.
Now it was getting late. The mountains cast long shadows against each other's slopes, and it was hard to see the way. All Daniel could tell was that they were heading west. Unfortunately, they weren't the only ones headed that way.
"C'mon, Cookie!" Daniel pleaded. There hadn't been enough time to stop for dinner, and the dog's wounds were taking their toll. The boy was now the faster of the two on foot, and that just wasn't fast enough. All around them, he could hear the clicks, clucks, and grunts he'd come to associate with the Doc's pack of jackalopes. He'd prayed hard that they could avoid this, but God hadn't answered.
He kept his makeshift bat ready, and when the first jackalope appeared ahead of them, he took a swing at it. He missed of course, but the critters held back just a little longer anyway. Two others joined the first one to block the path, but Daniel kept only one eye on them. These things hunted like wolves, he reckoned, so they'd probably come in from the sides...
There was a rustling to the right, and he swung his bat reflexively, catching a jackalope in mid-leap. That did it for the critter, but also for his bat. He let the cracked branch fall to the ground.
"Well, Cookie," Daniel said as the jackalopes circled around. "Just wanted to say you're the best dog a kid could ever have."
Cookie woofed in stereo, never taking his eyes off the jackalopes. There were six of the rabbitty things left. If it weren't for the tangle with the splintercat, it might've been an even fight, but...
Then a noise rumbled through the woods, an enormous, booming roar that shook the needles off the pine trees and made the pebbles dance along the dirt path. What now? Daniel thought. Had the Doc sent out something else, something bigger and nastier than the splintercat? Nope, he reckoned, watching the jackalopes' reaction. They looked more shook up than he felt, and a moment later they scampered into the darkness.
In the dying light, a giant figure glimmered as it moved through the trees. It must've been at least eight feet tall -- more with the wicked looking horns sticking from its head.
The Devil! Years of fire and brimstone Sunday school lessons marched through his memory. Had the reverend been right about mutants belonging to Hell's master, after all? He really didn't want to believe so, but that didn't stop him from shaking as the strange figure neared.
"Are you okay, kid?" The voice was loud, but definitely human.
"Y-yeah, thank you."
The figure moved in closer, and now Daniel could see that it was a man in a suit. The horns were fixed to his helmet. The man had his wrist up to his mouth, and seemed to be talking to someone.
"Located the boy. Shaken up, but otherwise okay. The damn critters all ran off, except for one. Taking care of it now." The man pulled a weird looking gun from the holster on his hip, and aimed it at Cookie.
"No!" Daniel jumped in front of the gun before it could fire.
"Kid, that thing's a monster."
"That 'thing' is my dog, mister. I ain't going anywhere without it." If ever there was a right thing to do in this world, this was it, he figgered. Cookie was his dog, and he was its boy, and no one was going to get in the way of that.
"Be reasonable, kid... What?" The man had his wrist back up. "No, we can't manage... Seriously, this thing's the size of a small horse. It'd take... Yes, dear." Daniel thought he could hear the man in the suit sigh. "We'll wait for pickup. Bullhorn, out."
Daniel hugged his dog tight, and Cookie licked its boy's face. Things were going to be alright.
Later that evening, Daniel had a happy reunion in Twin Falls. Miz Debbie greeted him with open arms, then hurried him and the superhero inside and away from the nighttime chill. Cookie was more of a surprise, but after Daniel reassured her, she allowed the giant pup to sit by the fireplace. Soon Cookie was curled up and snoring, with both heads fast asleep.
Miz Cordelia was there too, much to Daniel's surprise. He hadn't seen the old lady ever leave her home, or even her bed, but she was looking healthier lately. "Er, I need to thank you, Miz Cordelia," he said to her. "Those stories of yours turned out to be pretty useful."
"So I've been told." The old lady was sounding better, too. "And I see you've added a new critter to the list." She nodded to Cookie's snoring form.
"Yeah," said Miz Debbie. "So George, what are we supposed to do with it?"
George? Daniel was surprised when the superhero responded. Without his suit, Bullhorn turned out to be a normal enough guy in his forties, and his partner Blackbird had been an equally normal looking lady, for all that she flew a rescue helicopter with her brain.
"Well, I guess I can call some folks in the DPA, see what's possible. Need to get the kid to the MCO office in Boise for an MID, might pick something up for the pooch as well."
"Yeah, yeah. Sheesh, my parents wouldn't even let me have a hamster..."
"And that's because of what happened to the goldfish, George," said Miz Cordelia.
"Um, aren't superhero identities supposed to be secret?" asked Daniel.
"Certainly," said the old lady. "But you're the ward of my favorite nurse, and recently rescued by my grandson. As far as the comic books go, that's practically family."
"If you say so, ma'am."
"Now, there's something else we need to do right," said Miz Debbie. She stepped into the kitchen and brought out a small cake. 'Happy Birthday' was written on the top in pink frosting. "The reason I wanted you out of the house that afternoon," she explained with a wink. "I'm afraid it's a little stale now, but old cake's still better than none!"
That was certainly true, Daniel thought as the four of them polished off the cake. In all of the confusion of the past few weeks, he'd forgotten about his own birthday. His heart sank when he thought about missing this day with his family. "Does my momma know what happened?" he asked.
"I told her, yes." Miz Debbie didn't look very happy about it. "And, well... your father finally broke the news to the reverend. That went about as well as might be expected. You've been officially shunned from the community." She gave him a big hug. "I'm sorry, Daniel."
"No, no, it's okay..." he said, even as the tears began. "Not like I wasn't expecting it."
The other three spent much of the evening trying to cheer him up -- and for the most part, it worked. Bullhorn was full of crazy stories, and Miz Cordelia had a few more choice tales to tell. Then, right as the hero was about to say farewell for the evening, there was a knock on the door.
Mr. Carlyle let himself in, flinching under the glare of the other three adults in the room. "Um, hello, everyone."
"You've got a lot of nerve coming here, gramps," said Bullhorn.
"Good to see you too, George. My thanks to you and Patty for responding like you did. How are the children?"
"What are you doing here, John?" Miz Cordelia's face was stony. "Haven't you done enough this week?"
"I came to apologize, I suppose. To Daniel. To you all."
"Not going to go nutter on us, are you?"
"No, Cody dear."
"What's going on here?" Daniel asked. His eyes darted between the two old folks -- the old couple? -- and their grandson (?).
Mr. Carlyle pulled up a chair and sighed. "As I told you, Daniel, I'm not a well man. Always had a touch of the madman's laugh, as we used to call it. Diedrick's Syndrome, as it's known these days. And as I got old, my mind would sometimes get hazy and wandering, like old folks do. If it wandered too far, then the space behind got filled in with the crazy laughter, and then you'd get--"
The old man nodded. "I've been hiding up in the mountains for years now, so I couldn't hurt anyone. Hasn't always worked, but at least I never tried to turn the governor into a marmot or anything."
"And now?" Bullhorn demanded.
"And now... I'd like you to talk to those friends of yours in Seattle, get them to come and take care of the things in the Doctor's labs. I... the seclusion was a mistake. I can't deal with him. Not by myself."
Daniel magicked up another of Mr. Carlyle's favorite apple and cranberry fried pies and served it to him on a dish. The old man took a bite and relaxed.
"The Doctor had some interesting notes on these pastries of yours. Do you realize they've got healing properties that go beyond anything that should be possible?"
Miz Debbie and Miz Cordelia shared a look. "We noticed something was going on," the former nurse admitted. "Your wife's polymyalgia is almost gone, and so is her arthritis. We were going to have her looked at later this week, but in my opinion, it's like she's a decade younger now."
"I thought you were looking particularly radiant, Cody dear. For my part, the Doctor's hold seems to be loosening. My little episode this morning lasted just half an hour, instead of the usual day or two. Even now," he said as he examined his pie, "I can feel that he's there, but I can push him back. I think... with Daniel's help, I think I can reverse the progression of dementia in my brain, which would reduce the symptoms at the least. I'd still have the madman's laugh, but the Doctor... well, if God wills, I might be rid of him entirely."
Miz Cordelia stood up stiffly and hugged her husband. "It would be good to have you back for more than an afternoon every month, John."
"I missed you too, Cody."
"So let me get this straight," said Bullhorn. "The villain's been bested by giving him fruit pies? When did my life turn into a comic book Mostest-brand snack cake advertisement?"
"Hey, my pies are better than that!" Daniel said. He wasn't sure what Bullhorn was talking about, but he'd had a Mostest fruit pie before, so he knew enough to be insulted.
The adults all laughed at that. "That they are, Daniel," Miz Debbie assured him. "That they are."
---Wednesday, Feb. 3rd, 2016
It was a squat little house, huddled up against its lawn and practically tippy-toeing on its cinderblock foundation. To either side, its neighbors were doing much the same, if in different colors. As Catherine hopped out of the car and planted a goodbye kiss on her mom's cheek, her eyes pivoted every which way, taking it all in. An old live oak dominated the street corner, for example, and she could see bald cypress trees out back.
In front, Aunt Renée was stepping off the porch with open arms to receive her favorite niece in the whole world. "Welcome, Cathy!" she declared. "Oh, and you too, sis."
"Thanks," Catherine's mom said dryly. Standing side by side, the three of them were so obviously related that they could've posed as clones: same dark brown complexion, same broad nose and broader grin, same short, frizzy hair.
The only difference was that Catherine's eyes were a bright cobalt blue, and had been since last Thanksgiving. They twinkled with amusement.
"Hold it, Cathy," said Aunt Renée. "Settle down before you go all sparky."
"Whoops." Turning her face to the grassy lawn, she counted down from ten. "That better?"
"Much," said her mother. Constance Brooks no longer looked uncomfortable around her daughter's impromptu light shows, but that didn't make her a happy parent. "You sure you can handle her?" she asked Renée.
"As well as anyone." He aunt winked. "Hey, Cathy, why don't you put your bags in the guest room, make yourself at home while the grown-ups chat?"
The luggage was already in her hands. "Okay!" Catherine said. There was a tingle in her toes as she hoofed it up the front steps, across the porch, and through the front door. she held it back for as long as anyone was in sight, but once the door was shut behind her, she was a sparkly, electric blur, reaching the guest room in a single elongated step.
Mom didn't like her showing off, unfortunately. Catherine was sure she could wow people with a trick like that.
It only took a moment to unload a long weekend's... well, practically a week's worth of clothes from her bag and into the dresser. After that, with no adults present as yet, Catherine had plenty of time to put up the personal touches. Teddy-Beau, the stuffed bear she refused to mention to friends at school, took his usual spot beside the pillow. A stack of old Cajun hip-hop CDs occupied part of a nightstand, where Aunt Renée had already placed a banged-up player.
One last touch, though... From its protective cardboard tube, Catherine extracted her latest treasure: a full-color poster of New Orleans' own resident heroine, the Crescent Muse. Unrolling it carefully, she applied sticky-tack to the corners and fixed it to the wall. The dark-skinned figure in the blue super-suit with its crescent moon logo had never looked more dashing.
She took a moment to peek out the door and check for adults, then quickly pulled it shut. Standing up on tippy-toes, Catherine puckered her lips and gave the image of the superheroine a quick smooch.
Happy giggles accompanied her all the way back outside.
"So what would you like for dinner?" Aunt Renée asked a while later. "I understand you're eating your parents out of house and home."
Blushing wasn't something a girl with her skin tone could really do, but lately Catherine had started emitting sparks instead. She could feel the static crackle across her cheeks as they warmed. "Well, um, they tell me that it's normal. Well, for someone who's..."
"Not really normal at all?" Aunt Renée finished. "It takes all kinds, though I think pretty much anyone could clean out my fridge in one go."
The tiny little appliance whirred innocently in the background. Catherine had seen fridges that small in the electronics store, but she'd never heard of anyone not living in a college dorm who'd actually got one. Its main box was barely large enough to hold a carton of milk and some leftovers, while its freezer was filled to capacity with ice cream.
Delicious as that was, her developing metabolism demanded more, and it wasn't afraid to use her stomach to announce that.
"There's a call to action if I ever heard one," said Aunt Renée. "Come on, let's go. I know a great little restaurant off of Lee Circle. We can take the streetcar straight down."
Aunt Renée's house was one of a set tucked together on a Garden District back street. The neighborhood didn't look much different from Catherine's part of Kenner, just a little older. That all changed as they walked the few blocks up to St. Charles Avenue, the most visible stretch of the Garden District as far as tourism was concerned, and the contrast was huge. There weren't many houses on that street that weren't at least a hundred years old, and a lot of them tried to mimic the look of the antebellum mansions. To get to the streetcar stop, they walked across the green yards of the Latter Public Library, which actually had been a mansion, once upon a time.
St. Charles Avenue was more of a boulevard. Traffic went up one side and down the other, with a wide stretch of green between the two halves where the streetcars ran. The trundling carriages were considerably more recent than most of the area's decor, but that fact was carefully hidden by wooden paneling and antique-ish design. In form and style they looked much the way they had before the Second World War. She and her aunt plunked down their fares into the little machine at the front, said hi to the conductor, and settled onto a veneered wooden bench.
Four short stops later, they were just past the big circular intersection where the statue of General Lee stood. From there it was a short walk into the Warehouse District, some 80% less industrial and 200% more artsy than it was when it got the name. Aunt Renée was enjoying the role of tour guide, pointing out artistic flairs and decorations added within the past year. There were quite a few.
The little restaurant was tucked into the corner of an old brick building, with few windows and only a small sign-board outside to announce its presence. The locals all knew where it was, and that was enough. If Aunt Renée hadn't called in a reservation before they even boarded the streetcar, it would've been a while before they were even seated. As it was, they sat for fifteen minutes to the serenade of Catherine's stomach before three po-boys, sandwiches of thick New Orleans-style French bread stuffed with fried shrimp, were delivered with a large side of fries. A moment later, a plate of crawfish étouffée arrived for Aunt Renée.
"Seeing is believing," her aunt said, shaking her head in amazement as Catherine devoured the sandwiches. "You weren't nearly this ravenous over Christmas."
"Wasn't sparking as much then," said Catherine. "Now I feel like I gotta keep up a charge somehow, and food's the best way." The last few words were muffled as she gnawed on a heel of muffaletta that had come with the crawfish. "Gotta pack triple lunches for school."
"No wonder your mom was so happy to let me foot the food bill for you this week. So," Aunt Renée continued as she spread some étouffée sauce on the remaining bit of muffaletta. "What's your plan for tomorrow?"
"Promised Mom I'd do my homework in the morning..." said Catherine in a drooping tone. "Maybe go up to that library for a bit, or run around Audubon Park. Then meet up with Alicia and the others around six for the parade." Her voice crackled with excitement.
"Which one was it again? I swear, I've lived in this city my whole life, and I still can't keep 'em all straight."
"Muses," she happily informed her aunt.
"Oh yeah, that one." Aunt Renée chewed thoughtfully. "Eh, there are worse ones to go see, for crowds and whatnot. Goes straight down St. Charles, right?"
Catherine rolled her eyes. "Yeah, before taking a left on Napoleon and finishing along Magazine. That's like literally your back yard. You didn't wonder why I asked if I could have friends over?"
"Hey, I'm a busy lady! The office has got me working overtime tomorrow because they know we'll all be skipping out for Mardi Gras weekend. And if at all possible the boss finds a way to saddle us with visiting partners who just have to try and catch a coconut at the Zulu parade."
"They still throw those?"
"Not anymore, but the VIPs don't always get that." Aunt Renée snorted as she cleared the sauce from her plate. "And getting one of the Zulu guys to just hand you one is tougher than it sounds."
"Well I'm going for a shoe." Every one of the big Mardi Gras krewes had their own signature throw, even if a lot of them were simply handed out these days because of liability issues. Zulu's coconuts, case in point. For the Krewe of Muses, the signature throw were these fancy shoes, on top of whatever the year's special theme might be. The celebrity guest of honor even rode around in a giant shoe. This year, that meant Solange Knowles, little sister to Beyoncé, but while Catherine was a fan of the lady's music, she had a different person she wanted to see at the event.
"You know, the Crescent Muse is supposed to be in the parade, too," she said, trying to keep the sparks of excitement down.
"Is she now?"
"Like, every year, Aunt Renée..." Catherine wondered at her aunt's cluelessness at times. A barrage of facts and trivia battled for position on the tip of her tongue as her enthusiasm spilled over. "She only debuted at the Muses parade in 2007, after all! Geez! It's a major part of her image as a heroine of the city. Where have you been for a decade? Are you sure we're really related?" She gave her aunt a dirty look. "I'm gonna have to ask you to prove you're really from N'Awlins," she said with an affected drawl.
A well-manicured hand was placed over Aunt Renée's mouth, and the woman's shoulders shook gently with laughter. That dirty look from earlier got an encore, with a stuck-out tongue to go with it. "You're yanking my chain," Catherine accused.
"And you dance so well on the end of it," said her aunt. "Guilty as charged. I'm in marketing and image work, remember? I'd better know who's representing my city. And," the woman added with a smirk, "I'd have to be blind to miss that poster of the Muse you put on my guest room wall."
Her ears went hot, and she could feel her cheeks begin to sparkle with blush. "Yeah, um, just making myself at home, right? Number one fan and all."
"Well then, I hope you can see her this year," said Aunt Renée. "Take a picture of her for me."
"Sure. Will do."
---Thursday, Feb. 4th
The afternoon took forever to arrive. Ever since her brain had switched from DC to AC, or whatever it was that was going on in there, Catherine's grades in every class had seen a sharp increase, but the ability to focus and process did not make the subject matter any more interesting. If anything, she was more bored now that she could finish everything in half the time.
So, being a teen left alone and unattended in a relative's house, she did what anyone else would do: she snooped. A quick trip through Aunt Renée's closet found some interesting evening wear, and Catherine briefly flirted with the idea of modeling some of it before having to accept that she just couldn't fill it all out properly. Yet. She had high hopes for future growth spurts.
The DVD cabinet had a little bit of everything that was rated R or lower. Not that she'd really expected to find a porno or anything, but... Her image of her aunt's vivacious bachelorette lifestyle was getting a little tarnished.
The drawer to the side of the bookshelf held a treasure trove, however. A complete set of the Crescent Muse comic books, in plastic sleeves -- one for every year that the Krewe of Muses had produced them. There was even the original from 2007, back when she'd called herself Supermuse. The name change had happened the following year, after the city government sponsored her for membership in the Cajun Criminal Counter Force. A Crescent Muse for the Crescent City.
Pretty much every issue had a different artist, and none of them really agreed on the Muse's face, her costume, or her powers. Really, the only things they kept in common were the name Nola Rizing and her basic origin. Whether her powers were a gift from the actual goddesses of inspiration and art, or from an alien symbiote, or from some random marvel of mad science, all could agree that she'd received them after an incident involving a Katrina fridge.
After Katrina, the worst hurricane to hit town in decades, two-thirds or more of the city's population had been forced to evacuate for weeks. Catherine had only been a pre-schooler at the time, and retained only a vague memory of staying at Grandma's house in Houston for six months, but she'd heard horror stories of the refrigerators left behind, unpowered and full of food in the mid-autumn heat. To describe them as a toxic mess would be an understatement, and most people had just duct-taped the things shut and prayed that the disposal services could remove them from their front yards before the stuff inside managed to eat through the seals on the doors.
Catherine had learned a lot of this from the comics themselves, and while she'd read through them all many times, it was fun to do it all over again that afternoon. Better than math problems. She'd have to thank her aunt later, or nag her for all the teasing, when the woman was obviously just as big a fan as her niece.
Around 5, she met her friends by the Latter Library, the former mansion on St. Charles. It was a few blocks down from the intersection at Napoleon Avenue, where the Krewe of Muses was to take its big turn left, but the area was still crowded with tourists and locals. Just within a half mile down the way, two universities and a high school were all out for the first half of a split spring break -- because of course not even the teachers would be in the classroom for the biggest part of the year -- and there was an abundance of teens to chat with, yell at, or make out with, depending on one's preference.
"Cathy!" Her friend Alicia was there with the 'secret weapon' they'd cobbled together. "Ready to get some of those shoes?"
"Heck, yeah!" she shouted. Two other girls from their school, Berenice and Diane, echoed her enthusiasm as they ran over. The four of them together wandered through the carnival atmosphere that had forced the divided street to be closed off for the evening along much of its length, buying plenty of snacks from the helpful purveyors of fried foods and things on sticks who always showed up at these events.
Catherine was thankful she'd already had a pizza delivered earlier for her first dinner, or else an embarrassing number of corn dogs and tornado-twist potatoes would be going into her stomach. As it was, her mother had given her a couple of twenties -- and Aunt Renée had given a couple more -- to help her manage her burgeoning appetite. Two bills were in her wallet; the rest were currently padding her bra.
By a quarter past six, they'd staked out a position at the corner of St. Charles and Napoleon, aiming delicate elbows with surgical precision until the crowd moved aside for them. The sky was already quite dark, and the first parade floats could be seen coming from quite a distance away.
The Krewe of Muses was the youngest of the major parade krewes, being only a year older than Catherine at this point, but it was a parade with a purpose. From the very start, when a float designed like a package of Whoppers malted chocolates passed with scathing commentary on the promises of various presidential candidates, this was obvious. For 2016, most every float seemed to have a candy- or pastry-related appearance, and besides the usual beads, the Muses in their flashing masks threw plush cupcakes and lollipop toys into the ecstatic crowd.
Catherine and her friends managed to snag a few of those, but their sights were set high on footwear. The fifth float of the parade, preceded by much fanfare and the minor Krewe of Rolling Elvi, was a stylized high-heel shoe in blue lights, with the singer Solange Knowles riding in style. Masked attendants handled the goods.
"Ready?" Alicia asked. At her nod, the girls lifted up a lightweight neon sign on a pair of PVC rods. Catherine grabbed the contact wires and stopped holding herself back.
Only in the last month or so had it gotten to the point where she had to actively suppress her sparkiness, with trailing glints of energy becoming her regular state. It wasn't hard to keep in check, but oh, did it feel good to let it all out. Over her head, the neon display shone brightly, powered solely by her, with bright yellow motes looping around to spell THESE GIRLS NEED SHOES in bright letters on a blue background of glitter that swirled in eye-catching patterns.
It worked. Alicia claimed their first shoe of the evening, a stylish number in violet sequins. Catherine was jealous.
Unfortunately, so were their neighbors. "Hey! What're you doin'?" one man shouted. "That's cheatin'!" He and his friends were obvious out-of-towners, marked by their atrocious taste in Mardi Gras shirts. They didn't seem to have caught much of anything so far, and she was willing to bet it was because they had SHOW YOUR TITS in big letters across their chests. That kinda shit didn't fly well at Muses.
"All's fair in krewes and catches," Alicia shot back. "Go hit up Rex or Friars if you're gonna be hissy about it."
Catherine grinned, accidentally sparking more than intended. The light show spazzed out for a second until she got the current back under control.
"Hey, they ain't got a battery on that light," the same man shouted. His breath reeked so much of booze that she coughed and sneezed, sending the display into another tizzy. "They got a mutant! That's cheatin'!"
"It's a free country," Catherine said, releasing her grip for a moment to cover her nose. "And you're free to leave us alone."
"Stupid mutie bitch!" The man with the horrible halitosis swung his fist at her, smacking into the lit display when she ducked. Somewhere in the background her friends were shouting rude things at him, while his dude-bros cheered him on.
Her muscles were all charged up, juiced on the flow of electricity she produced, but she wasn't sure how long she could last. For the moment, Catherine dodged away from the punches, leaving sparkles in her wake as she moved faster than a normal girl should.
Dodge, duck, avoid. The litany went through her head, sounding much like her mother. New Orleans could be a lovely city with wonderful people, but during Mardi Gras the cops took no shit from anyone, and she did not want to get in trouble for fighting.
She flash-stepped back a ways from the street, to where the crowd was thinner. The belligerent drunk followed, still steaming and venting nasty slurs related to her skin color and mutation.
Other people stayed well out of his way, though a lot of phones were out and recording. It would've been just her luck if this was the thing that sent her viral, but she couldn't really waste any thought to that little worry. The man's boozy haze was burning off, but it didn't improve his attitude any. She just had to move twice as fast to get out of his way.
Her stomach grumbled hard, a deep bass that wrenched at her insides and made her stumble. The sparks faded.
Well, crap. Catherine strained muscles that she barely understood, the weird additions to her physiology that allowed her to emit so much electricity, only for it to fizzle out again. Her stomach growled more loudly.
"Gotcha now, you filthy little cheat..." The man was closing in.
"Stop." The single word, the command was sharp and strong, hitting the man right between the ears and bringing his feet to a halt. Catherine could only have wished she might ever deliver an order with such authority. The small crowd of spectators had receded, pulling back to better focus their common lenses on the speaker.
Elegant and imperious, in a sapphire blue fight suit that shone under the streetlights, with a visor-like mask across her eyes and a military beret over her hair. The figure of a crescent moon, the emblem of the Crescent City, was upon her chest, and Catherine knew without question that the name tag on the woman's front would read 'Nola Rizing'.
The Crescent Muse herself stepped up. Her parade float must have been passing by. Back behind her, it looked like the parade itself had halted.
"Look, I dunno who you think you are, but..." The man made the mistake of taking a step forward. The Crescent Muse met him less than halfway, slamming him to the ground with a thud.
"I see you never learned the meaning of the word 'stop,'" the heroine said dryly. There was a click as she handcuffed him to the nearest fence. "As a legally sworn officer of the law, I have the authority to detain you for drunk and disorderly conduct, as well as assault. Members of the NOLA PD will be by to pick you up for processing. Eventually," she said as she walked away. "It's a busy time of year for them."
Ignoring the cussing and the hollering, the Crescent Muse walked over to Catherine. "Are you okay?" she asked, offering a hand.
"Yeah, um, I think so." Her stomach disagreed, vociferously. "Well, could use a snack, but..."
"I've got some protein bars in the car. Come on."
It was actually her... Catherine's brain latched on to the adverb until it ran through her mental monologue like a broken record. The actual, honest-to-God Crescent Muse actually took her by her actual hand and actually led her to the actual Muse-Mobile, as the heroine's actual personal parade float was actually known. Actually, actually, actually...
She was actually sitting in the Muse-Mobile, nibbling a protein bar.
Her idol was actually sitting beside her.
"Hey, put this on," said the Muse, handing her a gilded Mardi Gras mask with LED lights built in. There didn't appear to be a battery installed, but her passive voltage was enough to make it light up. "You got a code name yet?"
"Um, yes, ma'am..." Oh-Em-Gee, she was actually gonna be able to use the name on her MID, to an actual hero! "It's, um, Zapper."
"Well then, Zapper," said the Muse, "can you help me toss? There's a whole mess of plush desserts to unload this year. Not to mention comic books and shoes."
Shoes! Catherine waved to her friends as the Muse-Mobile slowly passed, making sure that Berenice and Diane each got an article of glitzy footwear while those drunken bozos got nada. Grinning, she looked back at her personal idol, and for the first time got a good look at the Muse's face in profile, up close, and with plenty of light.
That word 'actually' bounced in her brain, getting caught up in the cogwheels of thought until everything sort of stalled out and she was stuck in place with a huge smile plastered on. Her squeal of glee was held in only because nothing else could move out of the way.
She must've thrown stuff for the rest of the parade, but she couldn't recall afterwards.
Somehow they made it to the end without an aneurysm of excitement blasting a whole in her brain and ruining all the fun. The Crescent Muse, affectionately referred to as Nola by most of the Krewe, excused herself early so she could escort Catherine home. No one minded, and several of the ladies gave the teen words of encouragement.
It wasn't until they were seated in a more normal sort of car and driving off, just the two of them, that the dam finally burst and the words she'd wanted to shriek happily flooded out.
"Aunt!? Re!? Née!? Why!? How!? What!?" She gasped for breath.
"You forgot the Where, When, and Who," the woman teased. "But... why: because I've been a member of the Krewe of Muses since practically the beginning. Maybe that answers part of the How as well? What: this is me doing my job. Marketing and brand image awareness, plus a side of law enforcement."
"Does, does Mom know?"
"Who do you think dared me to kick that damn Katrina fridge to begin with, huh?"
"But, but the name..." The name tag for 'Nola Rizing' was still plain on her aunt's chest.
"Fake name is fake, Cathy. It was supposed to be a one-time joke, but then the city decided to sponsor me, and here we are."
All she could do was sit there in silence while her excitement burbled, loud as Mom's old coffee maker, and the sparks crackled from her cheeks. "Can I be your sidekick? Please?"
There was a long silence from behind the steering wheel. "This is why your mom never wanted you to know," Aunt Renée said finally. "Short answer, no. You're too young, untrained, and there are specific laws against this sort of thing. Long answer... Do you think I just started fighting crime, right off the bat? Or the fridge?"
"Um, the comics..."
"The comics include me fighting a supervillainous FEMA bureaucrat while wearing the most ridiculous spandex, in the very first issue. The things were a political statement -- still are -- taking advantage of how one eighteen-year-old college freshman did something really stupid, only to survive because of a lucky accident of fate. If you can call catastrophic late onset mutation lucky. It sucked, royally." Aunt Renée pinched the bridge of her nose with her free hand, pausing a few seconds before continuing.
"The whole thing with the parade and the comic book and the fake name was just me trying to make the most of a bad situation. I didn't even try any real heroism until after the city government sponsored me into a crash-course training scheme. On top of my college program. Busiest two years of my life."
The sparkles had all faded at this point, partly from disappointment but largely because the five protein bars she'd scarfed down were wearing thin. "Oh. Well, um. I'm sorry..." she mumbled.
"Look," said Aunt Renée. "If you really want this, there are places you can train. Not to be a hero, necessarily," she added, "but stuff you'll really need to know to survive with mutant powers. And I'm sure they'd feed you right."
Catherine's stomach gurgled in appreciation. "Th-thanks."
"Now, call your friends, tell 'em your aunt's picked you up, and that you're bringing home a few gallons of ice cream to celebrate your birthday ten days early. Party at my place. Sound good?"
"Oh, and speaking of which..." As they parked at a red light, Aunt Renée fished a wrapped box out of the back. "I wasn't sure how I was gonna explain this, but here you've gone and made it a moot point. Go on, open it."
With trembling fingers, Catherine peeled the paper back to find a typical shoe box from Lady Foot Locker. The contents were not typical.
A shoe. The shoe. Stiletto heel, sapphire blue and sterling silver sequins, with a crescent moon buckle. The Muse's personal throw, from her personal Muse-Mobile float. "This... this..."
"A 'thank you' would suffice."
"Thank you thank you thank you! Oh lord! I could kiss you right now!" The words hit her ears, and she blushed herself into silence.
"Well," Aunt Renée said with her usual aplomb, "that would explain the chap stick marks on your poster of me."
Her blush could've lit an entire parade float. Her aunt merely chuckled all the way home.
There once was a little town, nestled in a corner of land where the borders of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey nominally met. It had a name, but no one ever seemed to agree on what it was. The local folk -- Kurdish stock, all -- merely nodded and used whichever place name the latest group of gun-toting strangers insisted upon. The Kurds had their own name for their little town, a name that was to them the same as home, but they never bothered to tell anyone else what it was.
Looking down upon it now, with the walls half broken and smoke streaming through collapsing roofs, names really did not matter much any more.
"Daesh!" had come the shout, late in the mid-afternoon, and those remaining in the town were wary. This latest breed of militant zealots were a chaotic mess, as willing to shoot first and plunder later as they were the reverse. They and their depredations were not an uncommon sight, which was why the town was already half-deserted. Only the luckless, the stubborn, or the deranged were left.
Avsel's father, Ibram Goran was all of these things. When their neighbors had left, he'd simply seen it as an opportunity to claim what remained behind. To him, the exploding shells or echoes of gunfire were a sign of better things to come for him and his two children, and he ignored the shaken heads and muttered words that followed his behavior.
She'd been too young to understand, at first. Even now at the age of almost fifteen, she could see that her father did what he did out of love for his family. All were cared for as best he could, even the daughter who might never marry in these uncertain times.
"Avsel," he would say after morning prayers, "this world of the now, its war and conflict, is fleeting. Soon this world shall pass, and a new and better world shall arise. Here." And now he would pass her his little treasure, a string of round red prayer beads known as dumiu al-karkadann, the tears of the unicorn. "Pray for me, when I am out. With your sweet words to Allah's ear, all is sure to be as it ought."
And so she'd prayed every day that the new world of her father's dreams would come to pass. The sweet words had been on her lips, the tears of the unicorn in between her fingers, even as that hideous word of "Daesh!" was shouted to the winds.
And so she'd prayed, as loud voices argued.
And so she'd prayed, as the harsh cracks of gunfire sounded.
And so she'd prayed, as her legs lifted her up and out of their house, through the back door and across the fields into the cold winds of winter. Behind her the fires rose up and the screams died down. Ahead of her was the sun.
It was seven days after the death of the world. Seven days since the old life had ended, and a new one, a worse one, had come to replace it. Avsel sat at a folding table beneath a crude tarp tent. A glass of water and a plate of sweetened biscuits sat in the space before her. She would not touch either.
Five days since she had arrived here, wherever here was. Everyone spoke Arabic or English, and while her brother Ismal had taught her something of both, she did not know enough of either to understand or be understood. So far, no one had responded to her questions in Kurdish or rudimentary Turkish.
The woman sitting across from her at the table was a new face. Lean, strong, with a fierceness to her eyes that was so unlike any of the other women she had met in this tented place, and with a head covering so loose it may have blown off in a light breeze. For ten minutes now, this unwomanly woman had simply stared at Avsel with dark eyes gleaming.
"Why don't you eat?" the woman suddenly asked, in rough but understandable Kurdish.
Brown-green eyes blinked as surprise washed through Avsel. "I, I do not with to be rude," she said, "but I do not have much appetite of late."
"They told me that when you arrived, you ate enough for three men."
Embarrassment painted her cheeks. "It had been too long since my last meal."
"Do you know where you are?" asked the woman.
"Or how you arrived here?"
"No. I was lost in the wilderness, running, and then I was here."
"'Here' is a refugee camp, managed by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. I represent certain supporters of their efforts, and as no one else could speak Kurdish well enough, they asked me to talk with you, Miss..."
"My name is Avsel Goran."
"Miss Goran, you are a puzzle, an enigma. This camp sits on the border between Syria and Lebanon, where I am from. It is far away from Kurdistan. How did you get here?"
Her shoulders shook, and vague memories, nightmares, stabbed at her brain. "I, I do not remember," she said. "I was running. From the Daesh. That is all I can say for certain."
"You and so many others." The woman's expression was curdled as old yoghurt. "Such is this world of ours. Well, the people here are not sure what to do with you, so I guess it's my turn to step up. My name is Sahar Chibany, and my organization works with refugee placement. Do you have any relatives left that you know about?"
She shook her head, no, then tugged her scarf back into its proper place. In her free hand, the tears of the unicorn remained wrapped around her fingers.
"Well then, I shall see what I can do..."
It was two more months before she could leave the dusty tents of the refugee camp. Two months of being pent up within the fences of the women's area, with no one to talk to. Not every night, but certainly several times a week, nightmares of fire and smoke, of loud noises and running as she lay in her cot with fingers clenched tightly around her father's treasure. One night of this would have been enough to mark her as strange to the other women. Three or four nights a week of unconscious mumbling and crying in a foreign language unnerved everyone, until the old women were making open signs against the evil eye when Avsel passed, and mothers pulled their children from her path.
Ms. Chibany was the only one with time to spare for her. Beyond being the sole person to speak Kurdish at the camp, the Lebanese woman seemed to understand the problem of nightmares better than Avsel herself. Even she, however, wore a nazar, a blue-eyed glass charm that warded against evil influences. She swore to Avsel that it was nothing personal, just a precaution. Against what, she would not say.
Whatever the woman's actual feelings, she did not let them stop her. Avsel had yet to figure out what Ms. Chibany's actual job was, as she seemed to come and go as she pleased, but the woman took it upon herself to improve the Kurdish girl's ability to communicate in both Arabic and English.
Now Avsel could better understand what the other women were muttering behind her back. She sometimes wished she couldn't. Words like 'accursed' and 'daughter of jinn' should not have been part of a normal conversation, and yet she'd had to learn them anyway.
And then one day, after an absence of over a week, Ms. Chibany strolled through the entrance of the women's area, took Avsel by the arm, and quickly led her to one of the private tents.
"I am afraid I have news," she said. "As of now, we have been unable to locate any survivors from your town who hadn't already left it long before. No one who knows you, at the least."
Her heart fell through her chest at that. Somehow one lingering feather of hope had kept it up, only for its weight to suddenly punch through her stomach. "What, then? Where...? Oh, how she hated to think of staying in this place much longer! If her nightmares now held less smoke or fire, the running had remained, until in this world her own feet itched with the need to move.
"That's the part I've been working on," said Ms. Chibany. "I've pulled what strings I can, greased palms and called in favors, and I believe I can get you out of here."
"Virginia, in America."
The first word was meaningless to her, but the second was the name of a place that she had heard, but which had never seemed to be a real thing, rather a strange and fanciful land from some grandmother's tale. "But how?" she asked. "I, I can't..."
"You can't stay here," said the woman. "I can see how this place is wearing on you, and if we are to be honest the ladies who wished they were in charge would much rather have you gone. So, let's get going, if you don't mind."
Less than ten minutes later, all her worldly possessions were packed in a small bag. The clothes were all cast-offs, barely functional as clothing, save for a few items that Ms. Chibany provided. Muttered charms and signs against the evil eye followed them out.
Less than three hours later, they were at an airport, after much crazed driving by her benefactor. Ms. Chibany was aggressive behind the wheel, taking her little car through spaces between other vehicles that should not have been attempted, at speeds that were best left unconsidered. After two months of being stuck in one place, Avsel found herself actually enjoying the ride.
Two days and three changes of airplane later, Ms. Chibany was leading an exhausted Kurdish girl through their final destination. Some flights had been shaky and turbulent, others quiet and smooth. Avsel had experienced so many first things by now that her mind was fuzzed and numbed by the burden. She did not really notice how the woman was escorting her through the system, or know enough to wonder at the speed with which papers were stamped.
And like that, she was standing in bright sunlight even as her body was telling her it was past midnight. The wind was chill upon her face. At some point her guide had lost her headscarf, but Avsel's was still modestly wrapped.
"Ah, here we are," Ms. Chibany said in English. Her next words were in Kurdish. "Come along. It's time to meet your foster family."
Even though they'd talked about this at length over the last two days, and Avsel logically understood the situation she was being led into, that did not stop a piece of her heart from shrinking back in fear, from panicking at the thought of meeting so many new people, of living with them, sharing space. The cramped confines of the refugee tent camp only just behind her, she quailed at the prospect of new restrictions.
Her legs and feet itched with the desire to run, to flee, to chase the sunset...
Ms. Chibany's hand was a warm, friendly sensation on her shoulder that somehow dispelled the panic before it could carry her away. "I know this is a big step," the woman continued in Kurdish, "but fear not. We are in America now. Rules are different here. Do you trust me?"
"Yes..." Of all the people in this strange new world, only the woman from Lebanon had even bothered to look at her with kindness, and she was scrupulous to her given word.
"Good, because there they are. Ah, Daoud!" Ms. Chibany called, waving her hand.
Mr. Daoud Aoun was a small man, thin and lean, with a bushy mustache that by itself looked stronger than the rest of him put together. A pair of round spectacles perched upon a beaky nose. At his side was a woman that Avsel had to assume was his wife, considering how they had their arms hooked in a most unseemly manner that would have been the talk of the village gossips back home.
The wife was introduced as Sareen Aoun, and she looked enough like Ms. Chibany for it to be obvious they at least shared a country of origin, if not a village. What the woman was wearing would... Avsel could not even imagine how the old women back home would have reacted. There was nothing actually wrong with the outfit that she could see, but it managed to cover everything while hiding very little.
And then there were the daughters, perfect younger copies of their mother, who aside from the bare minimum of head coverage were dressed more like everyone else in the airport than Avsel. One was half a year older than she, with a doubting look in her light brown eyes. That one was called Mazia. The younger sister, four years Avsel's junior, was Kitianna. They greeted her cordially, but she could tell they were also sizing her up, making judgments.
She should have smiled, done something to improve the first impression. She was too tired to care.
The nightmares never stopped, but slowly they had changed over the course of so many repetitions. The sounds of gun fire, the smells of smoke and blood, all had faded into the distant horizon behind her, and she rarely looked back anymore. Instead, her dream-eyes always stayed focused on the way ahead, at the setting sun. Once the day was gone, the world would end, to make way for a new one on the morn.
She ran to keep the sun above the horizon, to keep the world as it was from disappearing, for she had no faith that the next would be any better. No matter how fast she ran, however, the sun always won their contest, and the world would come to an end. She would cry and race in circles, lost until the crescent moon rose before the dawn to show her the way forward.
And so it began again.
"I am sorry to have disturbed you," she would often say in the mornings early on. The Aouns had given her a bed on the other side of Mazia and Kitianna's room, itself the size of many a house back home, and while the sisters never complained about how she might cry in her sleep, Avsel could tell that it was an annoyance.
Mazia always took the apology with a frown, but said nothing. Her younger sister had gifted Avsel with a favorite toy, a little blue plastic horse with rainbow-colored hair and a multi-colored thunderbolt image stamped on its hind, to cuddle in bed so the nightmares wouldn't come.
She appreciated the thought, even if it didn't always work.
The Aoun sisters went to school every day, and Avsel was envious of them. She was reminded of her brother Ismal in many ways, especially when Kitianna came home excited about a class and needed a friendly ear. Avsel's English was improving greatly just from listening as she tidied the laundry with the girl in the afternoon.
During the day, Mrs. Aoun did her best to teach Avsel about life in America, taking the girl everywhere she went -- to the shops, to the market, to the hair salon and the park. Avsel learned many new words, new concepts, and new ways of doing things, though she rarely learned why they were done. It was a strange land, America.
But strange was not the same as bad. When Mrs. Aoun had first brought her to the park, she'd been baffled. So much wide space, fertile space, but not for farming. And the outfits they'd worn, with the stretchy fabric over t-shirts and the brassiere that the woman had insisted Avsel be fitted for, over embarrassed protestation... Her father would have been shocked to see her in that.
Then they'd gotten started, and the Kurdish girl discovered the pleasures of jogging.
Running. For the enjoyment of it! How her legs had ached for this, how her feet had itched without her knowing properly why! The nightmares grew less terrible on jogging days, and after two weeks she'd timidly asked if she could run the neighborhood around the Aoun house, fearing the answer to be no.
They'd said yes. The nightmares soon faded to mere hazy dreams. Sometimes Kitianna would join her on a round or two before getting to her homework in the afternoon.
Once a week they would all go to the mosque. Like many things about her foster family's life, it was strange in its familiarity. In design, it was not unlike her town's old mosque, though lacking in blast damage from years of conflict. The first surprise came from how new everything was, constructed within the last few years. The second was its size. The mosque in Virginia dwarfed the centuries-old mosque of her memory as it sat within an atypical, boxy square of wall that allowed it to technically face the street while the building had its head towards Mecca, as was proper.
Mr. Aoun had told her this was the largest mosque within a hundred miles or more, and upon seeing the crowds gathered for worship, she could believe him. Hundreds of people in scores of colors and styles, speaking dozens of dialects of Arabic, as well as Turkish, English, and odd tongues she later learned were Indonesian and Somali. Some people who spoke to the crowd were Sunni, others were Shi'a. No one seemed to care as much about that as about the weight of their words. It was much like her father's tales of the time he and Ismal had made the hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, when she was a little girl.
So many people, even in the women's area where she lay her prayer mat alongside Mazia and Kitianna. Packed almost shoulder to shoulder, the fabric of her mat become the extent of her world, with her father's prayer beads dripping like actual tears through her fingers as she held them nervously. The common prayer kept her focused, kept her from panicking from the close quarters each visit, and she breathed a sigh of relief when they departed to have a late lunch.
On occasion, Ms. Chibany would pop in to share a meal with them, and afterward she and Avsel would have a long chat. There was little the girl could not say to the woman, and she would listen. The possibility of school courses over the summer was mentioned from time to time as her English ability improved.
This world, the third she'd lived in this year, was beginning to look up.
The land of Virginia, this part of the strange fantasy that was America, held many strange things which she would never have imagined. A simple walk through the food market building was enough to shock her the first time. Entire sections were devoted to something called bah-bîk-yu involving large amounts of unclean foodstuffs, like a perverse shish kebab.
Not all of it was bad, however. A park not too far from the Aoun residence, at least not by car, was filled with these skinny, slightly gnarled trees with rough bark. She'd not thought much of them on her first jog through, in the colder months, but as the world warmed so too did the hearts within the wood, and one day when Avsel and Katianna were dropped off for a leisurely run, it was to find the park filled with not the green of foliage but a beautiful pink unlike anything she had ever seen.
"The cherry trees are in bloom!" her foster sister cried happily, dashing back and forth around the trees.
A rare smile graced Avsel's lips, quick and fleeting, and then she was off, chasing playfully after the girl as the pink petals fell like pretty snow.
Or ash, after a fire. The thought hit her in mid-stride, a blow to her chest that left her gasping on her knees. The world turned grey as it remembered its past life, the shouts of "Daesh!" and of gun fire surging between her ears.
"Avsel? Avvy?" Kitianna said. "Hey! Are you okay?"
"N-no..." she stuttered in Kurdish, before repeating in a tongue the girl would understand. "It's... I need to sit... not feeling well..." Her fingers grasped at nothingness, trying to find the tears of the unicorn.
But the red round prayer beads were at home. In the park, Kitianna took her hand instead, helping her to stand, helping her to stumble over to a picnic table to have a seat and catch her breath. The girl patted her on the back and would have loosened the head scarf over her hair if Avsel had let her.
"Hey, what're you doin' here?" came a rough question a few minutes later. Avsel's head swam as it went up, and her vision doubled for a moment as her eyes attempted to focus on the speaker.
A man, dressed in rough clothes which back home would have been a laborer's, but which here seemed to be worn with a strange sort of pride. Behind him, similarly dressed men were carrying the tools and ingredients for that strange tradition of bah-bîk-yu.
"Well?" the man demanded. "We reserved this space, so move it!"
"I'm sorry, sir..." Kitianna was saying. "My, ah, my sister here is not feeling well. If you give us a few minutes, we'll be on our way..."
"What's the hold-up?" shouted someone back by the men's car. "Got a load of spare ribs here!"
"A couple of rag-head kids are hogging our table!"
"Then move 'em! These things are heavy!"
The man frowned at Avsel and Kitianna. "You heard him. Time to git."
"But my, my sister here..."
"Yeah, well I don't care. This is our spot. Move!" Grabbing the squealing girl by the sleeve, he pulled her from the picnic bench. "C'mon, you too," he said to Avsel.
She tried to respond, but her own voice was drowned out by the sounds in her head, and never found its way to her mouth. Her legs trembled with a nervous energy that seemed to wish to go in every direction at once, and thus went nowhere. Avsel could not will herself to stand up.
"You deaf?" the man shouted. "Or can't you understand plain English?"
"Maybe she can't," one of his friends jeered. "Look at 'em. I'm amazed the little one even speaks American."
"Or maybe that rag's plugging her ears," joked another.
The table was surrounded by men, a wall of rough clothing and hairy, ugly bodies. She wasn't even seeing them, but rather shadows in their vague silhouette that stretched and pulled until the men of the world-of-now and the Daesh of the world-back-then were one. Somewhere out there she heard Kitianna's protests, or rather her intent to protest. The words themselves failed to do more than circle her ears.
Then one shadow reached out with fat and grasping fingers to pull at her headscarf, and her will found focus. Some things just were not done. A hair's-breadth lay between fabric and finger when the world slowed to a standstill. Avsel reached up, moving the shadowy hand away with ease before pushing its body to the ground.
And the world snapped back into focus, shadows lifted and light restored. At her feet, the rude man in the laborer's clothes lay flat on his back, groaning and clutching at his fist. Everyone else had taken a step away.
"How... how... how the hell did you move like that?" the man grunted.
"Who cares how she did it?" said one of his friends. "Get her before she does it again!"
Their words fell on her ears like pebbles on sand, noted but not worthwhile. Kitianna's sobs of distress as one man held her by the arm, those were far more important. Avsel stepped left, bobbing around a slow-moving fist that floated through the air. Her left foot caught her foster-sister's captor between the legs, and as he began a lazy drift downward, her right foot spun to sweep him to the earth.
She lifted the girl to her shoulders, shrugging to better bear the weight piggy-back, and ran.
There was a fire lit in her heart, ignited by the anger of the moment and yet separate from it. A warm feeling of... approval, as a parent might show to a daughter, as she could remember her own father smiling at her in that lost world of the past. That approval lent speed to her steps.
The world around grew small and slow, the cars on the road past the park becoming little more than lumbering snails of plastic and metal that crept along on their bellies. But Avsel, she was free! Free to run, to race, to feel the wind! Only the weight of Kitianna clinging to her back kept her from chasing the sun as far as it went. Instead, some presence of mind brought her back to the Aoun residence in mere moments.
It wasn't until she stopped at their door that the strangeness of the world melted away, the heat quelled in her chest, and everything felt normal again. Only then did she look back, to see the long trail of hoofprints dug deep into the asphalt, all the way into the distance.
She was not sure where she was now. The hour following her wild run had passed as quickly as she had, and even more to her confusion.
So many people had come straight to Mr. Aoun's door, following those hoofprints. Men with cameras. Men with uniforms and shiny metal badges. Finally, men with dark suits and darker glasses upon their faces. Only those last men got to speak with the man of the house, and he in turn had asked Avsel to go with them. She'd been too tired to say no.
This room was grey. Grey ceiling, grey glass upon grey walls. Grey table and chairs. One bright light, hanging high above, did little to illuminate. Avsel kept her eyes sealed shut, rather than letting the grey worm itself in.
The door behind her opened. The door behind her shut. Her ears followed the click of heeled shoes around the table, but she did not open her eyes until the chair scraped the floor.
Ms. Chibany was seated across from her. A plate of sweetened biscuits and a glass of milk sat on the tabletop. "Hello, Avsel," she said in Kurdish. "Are you hungry?"
"What... what are you doing here?"
"I work here. And I was thinking what a boring day it was, right up to the second I received a call from Daoud."
"Mr. Aoun called you?"
"Of course. We no longer work together, but he has my number just in case of a situation like this."
Avsel shook her head, feeling the looseness of the scarf upon her hair but lacking the energy to care. "I do not understand. You said... you said your organization works with refugees."
"That we do. Among other things. I was out doing those other things when you first turned up at the camp, and they called me in to figure you out. It took me two months to rule out every possibility, every explanation for how you crossed eight hundred kilometers in two days without anyone noticing. Somehow, you'd done it by yourself. That made you doubly interesting to my employers, so they pulled strings to get you here."
Heat welled up in her chest, bringing with it an anger that warmed her voice. "What do you want?" she demanded. "To tell you how I did it? I cannot tell you what I do not remember!"
Ms. Chibany was staring at her with those dark, glimmering eyes of hers. "What I wanted was for you to be safe," she said. "To that end, I told my employers a half-truth, so I could move you somewhere less risky for when another incident occurred and your nature became more apparent."
"My... what does that mean?"
From the woman's purse, a small mirror was retrieved. "See for yourself."
The piece of reflective glass was barely enough to show Avsel her eyes, and at first she could not recognize even them. Where their inner circles had been brown-green in her memory, now they shone like burnished gold. Only the timing of surprised blinks connected what she saw with what she could feel for herself.
"I... I... It is true, then," she said with a sob. "The old women were right. I am accursed, the jinn's child..." The mirror fell from her fingers.
Ms. Chibany caught it adroitly before it could reach the tabletop. "And this is why I wanted you out of there," the woman said. "To get you away from the poisoned tongues. All those old bitches can do is growl, but they make you feel the bite from the sound alone."
Avsel's heart was pounding, and in time with it her forehead pulsed with a dull ache. She could tell that her scarf was askew, but when she found the strength to tug it back into place, it met unexpected resistance. Her fingers sought the cause, not expecting the answer.
A nub was forming on her skull, a sharply raised bump where the front crest of her hair met the forehed. "What...?" she gasped.
"Another mystery," said Ms. Chibany, "undoubtedly connected to the greater one I have been working to solve. And to do so, I shall have to see what happened for myself." At the girl's look of surprise and confusion, she took Avsel's hands in her own and squeezed gently. "Please. There is something I can do that might help, but I need your consent before I do. Know that I would never try anything I thought harmful, and if you say it is over, then it is. Do I have your permission?"
"Y-yes..." Avsel still did not understand, but she needed an answer.
"Good." Ms. Chibany traced her fingers across Avsel's face, to rest lightly on the temples. And then the world faded to darkness.
Her father was mistaken. The world-of-the-then was not fleeting. It did not simply die to make room for the world-of-now, but rather lingered, making its home in the memory and refusing to budge. The air of her memory was filed with the pall of smoke, while her ears buzzed from the sound of bullets behind her.
And then it ceased to be a memory. There were shouts, cries from wicked throats announcing that the Daesh had spotted her as she ran through the fields. Bullets rained down around her, sending drifts of dirt into the air. The men were not trying to aim, laughing as they made sport with her.
Before her eyes lay the sunset, that diligent eye of Allah's own making which stared at her as she chased after it. The Daesh were at her back, racing to see who could catch her first, and she had heard so many tales of what they did to women... But she did not think about that, or about them. Her focus was on the sun, on running to find its safe haven beyond the horizon.
The dumiu al-karkadann, the tears of the unicorn, wrapped themselves so tight around her fingers that they cut, and her legs screamed awful things in the language of fatigue and pain, but she could not let herself stop. Could not even stop to think. Chase the sun, chase the sun...
It was not enough. Avsel fell through a thicket of thorn bushes, the prickles tearing at clothes and skin. A triumphant shout arose from her pursuers.
She did not hear them.
Before her, a little pool rippled in the breeze, a natural spring bubbling through the cracked rocks and hidden by the scrub, where animals might come to drink. Only one beast was there, and it demanded all the attention the world had to offer.
A horse, and yet not. Tall and powerful, with pillars for legs and wild hair along its head, its hooves, and its chin. Muscles that moved like a landslide beneath plated armor skin. Eyes that burned as coals surrounded by braziers of gold. A long, twisted horn that shone as a torch.
The beast raised its head to look at her, and tears fell from its burning eyes, landing on the dirt as rounded red pebbles -- a match to her father's prayer beads. "Child of Âdam and of Hawa, from what dost thou flee?"
"From nothing," she said, or thought she said. "I run towards the sun, towards safety."
"Daughter of Hawa, wouldst thou run with me?"
The world was burning to dust behind her. The world before her was ablaze with hope. "Yes," she replied.
"Okay, let's pause a moment here." With a most peculiar, stretchy sensation, the world of her memory halted. Avsel still stood there by the little pool surrounded by thorns, but she did so as her self-of-the-now, in the grey room of Virginia, rather than the self-of-her-memory.
Ms. Chibany was there as well, tall and dark of hair and eye. Instead of her business suit, she wore an odd costume that fit her in unseemly ways while still retaining the appearance of armor. One elegant finger was pointed at the figure of the beast. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"Well might I ask the same of thee," came the reply.
"I am here by permission to discover truth. Can you say as much?"
A loud snort, angry and horselike, escaped those nostrils. "I am here because this maiden said yes, because it is in her soul to run, and I would fain allow her to come to the end fate seemed ready to bestow upon her. I am the Sunset Wind!" he brayed. "I am the Courier of the Desert Sands, Knight of the Court of Fire, known in this day and age as al-Karkadann! And who art thou?"
"You may call me Sahar Chibany."
"Sahar, the moment before the dawn when the crescent moon glows. A beautiful name to be called, but that is not who thou art. Speak!" The command rumbled the heavens and earth.
"I was born Semiramis, daughter of Mahmuna!"
Another snort, more appreciative. "A queen's name, and thou fittest it well, being born of one auspicious and blessed. But is that who thou art?"
Ms. Chibany's face was as cold as the Karkadann's was hot, and her words brought a chill across the air. "I was once called the cursed child, the daughter of the jinn, a tool for others to use. Now I am al-Nazar, the charm that wards against evil, and though I may work for others, no tool shall I be. Does that please your lordship?" she asked bitingly.
The Karkadann approached the woman, his true immensity becoming apparent when he had to lower his head a great deal simply to inhale sharply in the area of the woman's face. A final snort sent her dark hair streaming. "Thou art honest in thine own way," came the final judgment. "But however sincere thine intent may be, I doubt thine ability to care for my chosen child."
"As any good father might," Ms. Chibany, al-Nazar, agreed.
"And those to whom thou dost report, I trust not at all."
The woman shrugged. "I would not blame you for that, either. They will, at least, be upfront about certain things, especially in regard to what they can do for you, and what you might do for them. When it comes to other things, Avsel herself shall need to learn to handle them. What I can tell you," she said, looking the Karkadann in one lantern-eye, "is that Avsel is in a difficult situation now. However justifiable, the fact remains that she laid hands on a man in an obvious display of power, and there are many who would see her punished regardless of circumstance. Right now, my employers are willing to place her in a school where she can learn to be of use to them, and where she will be safe from reprisals."
"And wouldst thou recommend this school?"
Dark eyes flashed. "It is where I myself was sent, under not dissimilar circumstances. It was the place which taught me how to be more than someone else's tool. Is that enough?"
"Well, chosen daughter?" the Karkadann said, turning to where Avsel still stood rooted in the dust. "What sayest thou?"
"I..." Her voice caught, as memories vied for attention. "Miss... Ms. Chibany is the first person I felt I could trust, after the worst of all worlds came to pass. I can only trust her now. I... we need a place to learn, to decide which direction our world will go."
"Then so be it," said the Karkadann. Rearing high on his hind legs, he brought his front hooves down with a stamp that shook the firmament and cracked the world. Everything faded to grey.
With a start, Avsel realized she was still seated at the table in the grey room. Ms. Chibany's -- al-Nazar's -- hands were now sliding away from her temples, and the woman's face showed more surprise now than it had in the memory world.
"So..." the woman said after a moment's pause. "Shall we talk about schooling?"
Avsel reached to pluck a sweetened biscuit from the plate. It crunched well between her teeth. "Yes, please," she replied.
Rachel was there when Honey Boo-Boo died. That wasn't the real name of the deceased, of course. According to the official placard, she was Mellivora capensis, the cape ratel, or honey badger, but Rachel always preferred the nickname she'd bestowed upon the feisty animal. Honey Boo-Boo's enclosure was always the first stop on any trip to the Rosevear Memorial Zoo in Terre Haute, and her family's lifetime membership pass ensured that she could visit frequently. Whenever the zoo took suggestions for ways to improve, fortify, or otherwise maintain the enclosure to keep up with its occupant's creatively destructive tendencies, she was the first to write in, and some of her ideas could be seen even now in the shape of toys and fixtures scattered throughout.
The Rosevear Memorial Zoo was one of only five establishments in the country with a ratel, in part because they were so hard to keep inside their enclosures. The cat-sized weasel cousins were notoriously good at digging, and equally tricky when it came to using the items they found to facilitate escapes. Suggesting new diversions was a game for the eighth-grader, and she liked to think that Honey Boo-Boo appreciated the attention.
It was the last day of spring break, and every day that week Honey Boo-Boo had patrolled her territory, wandering around with that deceptively nonchalant strut of hers, only to look up and see the same speckle-faced hominid with the curly hair and the false mask around her eyes. The old ratel glared at those light brown eyes, waddled off to her shady spot, and settled down for one final rest.
Honey Boo-Boo died that day. Rachel kept on going.
Skipping ahead two months and more, and now it was Rachel under observation, a specimen held in the unnatural habitat known as the principal's waiting room. This particular example of that rarefied biome included a window through which the head of the school could keep tabs on his charges. There was plenty to note today. The mousy young woman he'd come to know over the years had vanished, sublimated into something new, and he'd yet to figure out what. To outward appearances, Rachel Altus was largely the same: curly brown hair and glasses, standard girls' uniform for Three Oaks Charter School, simple sneakers in accordance with the dress code. It was the small details that told more. Her skirt was now regularly hitched up to well above the knees, and her blouse was criss-crossed with stitches. The girl wore them proudly, like battle scars, and she sported a bandage across the bridge of her nose with matching tape to hold her glasses together.
Mr. Badou, principal of Three Oaks Charter, turned away from the window's view. The girl's mother was seated by his desk with a face that carefully straddled the line between disdain and displeasure. The principal schooled his thoughts, then began with the careful, measured words one used when speaking to a long-time acquaintance and daughter of the school's chairman of the board of directors.
"I'm sorry to have to call you in like this."
Mrs. Altus only raised an eyebrow to that. Tall, elegant, with the sort of blonde hair that came out of a very expensive bottle, she and her daughter did not seem to have much in common at first glance. It was there in the eyes, though, a predatory focus that the younger Altus had acquired in the last few months.
He picked up Rachel's file. It had doubled in thickness in that same amount of time. The first half covered kindergarten through the majority of eighth grade. Mrs. Altus accepted the dossier and skimmed through the later pages.
"I've heard most of this from Rachel," she stated. "Never started a single fight, never threw the first punch, and usually defending a younger student."
"All of which is true," Mr. Badou admitted. "And you also recall this school's stance vis-à-vis fighting. I like to think Three Oaks is not as reactionary as some institutions, but we have had student mediation, counseling with your consent, and currently five hours of detention a week. At any other school, she would have been expelled at the third offense." And if she weren't someone's granddaughter, he left unsaid, she would not have lasted much longer than that here, either.
"This last fight, however..." He waited for her to open to the appropriate page. "If we hadn't caught the entire thing on security video, with the young men blatantly stalking and ganging up on her, we'd be looking at criminal charges for Rachel. Five students hospitalized, and Sullivan Bullock will have a limp for the rest of his life, most likely."
There was a softening to the woman's glacial exterior, the only sign of how worried she was. "What now?" she asked.
"Finals are in two weeks. I have pulled what strings I could, and Rachel will be allowed to finish the school year, but only through in-house suspension. She will take her classes separately, working from textbooks and study sheets, and then she shall take her tests the same way. After that..." He let out a slow breath. "We must insist that you and Mr. Altus find alternative schooling for her."
Mrs. Altus had her lips pursed so tight that her mouth might have been painted on. He waited for her to something more, to object or to argue, but she only nodded, returned the file to his desk, and saw her way out.
"Tell me, Rachel," Mother asked as she belted into the passenger seat of the electric blue Lexus. "Why now? Why choose now to enter a rebellious phase? Your father and I expected a few problems when you reached your teens, but this..." Mother's hands flew up in the air, trying in vain to make a shape to encompass the confusion she felt. "What is going on?"
Now it was Rachel's turn to be confused because the roil of emotions in her heart failed to give her a solid reason, either. All she had were feelings, and when the feelings ran hot, then it all seemed to click together. They rode on in stiff silence for several minutes before she could form an answer.
"It's..." she began, stumbling over the words. "It's the same every year. Same bullies, same victims, always kept quiet and outta the way. I used to be able to look the other way, y'know? Ignore it and pretend it's not happening. I can't, not anymore."
"But it's causing so much trouble..."
"So? If there's gonna be trouble, let it be out in the open for all to see." Rachel pushed up the bandaged bridge of her glasses with an equally battered finger. "Open and honest, down and dirty. That was Honey Boo-Boo's way."
"Honey Boo-Boo is dead, Rachel honey."
"I know, Mother. But I like to think that she's still with me in here." She didn't wince as she tapped her chest right over the heart, even though the bruises were still pretty fresh there. "She was strong, fearless. Honey Boo-Boo didn't give a shit, so why should I?"
"Language, Rachel honey."
"Don't. Give. A. Shit."
The Lexus showed exactly how fast it could go from forty-five to a dead stop in that instant. Tires squealed, horns blared, and angry shouting could be heard to their rear.
"Rachel!" Mother's voice had lost its icy reserve, words whipping strong and heated from her lips. "What in God's name is going on here? You're beating up boys twice your size, three times a week! You have bruises all over, but you aren't slowing down in the least! Where the hell is this coming from?" She didn't quite shriek at the end of that, but Rachel could tell she was holding it in. "Where did you learn to fight?"
"It's not something I learned!" she shouted back. "It's what I do! It's what I am, Mother! I see some jerks beating on a helpless kid, and I can't not do something about it!"
"With your fists?"
"It's worked so far!"
"Dammit, I need a drink." Mother shook her head and muttered. "No, no. I'm not going to fall off the wagon over this one."
"...yes." Mother put the car into gear and drove in silence for a short while before coming to a stop near Bulletin Plaza. The shopping center was so new that it still had a bit of shine to the tile walls. Only the Dillard's at the west end and the bank at the east showed signs of age, being the old standbys chosen to anchor the mercantile reef.
The standard deal was that whenever Mother openly voiced a desire to drink, she was to instead fill the void with ice cream, and Bulletin Plaza held the nearest ice cream parlor. Rachel's own sweet tooth was satisfied on a regular basis. It wasn't the healthiest of trade-offs, but they both agreed it would kill them less quickly than the alternative.
"Mmm... just what the doctor ordered," Mother said, spooning a combination of rum raisin and cherry amaretto into her mouth. It was the closest she would allow herself to either liqueur.
"Yes, Rachel honey." Mother's composure sucked the chill out of the dessert, transferring it into the emotional mask she usually presented to the world. It never fooled her daughter, who dug into her own oversized sundae with gusto.
"Where do you put it all?" Mother wondered.
They were sitting in the open strip that ran the length of the plaza between the bank and the department store. There was a ceiling, but it was all glass, clear and bright in the sun. Rachel liked to stare up at the sky through it and imagine shapes out of the clouds.
Funny, the clouds were a little green today, and on the wrong side...
Rachel woke up with a grunt and a snort, snapping back so fast that she almost fell out of her chair. Ice cream dripped from where her face had landed in her sundae. Across from her, Mother's perfect hairdo was sopping up the last of the rum raisin. Looking around, she could see dozens of other people crumpled against tabletops or collapsed upon the walkways. Before she could even think the question "What's going on?" she got an answer from the east: alarm bells. The old savings & loan was sporting a new hole, like a post-industrial art project gone wrong. Wispy trails of green fog curled around its edges.
She took a couple of wobbly steps, but whatever was in the air, her body shook it off fast. In a moment, she was peeking through that artfully deconstructed bank facade, palms itching with curiosity and excitement.
There were another dozen or three bodies inside, but only two were standing upright. One was tall and thin, wearing a long trench coat tied tight around, and an Indiana Jones hat on top. When he moved his head, she could see the gas mask. The other was taller and bulkier, close to eight feet tall and a bit more than half that in width. She blinked the last of the gas out of her eyes for a moment before that second figure resolved itself into a clay caricature of a football player, with bulging muscles that sloughed little clouds of red dust as he moved.
Mr. Tall & Skinny strolled around like he owned the place. Dusty was busy smashing his way into a vault door. The dull bum-bum-bum of his fists cut through the shrill alarms like a shot of Novocaine. Dusty had the jitters, it looked like, as every third punch hit at a bad angle, and occasional clouds of cusswords drifted up to join the general miasma.
"Take it easy," Tall & Skinny was saying. "The local cops have lousy response times, and the nearest cape is currently tied up with some mad science project on the east side. We got minutes to spare."
"What about them?" Red dust shook in the general direction of the bank security officers, now crumpled in a heap on the floor. Dusty's voice didn't fit the body at all, and it cracked on the question mark. He couldn't be much older than her, Rachel realized.
"I told ya, Knock Out #6 is rated at half an hour at least on baselines. We'll be long gone 'fore then. Take your time, save your wrists a bit of pain, and we'll have time to spare."
Oh, this was too awesome... The thought passed through Rachel's head in one brief flash, and she never stopped to wonder at how odd a thought it was. Normal girls did not go looking for fights, much less enjoy them. But her palms were itching, her fingers curling into tight little fists of fury, and there was only one thing she had on her mind: these guys were criminals. More than that, they had some sort of powers. She wouldn't need to worry about something breaking or somebody getting hurt. There was no need to hold herself back anymore.
Tall & Skinny turned just in time to see a dainty fist slam into his mask. Dude was tougher than he looked, though; he tumbled to the ground and rolled back up on his feet a second later.
Rachel's grin went feral, the corners of her mouth sharp enough to stab with. This was going to be fun.
The tall, skinny man was named Leonard Schmaltz, though he preferred to be known to the world at large as the Mad Gasser. Out of costume, there was nothing at all special about him. Average in most every way that counted, he hadn't even realized he possessed a low level mutation until he was almost thirty. It was a simple enough power, as easily overlooked as he was: sturdiness. Like Bruce Willis in that one movie, he'd never really thought about it much. The fact that he never got sick, scraped his knees, or broke a bone wasn't so special. It certainly wasn't enough to base a career in villainy on.
His pure, undying hatred of his boss, his coworkers, his banker, that rude barista at the Pequod Cafe, and just about everyone else who he thought was keeping him down? That was different. One town over, there was a therapist who would hopefully never realize how much damage her little pep talks about "taking control of life" and "showing them who's boss" had actually caused.
So while the Mad Gasser often went down with one hit, he rarely stayed down. He fixed his mask back into place, more for appearance's sake than anything else. His powers made him resistant or immune to every type of gas he'd bought from the Cuckoo Channel's grey market, but it never hurt to let opponents think otherwise. He turned to face this new hero...
Oy, they were getting younger every year, weren't they? The girl in front of him was wearing a school uniform, for crying out loud! Plaid skirt, white blouse, knee-high socks, and a taped up pair of glasses completed the image of the unlikely heroine. How'd someone like her get past the gas? He felt his jaw pop back into place. Girly hit like a sumbitch, though.
"Keep at the door," he called back to the kid, Groundpounder. Nice boy, too young for the biz most likely, but he had a chip on his shoulder the size of Pike's Peak. The job required muscle and a decent punch, which the kid could provide, if nothing else.
"Okay, girly," he said to the grade-schooler. Through the mask's vocorder, his voice was deep and gravelly. "Make this easy on yourself and give up. No matter how hard you hit me, won't make any difference. I'm just that tough."
Wait, she wasn't supposed to get excited about that. There was something odd with her eyes, something bright and fierce shining in there that cast long shadows. A natural mask darkened her face, while her hair went white in contrast, and all that was clearly visible were those eyes and that manic grin.
He wasn't so sure of himself, all of a sudden.
Letting go. No holds barred. Rachel had dreamed of this -- literal dreams where she fought all the monsters that had plagued her nightmares prior to a few months back. There was a visceral thrill to the feel of fist on face, followed by a knee to the belly, an elbow to the back of the head, and finally one size 7 shoe planted in the small of Tall & Skinny's back.
And then the dude pushed her off and blasted green gas in her face. For a second, she was light-headed, but this had to be the same thing he'd used on everyone before. Her body knew this stuff now, and she laughed at his surprise when she failed to collapse as expected.
"So what's behind the mask, huh?" She dashed straight at the gas man, side-stepping a clumsy punch. Grabbing his arm, she pulled him off balance before delivering one sharp jab into his armpit.
-POP!- goes the weasel's shoulder!
Dude was tough, but he wasn't Superman or anything. She kicked out his left knee from behind, feeling the sick crunch more than she heard it. So far, she hadn't been able to break anything, technically. There was no problem when it came to dislocating the moving parts, though.
"Hey! Stop that!" Dusty's voice cracked, and there was something familiar when it went up high like that. Where'd she heard it before...
"Claude, is that you?"
"What?" That stopped Dusty-- Claude in his tracks. Now that she could see him up close, it was obvious he was wearing some kind of suit made of dirt and loose gravel. The real kid had to be in there somewhere. Her fingers itched.
"Er, no!" Claude recovered with all the grace of a teenage male. "I don't know what you're talking about Ra... er, stupid girl!"
So that was how he was going to play it, eh? She could feel the excitement shiver down her spine, and from there into her muscles and nerves. Stitches in her blouse and skirt began to pop as she flexed muscles bigger than she'd ever dared. One fist met the opposite palm with a satisfied smack.
"Let's get this party started."
Claude Rousse wasn't one for using the brains God gave him. That was what had helped along his drop out of the Three Oaks Charter School last year, and it was a tendency that continued to fail to help him as he'd discovered his mutant power over loose earth and stones. A few fights around town had been enough to get him a rep, and the Mad Gasser was a good boss so far.
Only now, the boss man was on the ground, moaning in pain, and mousy little Rachel Altus -- Rach, of all people! -- was busy trying to punch holes in him. He swatted at her with a clumsy arm, but failed to connect. When had she gotten so fast, so... vicious? When he finally got a hit in, Rachel went flying across the room. She hit the ground with a wince-inducing thud.
Then she got up.
"You're a tough nut, aint'cha, Claude?"
"Don't call me that!" How had she known it was him? Not even the Mad Gasser knew his real identity. He was going to have to beat her bad, he realized. That was the only way to keep her from squealing. It was the second worst realization of his young life. It was followed by the single worst realization: that he might not be able to stop her. That she might actually be too much for him.
"What's taking you so long?" she was jeering at him. Her sleeves had ripped, and muscle showed underneath.
"You... you're gonna be in so much pain when I'm done with you!" God, his voice was cracking again. That was so embarrassing.
"I am? Nuh-uh. Y'ain't figured it out yet, but I'm the honey badger here, and you're the termite mound."
"What?" She wasn't giving him time to ponder that one. Instead, she closed the distance in three bounding steps, and proceeded to rip into him with... claws? There was a strange shimmer that fit her hands like a glove, but cut through his gravelly armor like a knife through butter.
He tried to fight back, tried to hit her off, but she clambered across his torso like a squirrel, keeping herself close in so his arms couldn't reach so well. Wherever her fingers dug in, they removed a huge chunk of dirt and stone. Then she discovered that his suit's legs below the knee were completely formed of gravel.
The left leg buckled beneath him, and then the right. Like an avalanche in miniature, he collapsed backwards onto the bank floor. Crazy Rachel was straddling the midsection, clawing and tearing at his protection until there was none left.
"Y'know what, Claude?" spoke that terrible grin. "Honey badger don't give a shit, and neither do I."
The last thing he saw was that black-masked face slamming straight into his. After that, it was all stars and darkness.
"Please, could you explain that again?" Mrs. Altus was asking, much later at the police station. "You think my daughter is a what?"
"An Avatar," said the man in the cerulean and teal costume. Blue Blaze was a former police officer, and as such tended to liaise with law enforcement on behalf of the local hero collective. There were times he regretted that distinction.
"And that's supposed to be some sort of mutant, is it?"
"Yes, ma'am. Avatars act as hosts for various spectral entities, sheltering them in return for powers. Your daughter is claiming a spiritual link to an animal called a honey badger." He'd needed to look that one up online, specifically the hilarious YouTube video the girl had recommended, but he kept mum on that.
"Honey Boo-Boo..." Mrs. Altus sighed.
"Beg your pardon?"
"That's what she called the honey badger at the Rosevear Zoo," the woman explained. "It died a few months ago, and she was there when it happened."
It was his turn to groan. "That place. Your daughter would be the eighth person to receive a spirit from there in the past ten years, then. Sometimes I wish the Animagus had never bequeathed it to the city after he died."
"What's going to happen to my daughter?"
"Legally? A slap on the wrist for unlicensed heroics and vigilantism. The cops don't like tangling with the Gasser too much, so they were pretty happy to arrive to find him wrapped in duct tape. No one's complaining there, but she can't do it again."
"That may be a problem," the girl's mother said. "She can't seem to avoid fights. Her school has all but expelled her already, and I honestly do not know what we're going to do with her."
Right there was an opening if he ever did see one. And he'd thought it would be hard to introduce this part, hah! "Mrs. Altus, let me tell you about this school back east..."
"No, no, no, not Clod," Rachel was correcting the officer taking her statement. "Claude. C-L-A-U-D-E. He was in my class at Three Oaks last year, but flunked out. Don't think he's gotten any smarter since then, either," she confided.
"Gotcha." Officer Park was enjoying this, she thought.
"Can I see him? I wanted to apologize for head-butting him into next Tuesday. Sorta got carried away."
"Well, he came to a little while ago," said Park, "but right now he's giving testimony against his boss. All it took was a little persuasion, and he started singing like a bird."
"How'd you persuade him?"
"Threatened to bring you in to talk with him." The officer winked. "You left an impression on more than just his forehead."
"So what'll happen to him?" She hoped he wouldn't get sent to a supervillain jail. That seemed too much for a kid to handle.
"That's what we've been talking about," came a voice from outside the room. Blue Blaze strode in with Mother in tow. Officer Park said his goodbyes and left them to sort things out. "Your old classmate will have an involuntary enrollment in a juvenile detention program at a special school back east. The next question is, would you like to go with him?"
"What do you mean?" she asked nervously. Was she actually in trouble for all that stuff at the bank after all?
"Honey, there's a school in New Hampshire that helps young people with powers," her mother explained. "Claude doesn't have a choice about attending, but you do. It would be awfully far, but..."
But she needed to find a new school anyway. Rachel nodded. "What if I get kicked out for fighting too much, though?"
"Actually," said Blue Blaze. "They have a combat curriculum as well, and I've been told that the faculty organizes opportunities for both one-on-one and group fights."
Mother looked surprised to hear that, but Rachel grinned her broadest, toothiest grin ever.
"Where do I sign?"