The saying is, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. In the past year, I've been given enough lemons to start my own lemonade franchise; I could put minute maid out of business. Even now, here I was, bundled up in a gray hoodie that could double as a sleeping bag, burning up from the heat of it.
Yet I dared not take it off. If I did, someone might see. Or even worse, someone might see and recognize me. I was sort of famous, in much the same way that Hitler or the Menendez brothers were famous. Another good saying came to mind: “There is no such thing as bad publicity.”
That one is a lie. Publicity can be very bad. Waiting in a security line at an airport looking like a highly suspicious person was actually sort of preferable to being recognized. Perhaps if I was lucky I'd only have to show myself to security and the MCO, and could avoid the inevitable for once.
I really hoped so.
The line was so long, though, much like others along the way (who were incidentally giving me a wide berth, something I didn't find offensive in the least) I resorted to one of the worst mental exercises any member of humanity could engage in; the what if.
What if three months ago I'd done the right thing?
My mind starting laying out recent history, the better to determine where I could have halted the train wreck....
The start of a new school year; I put my new freshman textbooks in my locker and started threading the sea of hormonal humanity. More than a few of the girls took... liberties. A lingering hand here or there for just a bit too long, mostly. Nothing a true gentleman would mention, at any rate.
There was the one I wanted to see. Jamie Howe. Hair the color of spun gold, eyes plucked from the depths of an aquamarine sea, and a body a mannequin might envy.
Her eyes never wavered from me as she strode up, threading the crowd herself like a pro.
“Boring first day, right? Can hardly wait to see how silly High school is going to be compared to middle school.”
“Well it won't be any harder, that's for sure. Seen the chemistry book yet? The first half is crap we already know.”
She mock groaned, then grabbed my arm.
“Come on, let's get out of here, I don't want stay in here any more than I need to; each minute carries the risk of becoming stupider.”
I had to laugh.
“Jamie, stupider isn't a word.”
She widened those wonderful eyes, then grinned and dragged me into a run.
“Oh crap, it's already starting! Come on!”
We hit the sunlight and she made a show of taking in a great breath, which did wonderful things for her chest. I noticed, and she pretended to not notice me noticing though the grin gave it away. The little minx. I decided now was the time.
“So, you doing anything fun tonight?”
“Nah, my parents are both home awaiting my glorious return with baited breath.”
That wasn't much of an exaggeration; I had known Jamie and her family for years now, and they spoiled her rotten. They were also very protective, which made my next step a risk. If I played this wrong I was destroying our friendship for nothing.
“Then how about we go see a movie? You pick.”
Normally I picked. Jamie was the romantic comedy type. No getting around it, even a dream girl could have flaws. She stared up at me (I'd grown a bit taller than she had over the summer).
“Why Lucas Del Bosque, some people might think that you were asking me out on a date. A date date, here in public and everything.”
Normally I'd deny the accusation and we'd continue as normal, do our thing, have fun and go home. Not today.
“Why Jamie Howe, I do believe I am.”
She stopped. Just stopped in her tracks so suddenly I'd feared she was having some sort of health problem. Then she turned to me woodenly, with jerky spastic movements. I knew it! I'd blown it, and she was going to turn me down. Tell me (like she had told everyone else) in no uncertain terms, to go away.
“You mean it?”
What? Not trusting words, I nodded.
“You really mean it? You and me on a real date?”
I nodded again, finding words now that I wasn't facing outright rejection.
“Yes, a movie followed by dinner and everything.”
Monty's was the little Italian place that Jamie loved eating at. She only got to go there once a year... on her birthday. Me, I preferred Greek. Now, I'd never put much stock in all those things I heard from other guys about the crazy things girls could do, and Jamie was one of the most down to earth people I knew. But she actually squealed in delight.
Slapping her hands over her mouth as her face reddened to beet levels, she looked around. So did I. The usual school crowd had gone silent and gathered around us like grade schoolers for a bully fight.
“OK gotta go get ready see you at the theater bye!”
It took me a second to decipher what she blurted out, during which time she was already gone.
Eric Wate, a large guy who I knew from gym walked up to me while I was a still a bit starstruck and clapped me on the shoulder.
“I think I speak for all of us guys when I say. Congratulations, you lucky bastard. You're the first one of us she hasn't shot down. That and can you share some of that luck with the rest of us?”
I looked up into his grin.
“It's just prayer and clean living Eric. Anyone can do it.”
He rolled his eyes.
“It's that hot Spanish look you have going for you man, all the girls here pine for you. Should have known Jamie did too, but you guys looked too firmly in the friend zone for anything like this to happen.”
“Well, surprised me. And cheer up Eric, there's always plastic surgery. I hear they can do wonders with that these days. Got to go, see you later.”
His smile answered mine as I waved. He knew I was just kidding, a mild relief. My motto was 'make love, not war'. Not that I'd done it yet, but there was always hope. Now I had to hurry home myself; I'd meant to just take Jamie directly to the movie and restaurant.
But she had to 'get ready' first. I didn't understand it; I'd already seen her a million times before; at her best and at her worst. So why bother even changing clothes?
I caught a ghost of a smile on my face as the line moved, and I turned off memory lane. The good times... right before my world turned to a steaming pile of dog doo doo.
Now that I was a bit closer, I could see the hard looks the customs agents were giving me. The MCO agent was trying to peer under the hood, and the airport police looked nervous. It was beginning to look like they would simply pull me out of line, something I both half-dreaded and half-desired. At least it would expedite things.
The line moved again as an old grandma went through, only slightly furious as security had rifled her purse twice, and only spilled it once. A businessman was up next, perhaps a salesman in a slightly ill fitting gray suit. I let my mind drift again. If they pulled me out of line, then it happened.
Mom was waiting for me as I stepped into the door, shutting out the gloriously wonderful afternoon in favor of darkened inner spaces yet again (though at least this time, it wasn't the children's prison that school was). She was reading a magazine of some sort.
“So how was the first day?”
I snagged an apple as I answered.
“Even more boring than school normally is. The assembly was an hour of how we were adults now, and had to act like it, and the classes only covered the syllabus.”
I waited till she started to drink her tea.
“Oh, and I asked Jamie out.”
She spit it everywhere! Perfect. And the look she gave me was priceless. I threw her a hand towel with a smile.
“And what did she say?”
“She said yes, I'll be meeting her in about 30 minutes. That is, assuming you don't have anything for me to do?”
She waved me off with a smile. In her early forties, Estrella Del Bosque was still beautiful (or as beautiful as any mom could be). Yellow-tan skin a shade darker than my own belied her Spanish heritage, and dark brown hair in a short cut framing her face. Her nails were manicured, her figure was trim, and her manners were polished.
She worked as a freelance public relations agent. Which meant sometimes she was home far too much. I hadn't expected her home today.
“Then you better get ready. You can't wear that if she's changing, and you'd better not disappoint her.”
I hurried up, taking the stairs two at a time, and burst into my room. What mom said, went. And while I had only wanted to drop my new books off, I would be a fool to argue with the woman who clothed and fed me. Not to mention paid me money to do things around the house, the next best thing I could do to earn money since summer had officially ended and I wasn't yet 16.
A dark red polo shirt and brand new jeans and I was back downstairs, apple back in hand (or mouth, more appropriately). Mom put her magazine down (some news magazine shipped from Spain; she liked to keep up with news from her homeland.) and made a twirling motion with a hand.
So I spun.
“Perfect; the mix of youthful lack of interest and importance to occasion. Have fun, and be back by 10.”
I waved on my way out.
“Sure thing, and of course it's right! I learned from a master after all!”
My mom had been teaching me the many ways to impress since dad left, after they immigrated. I was four. They didn't really keep in touch, but dad sent a Christmas card every year, and a birthday card to me every year. Sometimes it even arrived on the right day. Last I heard he was an accountant back in Spain.
I didn't know why he left, though the hints I'd had were that he preferred Spain to America. I'd never been to Spain, so I couldn't comment on it. At any rate, the first way to impress was to dress according to all those little, unwritten and seemingly arbitrary rules balancing popular culture and sanity.
The second was speech. My English was a bit better than hers and I could switch to proper English at any time... but my mom had other weapons. I'd learned Spanish, Greek, and Italian on her knee. I suspected she knew French and German as well.
Why she wasn't getting the big bucks as a U.N. translator I didn't know. I asked once, and she said if she was she wouldn't be able to live here. Here was, of course, Palo Madera California. A small suburb of Redding set into the forest, with Lassen National Forest just to the east.
The Redding area had a population of 91,000 and was pretty much the biggest town in the area, nestled between forests and National parks. (Shasta Trinity National Park was on the other side of Redding.) I had to admit it was beautiful country. Nice and running that balance between too small to be fun and too big to be safe, and busy versus isolated.
Maybe Spain didn't have anything as majestic. I didn't know and mom wouldn't say. I found it hard to believe though.
The local theater was a Cinemark branch which was odd in that it wasn't placed inside a mall or other such structure. It was just an old movie theater from the 60's or 70's, bought out by a big box company and refurbished into three small theater rooms with a big box, one size fits all feel. It made an interesting dichotomy, much like the area we lived in.
Jamie was not waiting for me, of course. I was five minutes early, and she would be five minutes late. Or more. The dating rules were very specific.
Just as I was doubting the option of setting my watch by her (or phone, who uses watches in 2015?) she arrived.
She had done something, without a doubt. Also in a different pair of jeans that were tighter than her usual, a light pink top that was covered in ruffles and bared her midriff, she was looking simply amazing. She had done something to her face; there had to be makeup there, but I couldn't really see it. What I couldn't see however, made her look like a movie star... or one of those, the almost disgustingly gorgeous heroes they sell posters of.
It took a few tries to get the word out through my suddenly desert sand dry mouth. It was mildly comforting that her response seemed to take a few tries too, and for the same reason.
“Hey. So, what movie are we going to watch?”
“Not sure. Let's find out.”
I pretended not to notice the twitch in her cheek. So it was spur of the moment? Why would she be mad about that? I mean, it still counted as a date, right?
It turned out the only new movie in the theater (i.e. the only one we hadn't seen) was the new Jurassic park movie. I looked at her and shrugged. She looked at me and shrugged. We looked at the pimply faced gangly eighteen year old manning the theater and shrugged together. He rang us up and gave us our tickets. Of course, I paid.
I even did something that I almost never do at any movie anymore. I paid for a large tub of popcorn and two drinks. Which somehow cost as much as our dinner after the movie would be. But Jamie had a fondness for actual movie theater popcorn, too much salt and all. So it was mostly for her.
The movie started, after a good twenty minutes of ads and coming attractions. I didn't even bother disguising the whole “put my arm around the girl” move. A move I had considered using on Jamie before but never had the courage to complete. She didn't clock me for it.
She did, in fact snuggle a bit closer, which gave me a whiff of a rather light but heady scent I'd never smelled before. New perfume to go with the new make-up and clothes, no doubt.
The movie was simply another Jurassic Park movie. I must admit I wasn't giving it my full attention, but if you've seen cgi and animatronic dinosaurs kill one group of people, you really have seen all the movies of the type. Same movie, flashier special effects. The sort of movie you only remember when it's your first date.
I could wish it to be something more intellectually stimulating, but it is what it is. Finally having eyes for other people, I looked around. There were only a few people here, the movie had been running for a month already, and most of the people who wanted to see it already had. There were a few classmates I recognized, however.
Amy Milsner and Daniel Lorenzo, notably.
Amy and David were our resident golden couple. In middle school he was the basketball player with the golden 3-point shot, and she was the queen bee cheerleader. They both seemed well on their way to continuing the trend in high school. Amy had tried out for the cheer squad (such as it was) today, the very first day of school. David had had the school coach at his locker before he even put his first period books away in it.
Rumor had it that he might see scouts this year; talent scouts were beginning to rob the cradle in order to get to impressionable minds first. Luckily I didn't have to deal with that; there were no crazy scholastic quiz groups looking to recruit me for extreme spelling or trivia answering or whatever.
And while Jamie might take up track, chances were she wouldn't join the cheer squad. She hated Amy with a passion. I wasn't sure why; Jamie never said. I asked once after a particularly bad cat fight the two had, and she just hissed curses and ignored me.
I don't think I'd ever understand girls. If two guys have problems they can't talk out, we'd just beat on each other until we couldn't anymore. Then shake hands and walk away, agreeing to disagree. Girls didn't do that. I wasn't too sure I wanted to know how they handled their problems with each other.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
Jamie had noticed my lapse of attention. It would be suicide to tell her I was thinking about her feud with Amy. I wasn't that crazy.
“Was just thinking that so far this date doesn't feel all that different from what we normally do... which means I'm going to have to try harder.”
She'd been about to punch me for the first half of my statement when her brain caught up to the second part. Her eyes widened as I gathered her up, lifting her off the ground carefully, and kissed her. I had to let up when I started seeing spots.
From the look of her, Jamie was having trouble breathing too, but she was very reluctant to break it up. Not bad for our first kiss. Jamie summed it up nicely.
“On to food! I don't know about you, but I'm starving.”
“Of course, I haven't had anything since that crap mockingly called a lunch at school; that will teach me, tomorrow I make my own.”
I couldn't resist.
“You mean the large tub of popcorn you pretty much ate alone doesn't count?”
She smacked me in the arm with a smile.
“Of course not! Popcorn never counts.”
“I'll have to remember that.”
Monty's was a run down little place that tried very hard to look like a trendy bistro when it opened... in the 90's. It had a sort of dilapidated retro hipster vibe that might have gone over well in New York or San Francisco. But for all of that, the food was great. The owner, Monty, was actually an immigrant from Italy who trained as a chef there.
He, mom, and I all had quite a bit in common. He loved talking to my mom about the 'old country' and Spain, both places they had shared. He was a friendly yet small and dumpy looking man in his late forties, balding and ruddy faced. Mom often laughed that he looked like an ugly Danny DeVito. He laughed along.
I felt they needed to date too, but Monty just laughed when I suggested it. Worst that could happen is she says no, right?
I honestly thought I wouldn't understand adults either. Even when I became one. Mom told me eventually it would all make sense, but I think she was pulling my chain. She was forever coming home, complaining that her clients made no sense at all. A few situations she even explained to me; they didn't make sense to me either.
Why would anyone, for example, hire a public relations agent then give a press conference without them? It seemed a common story... was it just a status thing among the elite? I shrugged; they paid well at least; my college fund was pretty well set.
We finally got seated, Monty's was always busy. I avoided an elbow in the ribs for woolgathering only due to Jamie's own distraction. That seemed ominous.
“I thought you said this was spontaneous. We only had to wait on the hostess.”
Well, I should have known she'd catch that. I couldn't even lie and say I knew Monty; we all did. He was a local fixture.
“Well, I never did come right out and say it was spontaneous. You merely assumed it. I've been thinking about asking you out for six months. The time just seemed right today. Well, that and Monty wouldn't be too mad if I made reservations and didn't show.”
I nodded as we sat in a nice out of the way booth.
“Yeah, Monty really does like me. All I'd have to do is explain what a gutless wonder I was for not asking you out and apologize. He wouldn't hold a grudge.”
Jamie nodded and gave me a critical once over.
“Now that I believe, everyone likes you. And the pitiful act always scores points with anyone not made of stone.”
“Even better if it isn't an act.”
We were interrupted when the waitress came to take our order. I didn't even wince as Jamie ordered the most expensive thing on the menu.
I scrubbed a tear from my eye into the hood of my hoodie as the line once again started to move, angry. How could something that started so beautifully end so horribly? That was the question I had asked myself day after day. Even knowing the world was unfair, the question just seemed to loom, larger than life in my head. It demanded an answer.
Of course, I had no answer for it. I really hoped a good answer existed; I didn't like the one my mind was coming up with.
It seemed as if the MCO agent was finally going to pull me out. I had half hoped he would just do a quick check, but it seemed as if that was just wishful thinking.
“Excuse me, ma'am, could you come with me please?”
The MCO agent, an older man not much larger than I was with a battered but pleasant face framed by light brown hair setting off hazel eyes. He was dressed in a very well made but unfortunately brown suit, with a white shirt and cream colored tie, both of which I suspected to be silk.
The two large burly guys, both cast from the same blond haired possibly blue eyed bodybuilder mold, standing Goliath tall to my meager David. They were standing exactly one step behind the agent in charge, to the right and left respectively.
They weren't necessary. I wouldn't cause any trouble. I couldn't, even if I wanted to.
The MCO agent led the way, the two flunkies a looming presence behind me as I followed. Against my will, I started remembering the tales of the MCO that my mentor had told me secondhand. It was all too easy to believe them when being led around like this; but if I were on the other side, wouldn't I want help in case an evil mutant decided to go crazy?
Of course I would. If I had had some help on that night, then life would be better for so many people, myself included. All the same, I had one hand on my new phone, caressing the panic button toggle installed in it.
A precaution my mentor had pressed unwillingly into my hand, but I was thankful for it now, being led into a small nondescript conference room. It was decorated in tan carpet and fake wood molding; the agent seemed to be very much a piece with the place. There were two chairs, one on either side of the table, both wood and plastic.
The room reminded me so much of the police interrogation room in Palo Medara that I had to fight the deja vu... and the unpleasant feelings.
The two goons got impatient, and guided me gently, but firmly, to the other chair. I was now facing the agent and facing away from them and the door. It did not do much for my nerves.
I took it out of my wallet (inside my hoodie pocket, my mentor had wanted me to use a purse but I didn't really see the point) and slid it over, pulling my hood down so that the agent could get a good glimpse of me. He would ask or have it done anyway, there was no sense fighting it.
“Ahh, Lapin. Your destination is Boston, via New York?"
I nodded, trying to keep my ears down. They kept wanting to stretch. Having your ears kink like the muscles in your back, and wanting to stretch was beyond annoying. But I didn't want to draw attention to them.
A hopeless effort, to be sure. The damn things were huge. They reached my shoulder blades when folded down, and I could stretch fit my hand into one... though thankfully not lengthwise.
The Agent reached under the table and brought out a file. A quick glance told me it was mine, with my real name on it.
“I'm sorry, I forgot to give you my name. I'm agent Donnely. I'll be using your code name, as we're being filmed. I believe we have a mutual acquaintance, agent Berkowitz?”
I couldn't help it, the relief of some of the stress made my stupid ears pop up though I managed to stop them from going completely vertical.
“You know agent Berkowitz?”
He nodded with a smile.
“He trained me. We used to work the field office in L.A. together. So let's see... it says here you have a set of gadgets as equipment?”
I nodded, ears safely down again.
“Yes, my ears are sensitive. The gadgets are clips that attach to them and dampen or cancel noise.”
“May I see one?”
He had his hand out. For all that it was a polite question, it seemed I would just have to bear with it.
A quick click on the latch of the one on my right ear and it came right off. I winced a bit as I started hearing the planes taking off. Apparently we weren't as far from the tarmac as I'd thought. Or my ears were getting worse, which really didn't even bear thinking about.
Agent Donnely took my clip, and scanned it with a hand-held detector, also pulled from under the table. What did he have under there? I thought maybe just a small file cabinet at first. But there had to be more....
“Alright, that's all I need. Thank you.”
He passed the clip back, and I wasted no time putting it back in place.
“Now, I really hate to do this... but we need to perform a search.”
He held up his hands in a hurry.
“No, none of us will be doing it. My partner, Agent Lyons, Will be doing it. Normally we would just scan you with one of the new airport scanners, but this is Redding, and we don't have the resources of a full blown city.”
My quick glance at the hand-held scanner was caught.
“That isn't the airports, it's ours. We haven't been granted the authority to install our own technology in airports from the courts yet. The best I can do is this hand-held unit, and it lacks the power to do a full scan. Rest assured, agent Lyons is a professional.”
Whatever. I really didn't think I dared refuse. Though that panic button was looking better and better.
“Um, could we please hurry this up at least? I really don't want to miss my flight.”
He stood up.
“Certainly, I'll send her right in. For obvious legal reasons, we can't be present for this, so we'll just wait outside.”
Translation: you start anything, and we will be ready to bust you. Message received, loud and clear. Vaguely threatening, but still very polite. Just like normal airport security nowadays, according to the internet. So far it was nothing like the horror stories told online of the MCO. I hoped it stayed that way.
The woman who walked in after the other 3 walked out was the very picture of a 'battle-ax'. A middle-aged woman who looked as if she sucked lemons all day. Her hair was the color of dishwater, and her eyes matched.
She was built like a body builder and probably six feet tall; the sharp gray silk suit she wore (with pants, not a skirt) looked too small on her. As if she could, with a quick flex, rip her clothes like the hulk. She was carrying in a screen, of all things. One of those unfolding screens that women used to change clothes behind for privacy.
She took one look at me and transformed with a smile. The sour look became a rather cute face if a little stress lined. Her body did not change, and yet somehow seemed less threatening. Body language perhaps? Her voice was a bit scratchy but had a low sultry tone that many women would envy.
She stopped as soon as she closed the door and gave me a once over.
“Well. Typical. Still, it could be worse. At least, you aren't a beach Barbie.”
I blushed. I knew what she was talking about; one of the few powers I'd gained from my life being ruined was one I never wanted. Somewhere out there, there were at least a few guys having wet dreams... and those wet dreams looked like me.
“Alright alright missie, behind the screen and take off your clothes. We don't want to give the cameras a free show, but you don't have anything I haven't seen before.”
“Nothing at all?”
I flicked my tail to make my point. To my surprise, she nodded with a smile.
“Nothing. I've seen both the spade shape you have, and the cotton tail. You aren't as rare a BIT as you think you are.”
Through the relief, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. That my BIT wasn't rare meant that many people thought it was the most attractive they could be, inhuman features and all. My mentor certainly had. Maybe I would even meet more at my new school.
I could only hope they didn't suffer all the problems of my, or my mentor's, Body Image Template. Meeting another mutant that did would likely be a disaster.
Once behind the screen, I made it as quick as possible. I had a slight hesitation at the underwear, but with agent Lyons looking at me expectantly I realized this was going to be the full treatment. She looked over my clothes for knives or something while I stood there, waiting and getting cold. I was just settling into the idea of being probed in unpleasant ways when she spoke with unfeigned cheer:
“Alright, we're done.”
“What? You're not going to...”
She shook her head, grinning at my shock.
“I don't really want to do that sort of thing, any more than you want it done. No one can see what goes on behind the screen here, so let's just agree I gave you a thorough check and leave it at that? You aren't silly enough to try and blow up a plane you're on with c4 smuggled someplace unpleasant, are you?”
I shook my head, trying and failing to force my grin down. She pointed to my silver crucifix.
“Right, a proper catholic. Go ahead and dress. I have to watch; regulations being what they are, but I can do that from over here.”
And she actually propped herself in the nearest corner, humming and rather pointedly looking at anything but me. For my part, I dressed just as quickly. There was no clock in the room; a management decision designed to keep complaints about time wasted by the airlines down, no doubt.
“May I ask you what time it is?”
She actually looked at a watch she was wearing. A rare person, to still use one of those.
“You've got about 15 minutes.”
Despite my rush, I helped her fold up the screen. It was the polite thing to do after all, and they wouldn't let me run to my plane in any case. That would just set off all kinds of red flags. My luggage was waiting on me, in agent Donnely's hands. I just nodded at him. I knew he would have to search it, but I had nothing incriminating and nothing really embarrassing to hide. I was sure he'd seen underwear before in his line of work, after all. Even the ones my mentor had insisted in giving me.
“Don't worry, we put everything back the way it was! We aren't like the sky cops!”
To my surprise, Agent Donnely took off, jogging at a brisk pace down the hall. He motioned me to follow.
“We have less than 15 minutes to get you halfway across the airport and to your plane before it takes off. With crowds being what they are, we better hurry.”
I caught up rather easily; the one thing I had gained out of my recent disasters, was inhuman speed. And agility; dodging people in crowds was easy. A quick glance back showed things one and two still behind me, keeping pace easily themselves. They also managed to avoid people, mainly because people parted for them like the red sea for Moses. Agent Donnely and I just lacked that sort of presence.
It was mildly odd that two big guys could keep up with us, though; I had to wonder if their suits hid some sort of secret.
The airport wasn't that large, luckily. With Agent Donnely expediting things for airport security, we managed to make it just as final boarding was called. My bags checked I turned to Agent Donnely from inside the jetway (I didn't want to give him the chance to change his mind).
I knew he was only doing his job, and it could have been much worse.
“You're welcome. Enjoy your flight.”
I waved and walked past the vapidly smiling stewardess. I was in seat 49 – economy class, but a window seat. Something I was thankful for. The flight was long, and I wanted a view. This was my first time flying, after all.
Well, flying in a plane, at any rate; the other way I was usually too busy panicking and screaming to look around. Hopefully this way would be different. The people in the plane were too busy settling in to pay much attention to me, luckily enough. I was getting sick of being stared at already.
Unluckily, since I was so late the seats to the side of mine were already filled, which meant I would be disturbing some people. The aisle seat was taken by a rather well built guy around college age, sporting a UCLA jacket, and a matching cap worn in reverse.
He was raven haired like me, with dark blue eyes and a chiseled chin. I guess he was kind of handsome if you liked the dopey frat guy look.
The middle seat was taken by a man in a well tailored business suit, in shades of gray. He had blonde hair just starting to whiten up, and surprisingly boyish looks for his obvious age. He also had a briefcase in his lap and a phone in his hand. I think one of the stewardesses had just told him to hang it up, judging by the sour expression.
My soon to be seatmates were both looking up at me curiously, and the angle they had let them see at least a little of my face. That meant I had to be very careful when putting up my carry on; I didn't want to dislodge my hood or raise the bottom of the hoodie up far enough to reveal my stupid tail.
“Excuse me please.”
Luggage handled and etiquette handled, I had to work my way to my seat... with my butt towards the seats in front of us, for the same reason. The frat boy kept trying to peek under the hood but I don't think he saw much.
I was pretty sure from the look of shock that the businessman saw more than I had, strictly speaking, wanted him to. He recovered quickly enough, opening his laptop after I passed and very carefully sat down. If not for the glances he was shooting my way as the plane got battened down to take off, I would have said he was over it. He certainly acted nonchalant, but I was a trifle too observant for that to work anymore.
I was all too used to those types of glances now. The type that all but shouted 'is she dangerous?' or 'should I yell for help?'
If I thought it would help, I'd wear a sign that just read “no, not dangerous”. Knowing my luck, people would just suspect it to be a trick. Disguising myself as much as I possibly could seemed the wiser course.
But of course, that only worked as long as no one got close enough. I turned to look out the window, not wanting to see the wary caution (or worse, the blatant disgust) creep over another face like a poisonous mold.
With a jolt the plane started to move, the cracked tarmac rolling under it in a blur. Only nine hours to go until Boston. Each minute ticking past seemed like an eternity.
Agent Donnely sipped at some truly nasty coffee as he watched the plane take off with his partner, agent Lyons, and their boss.
That one was directed at him.
“The bug is planted. The offices along her route have all been called. They are playing ball.”
“Good. The last thing we need is for her to get pulled from her flight path and disappear. She's too valuable to us at the moment, what with the truly abysmal publicity, some of the other offices have garnered lately. We want the reporters waiting for her to hear nothing but glowing reports of us.”
That was a bit confusing.
“Will there be reporters present? I thought the press vultures were done picking over this particular carcass.”
“Of course there will; I called them after all. It'll make a good story for them, and a better one for us... provided it isn't botched. Lyons?”
Her report was much what his would have been.
“She's a good kid. It's a shame what happened to her. But her opinion of us is unshaken. She views us as a professional arm of authority. Allowing Berkowitz to handle her case has paid dividends.”
The boss cleared his throat and sipped his own coffee, a much better blend than Donnely's.
“Yes, Berkowitz is a fool, but a useful one. His honesty can make things very easy for us when used correctly. “
Donnely nodded, remembering L.A. The boss spoke up again, derailing that train of thought.
“But what I was really asking is, how is she?”
Lyons thought back.
“She's still in shock. She's a kid that respects authority, very rare nowadays. But even past that she never even made a peep when Donnely proposed the strip search. That's pretty rare among Americans. She also went along with my own suggestions readily enough, though she almost demanded I search her to prove her innocence. She's still naive enough to be useful.”
The boss nodded.
“Whateley might even be good for her.”
Lyons turned to him, astonished. Donnely knew the boss better.
“What Lyons? I can still hope she gets the help she needs, even as we use her. The two objectives are not mutually exclusive. Whateley is one of the best places in the country for her.”
He rounded on Lyons.
“Berkowitz may be a fool, but he was right about one thing. Despite her appearance, she's one of ours done very wrong. Yes, we can use that. Yes, we will use that. We owe it to humanity to get the word out, But that's no reason to deny her such a life as she can make. There but for the grace of God, after all.”
Donnely noticed that Lyons look of chastisement was fake, but he didn't think the boss knew. It didn't matter anyway, Lyons was in this up to her neck already. She wouldn't compromise the plan. The boss then ignored them both in favor of looking at the scans from the new machine set in the hallway leading to the MCO's conference room, where they conducted their searches.
The scan showed no hidden weapons or explosives, no drugs or other contraband of any kind. Just the phone they already knew she carried; a gift from her somewhat unfortunate mentor in Redding.
Better safe than sorry though, after all. They weren't the only ones trying to use the poor girl.
It took less than twenty minutes for me to be bored to tears by the view from the plane's window seat. The only thing I had on me was my phone. Sure it could double as a small movie theater or music player... but I only had one movie on it, that I'd seen more than once, and my music would hardly divert me.
I needed a book. I had planned to bring one from the airport, but I simply hadn't had the time to buy one. I blamed Ibby, and would tell her so the moment I could text. Mainly because there wasn't much else to do.
I tried not to pry by staring at what the businessman was doing on his laptop, opened again as soon as he had been given the all clear. It was pretty hard though. Being bored sucked. With nothing else to do I took out my phone.
It had started out its life as a Galaxy 4, but it only barely resembled one now. For one, it looked to be made of metal, not plastic. And thick metal at that; it had the heft one would expect of a paperweight. Ibby had said it was made for flying brick use when I asked. It also had a large red oblong button set clearly on its left side.
It was Ibby's older phone and on her network. For all that, it was not standard and therefore as good as any phone currently on the market. Or at least, that's what her nerd friend had attempted to tell me. I didn't really care; it had been better than the phone I had been using, which hadn't survived the first panicked flight I had been dragged on.
I texted: “Made it, in the air and headed to JFK.” I used full words, hating that alphabet soup most people turned texts into. Who cares if it takes longer if you don't have to explain to someone on the other end what it all means? Explanations always take longer.
An icon popped up, a bunny girl strolling across the screen with a wave. Then the answer came:
“Good. Call me again when you reach New York, or if there's trouble.”
I knew how busy she was, but there was more than a hint of the idea that she'd drop it all to help as best she could. I really liked Ibby, despite her nature. I liked her so much I refused to call her that ridiculous name the public knew her by, even if she'd picked it herself.
It was even worse than mine, and I'd done the best I could. I will never understand the '70's for as long as I live. It was almost as incomprehensible as adults... or girls.
Damn it to hell. Why can't I move on? Why can't I just stop thinking about it, about her? What was wrong with me?
Needing to distract myself before the waterworks started again, I glanced over to see what my seatmates were doing. The frat boy was watching a netbook, thankfully with very good noise canceling headphones on, and the businessman. He was watching me, with frank interest. On his laptop was a copy of the chronicle, from about two months ago. I recognized it. Mainly because I was on the front page, in my new form, with no disguise. Stupid floppy ears and pain both visible for the entire world to see.
“That's you, isn't it? I mean, you're her, aren't you? I mean...”
I decided to bail him out before he could dig deeper.
“Yes, that's me. Could you please not tell anyone you recognized me? I'm trying to avoid trouble.”
He pondered that for a moment, before a calculating look I didn't like stole over his face. It made him look kind of like the vampire in that old German movie, only with hair.
“I will if you do one thing for me.”
Oh, this couldn't be good.
He waved at his computer.
“Tell me the truth. What really happened?”
If I remembered the Chronicle right, it was basically way off in its reporting of the situation; and that's if I wanted to be generous. They basically lied, like the rag they were, after telling my mom they would tell the truth.
As for this guy, I'd met his type before. Ghouls, always sniffing around for the closets where the skeletons were buried. They made perfect paparazzi or celebrity headhunters, having an instinct for digging up dirt and a nose for blood. At least, this one didn't have a camera. With luck, he wasn't a professional at it.
Now the Times, oddly enough, got it right the first time and stuck with it.
“Well, it didn't happen like the Chronicle said, that's for sure. I wasn't doing anything shady. It's a long story. Really long, are you sure you want to...?”
“If you would. I'm sorry, but I'm curious. And we have nothing but time. I'll make you a deal. I'll tell you my life story if you tell me yours. Then we will be even.”
“I'm not sure I...”
“Please. I'd just like to hear your side of the story, without any spin. Please.”
Well, the worst that could happen if I told him was he'd listen to me, hear the truth, and then blame me anyway. He wouldn't be the first, and likely wouldn't be the last. I always thought the truth was its own shield before all this. But it turns out that the truth is always the first casualty of any situation. The first casualty of life itself.
“Well, the Chronicle got it wrong; I didn't do anything to her. It all started when....”
Jamie was sick.
We'd been going out for months, strictly slow and steady. Her father Flynn seemed to like me, despite the old gun polishing trick he pulled after our first date. The impact of that maneuver was diminished somewhat by the fact that he and I had known each other for years and got along. I didn't begrudge him the attempt, though, he'd probably been dreaming of pulling that trick since Jamie was in diapers.
Jamie's father Flynn was a careworn looking man; average height and bald, he had eyebrows like caterpillars creeping across his face. He dutifully worked out every week in his garage; sometimes I joined him. He was still just barely fit. He worked long hours.
Jamie's mom Sydney looked much like you expected a trophy wife to look; blond and fit, attractive and younger; the only problem is she was an art dealer for the local museum. She made more money than he did, and they loved each other.
Jamie's mom Sydney was in the background, wringing her hands. The quietly proud father Flynn, a man I knew and liked, had the door cracked but his body against it, denying me entry. Both had expressions of worry that were doing nothing to ease my mind.
“She's still too ill, Luke. She just can't have guests.”
She had been too sick for school or guests for three days. She still wasn't in a hospital. Something was very wrong here.
“Mr. Howe, I understand and will accept that she might be contagious. If I get sick, it's my own fault. But this is the third time. Mom and I are both very worried, and we will take the risk. I won't be leaving this time without seeing her. I will not.”
And I shifted, leaning up against the door jamb.
Mr. Howe sighed and nodded, opening the door.
The inside was like something from the twilight zone.
The Howe home was much like my own family's; upper middle class, with tasteful (if a bit more ostentatious) furnishings and in good repair. Usually it was a little messy, as Mrs. Howe was not the most scrupulous housekeeper.
Tonight it was spotless. Everything gleamed, from the floor up. I felt almost guilty stepping on it. The smell of cleansers and antiseptics hit like a physical blow a single step inside. Mrs. Howe had a bucket in hand, rubber gloves on, and had obviously been cleaning when I knocked.
The mix of whatever she was using was slightly orange colored... and clean except for that taint. It was not the source of the smell, which seemed to come from all sides.
Mr. Howe up close was just as shocking, he could overpower the cleanser smell himself. Disheveled and slightly shaky, his clothes were stained with spilled coffee and looked slept in. It was obvious he hadn't showered in days.
Whatever it meant, I couldn't be good. I hit the stairs two at a time without a word.
I couldn't stop a slight hesitation upon reaching Jamie's door, however. What if she was asleep... or really didn't want to see me?
Stupid, then she could just tell me so herself.
A soft knock in case she really was asleep, and it was answered almost immediately.
“Go away dad, I don't want to hear whatever bullshit you want to spew at me today.”
What? Jamie was hardly the most polite or reverent girl (a fact I knew and loved from experience) but she wasn't normally angry enough to spout such venom at her parents. Especially her father; she was very much a 'daddy's girl'.
“Jamie? It's Luke.”
The door was flung open and Jamie stood there, staring as if not quite believing her eyes. She was a mess; her hair tangled and unwashed, old tear tracks still visible, especially around eyes bruised from lack of sleep. Those self-same eyes that were no longer the deep aquamarine I lost myself in on many an occasion.
Her bloodshot eyes were an almost neon amber. I was fairly sure they weren't contacts; it explained so very much.
“So... I was told you were sick. How are you?”
Yes it was lame; it was the best I could do. Suddenly realizing your girlfriend was a mutant is shocking. More shocking than a random punch to the gut. I've felt that too, there is no comparison. She looked into my eyes for a moment, tears forming like sparkling dew. What she saw seemed to open the floodgates; she almost knocked me over in her haste to crush me in a hug. And it was fairly crushing.
“Jamie, ease up a little, OK? I can't breathe. Let's go into your room and talk, alright?”
Mr. and Mrs. Howe were at the staircase listening, and normally I wouldn't suggest such a thing in their presence. But something more than a mutation happened here, and I wanted to know what. They didn't object as Jamie led me into her room.
I was beginning to get the picture I think, and it wasn't a picture I liked. With a last glare, Jamie closed the door on her parents and turned to me. She looked lost. I did not like that look at all.
“So what's with the twilight zone out there?”
“Well, I'm a mutant.”
She looked at me, mouth agape. I decided to move the conversation along.
“So, was the whole line about you being sick a lie?”
She shook her head with more than a touch of exasperation.
“No, I was sick a few days ago; flu like symptoms... then my eyes changed. Doctor Hubbard confirmed I was mutant yesterday.”
Hmm, confirmation implied something other than an eye change happened.
“So you displayed a power of some sort?”
Wordlessly she handed over her Ipod. It was a mess; at least twice as big as a standard one, it had some sort of housing hanging off of it. I couldn't even begin to guess, so I had to ask.
“What's it do?”
“Well it's not an Ipod anymore, at least not fully. The addition pulls power from neighboring power lines to recharge the battery wirelessly.”
She saw the look I couldn't quite hide.
“I know, but apparently it's a real mutant power and everything. Dr. Hubbard called me a “devisor”. Which is a fancy way of saying I build weird things, apparently.”
I knew what devisors were. I was sort of glad Jamie didn't seem to. They did not have the best reputation.
“So when do you get tested?”
She plopped on the bed with a smile. I could tell she was happy I wasn't outright rejecting her – as if I could – but she was also pretty spent by the stress of it all. It made me want to march downstairs and lecture her parents. That picture I didn't like was getting more clear by the minute.
“In three more days. That was the earliest they could take me. Apparently while the local office has the facilities for testing, they don't have a dedicated specialist on the payroll. Too small for that. So one is driving up.”
The local office she referred to was the MCO. Around here, the MCO was called in at the request of the police to handle the cases of processing emerging mutants. They handled the testing and issuing of MID's, and worked with the police on cases involving mutants.
It was a well known fact that the MCO agents had no police powers themselves, and needed a police partner or escort in order to make arrests; Redding police issued that statement yearly in a public press release, and it hadn't changed in recent memory. Any mutant individuals which disappeared, criminal or not, would have the case of their disappearance investigated to the maximum extent the law allowed. I could quote that part from memory.
And it was suddenly pertinent.
“Do you need someone to go with you?”
It would be on a Saturday, after all. That look of pure gratitude she hit me with made me feel guilty, as if I had done something wrong. It also laced her voice pretty heavily when she spoke. A sort of fawning needy tone that had no place coming from her as she shot up again, taking both my hands in hers.
“Would you? Can you?”
“Sure, I don't think mom would mind. If necessary, I'm sure she'll drive us.”
That is, if your parents won't.
“I don't know, I'll have to ask.”
“I don't think that will be necessary, but I'd appreciate it if you did ask, just in case. So, um... what's been going on at school in by absence?”
And now she seemed almost... shy? I had to wrack my brain a little; I didn't really try to keep up with the politics. I led her over to her bed and gently sat her down, taking a seat myself next to her.
“Nothing much really. Rhonda took the gold in the track meet against Oakwood the other day. Doug Hawser, remember him? Well a couple joints got found in his locker; he's saying he was framed, but he's been suspended pending a hearing and investigation. That's about it.”
She stared at me wide-eyed. She also stared at where my hands were, wide-eyed. They were only on her shoulders, I didn't think I was moving too fast or anything! I certainly wouldn't dream of doing anything with her while her parents were listening on the other side of the door.
She looked away, suddenly shy for the first time in her life.
“Tell me. What is it?”
I wouldn't be stupid enough to ask what was wrong; we both knew that already.
“You're not... afraid of me. Or disgusted, or anything....”
I should be offended, I really should. But what I am is confused. Doesn't she of all my peers, know me best? She should know me well enough by now to tell herself the truth of who I was.
“Why would I be? You're Jamie Howe, my girlfriend. You are as human as I am, and you aren't going to hurt anyone. As for disgust, what is there to be disgusted about? You aren't spewing slime out of every orifice or eating small fuzzy animals. And I'm pretty sure I'd love you even if you were.”
She was stronger than I remembered. The bed creaked alarmingly as she sidelined me into it, and I felt my ribs shift a bit. I managed to keep the grimace off my face with effort though. It wouldn't do to let her see that.
“You... Luke, you're an amazing human being, you know that, right?”
I shook my head with a grin.
“Don't tell me that, my head will get bigger than that super villain guy, what's his name? Gray Matter?”
“That guy is a devisor, like me.”
Her face was a bit troubled again. This would not do at all.
“Oh, does he fit as well in that bikini you wore to the beach last summer? I think not. Advantage, yours.”
She smacked me playfully in the arm, and I was pretty sure it would bruise. Unlike the hug of death, however, that was normal.
“Only for you. Only for you.”
It was hard to make jokes with Jamie's tongue in my mouth. I almost tried before my own brain caught up to what we were doing.
“Alright Luke, you've made your point. You better get out of here before I do something my parents will make us regret.”
Taking the cue for what it was, her desire to be alone and think, I headed to the door. She didn't make that easy. I had to ask though,
“You'll be coming to school again, right?”
“I think so, starting Monday. That is, unless there is a reason I shouldn't. I should be cleared, but if the testing reveals something else I may not be.”
Left unspoken was the kind of response she'd get in the area. If she got a lot of crap for being a mutant she and her family would likely have to move, or do something similar. That would not be good for anyone.
I wasn't an angry sort by nature, but if some H1 type retard wanted to start something, I would make that person very sorry they existed.
Walking outside into the street past her still gawking parents pissed me off more; hopefully they would get a clue. She was their daughter! The same person they raised; late genetic expression during puberty did not change that. Again, I had to stomp on the desire to give them a piece (or more) of my mind.
Their actions could only be hurting Jamie. They needed to wake up soon. It wasn't really my place to say, but maybe my mother could. She was a fellow adult, friend of the Howe's, and her words would have the weight that my own would lack. She after all, had dealt with mutants before; some of her clients were mutants.
She never brought any home, or let me meet them, but she never outright ranted against them either. If it turns out she had a hidden mutantphobia, I'd deal with her too.
A short walk to clear my head and I had the chance to ask her directly. She was on the couch, watching some meaningless cop drama or another that I had never gotten into, popcorn and a diet Pepsi on the coffee table in front of her. So I walked in without preamble and shot the question point blank; best way to get an honest response.
“Mom, how do you feel about mutants?”
I'd never asked her before; it hadn't been that important to either of us, so we just sort of ignored it. And just as expected of a verbal landmine, she tried her best to dodge the question in true parent fashion.
“Why do you ask?”
“No you don't; no dodging. Answer the question before asking one of your own. I'll answer yours after you answer mine.”
She shot me an arch look, raised eyebrow and all, but relented.
“Well I've met a few, there are quite a few mutants who come to me for image advice. I've met good ones, and bad ones. My own opinion is that they are people, with just a few extras that can make them more dangerous. I try to treat them as such.”
Now I was curious.
“Have any of the bad ones tried to do bad things to you? Like threaten you over your fees and stuff?”
“Attack a PR consultant? Are you crazy? Even if they killed me I would make them very sorry, and they know that. It's really no worse than working for the Italians.”
Mom means the mob here, I'm sure... though she never comes right out and says so. I also know she means the actual Italian mafia, in Italy and Spain. She certainly did not do work for them here, or she would have told me. I wasn't a fan of how nonchalantly she spoke of one of them killing her though.
“So your turn.”
I plopped down on the couch next to her.
“Turns out Jamie is one.”
And contact! The landmine went off! It took a minute for her to fully process what I was saying, then her response was gratifying. At least, in a way.
“...Oh. Whew, I thought you were going to say you were one. I wasn't looking forward to that fiery nature of yours burning down the house or something similar. Do they know which kind she is? What powers she has?”
“A devisor, she says. A type of mutant that builds things.”
She didn't even hesitate; I guess she really did have some experience with mutants.
“That's a bit rough, I've dealt with devisors before. Some of them are a little... off. You planning to continue your relationship?”
Counter landmine detonated.
“Of course! How could you even think I wouldn't? She needs me now more than ever.”
For the second time tonight, I was wrapped in a hug, though this one was less... predatory. What is it with females and hugs? Was there a hug gene somewhere in our DNA that made women more touchy-feely?
“I'm proud of you, Luke. It's times like these that I remember I raised you right.”
Well of course she did.
“Apples and trees, Mom. But that reminds me, you need to have a word with the Howes. Tell them what to expect, and that sort of thing. They like you and know about your job, so they will be more likely to listen to you.”
Once again, she got to the heart of the matter with just a glance.
“They are avoiding her, and haven't let her go to school. They did call the MCO however, and have an appointment for powers testing on Saturday. Mrs Howe has probably been cleaning mostly non-stop the last 3 days, and if Mr Howe has showered at all, I'm Joan of Arc.”
“Wow... that's... bad. Alright, you can relax, I'll take care of it.”
And just like that, while still standing over me her gaze started to cut like jagged glass.
“But you, I know what you're thinking. I'll handle it, you will go to school tomorrow, and do your homework, and all your chores tomorrow. Only then will you be allowed to go see Jamie. If I find out you cut something, and lied to me about it, your punishment will be something ballads are made from. Got me?”
“I got you, I got you. I promise, I'll do everything first.”
I could cut a few corners... after all my GPA was perfect, so a few sloppy assignments wouldn't do me in. And if I did tomorrows chores today then I'd be done already. The perfect crime! Of course I still had to do tonight's. Dishes first, right after dinner itself, which I had missed.
Luckily mom was pretty lax about that, missing more than a few herself, so she just made me a plate and put things away. I could microwave it whenever I got home. In this case dinner was still warm however, so I skipped that.
I took a moment to flag a stewardess down and ask for a diet Pepsi. I had already done more than my fair share of talking, and had my audience of one in rapt attention, but my throat was beginning to suffer for it, even as softly as I was speaking.
The way the office type was leaning forward, I could tell either that he was having a hard time hearing me, or was hanging on my every word. Maybe it was both.
Well, my therapist had recommended talking about this, even to random strangers on a long flight. I didn't understand it, but when psychologists agree that talking about my crappy life to anyone who shows even a particle of interest; who was I to argue?
It didn't make it any easier... but talking things out to this man felt good. Natural. I would have suspected he was a mutant himself except the MCO had never pulled him out of line; he was ahead of me until my own bout with the MCO and airport security, and they had let him right on through.
It was more than a little confusing though; the compulsion to tell a complete stranger more of your life than anyone else knew. I seemed to remember reading something about such bonding on planes before, but actually experiencing it was... weird. And the cathartic release and hairline break in my normally iron control made me very nervous. I hope I hadn't been slipped something, somewhere.
Or worse, my meds were no longer working.
That really didn't bear thinking about. Especially on a plane. So I didn't, another long drink to make sure of the throat and I dove right back in.
On Saturday I woke early. Today was the day we found out if Jamie was a dangerous threat to humanity or not. I had been to her house every day since finding out, and often stayed late. Anything I could do to help ease her stress.
Her parents had finally seemed to realize the world hadn’t ended; they were getting a little better each day, and seemed less inclined to shut Jamie up in her room than before. I never asked why they did it, and they didn't tell me, but that ended the day after I told mom.
She actually took time off from her job in order to go to their house and talk to them. It only took an hour, and I don't know what she said, but while still a little twitchy, they stopped acting like pod people. Well, mostly. I still wasn't ready to cut them any slack... they are parents, they should know better. But mom ironically enough had raised me right, so I was too polite to say so to their face. Well at least since the problem was solved.
They had recovered enough to drive her to her appointment at least; mom had offered and the Howes had declined. They hadn't even made a peep when I said I was going though. They knew I'd given my word, they had been listening in. Which meant that even if I had to follow on my bike, an old off-road trail bicycle I never rode anymore, I would.
Of course I wouldn't need to; mom would get in her car and drive me; we would follow them the entire way, and they knew that. I was still a little worried that they would try to leave early and therefore leave me behind. So I was up.
I just wish I knew what they were afraid of.
Afraid for their daughter, now aligned against H1 and the more rabid people in the world... or afraid of their daughter, who was now one of the few but empowered? Maybe it was both at once? But that was really ridiculous.
For whatever reason, I felt they didn't want me to know anything about the new Jamie. Like they were trying to keep us apart. I would not accept that, we had been steady too long, had been best friends since mom and I moved from Providence far before that, and I wouldn't take no for an answer.
Dressing was easy, all weekend clothes; old jeans and a T-shirt, a jacket just in case; it was likely to get a little chilly. I was not the only one up, or the first. Mom was at the kitchen table in her ratty gray robe, reading the file of a client of hers, coffee steaming in front of her. She had the most amusing bed head going on. Pointing that out was something I'd do... once I had a head start out the door.
The appointment was for nine sharp, and it required a drive into Redding proper which took about forty minutes. Which meant to be polite, I should show up just slightly after 8am. It was just now 6am, and I was anticipating knocking on Jamie's door by 7.
Some Raisin Bran and a Pepsi were the breakfast of champions. I didn't want to waste time with ham and eggs... mom already had, but hadn't made me any. A curious loophole in our 'whenever meal schedule remained breakfast on the weekends. At least she no longer griped about my substitution of Pepsi in place of the juice she favored.
At least, not after the time I used one instead of milk on my cereal. That had really disturbed her. It wasn't even good, but I had been making a statement. Besides, I didn't mess with her coffee; everyone knew how bad that crap was for you!
The blind eye I turned towards her Twinkies stash was probably a help too. How she could like those was something harder to understand than the coffee.
I put the dishes in the sink and went up to brush my teeth. Only the ones you want to keep, right? A few brush strokes through my hair and I was ready to go. With far too long left to wait.
So I took out the garbage out. A day early, but who cared? We had metal cans to keep the critters from getting into the trash so it was no problem. Then I did the morning's dishes... all 8 of them. Then I vacuumed the living room carpet, complete with moving the furniture. Mom would likely yell at me otherwise.
Right on time. Did she see me skip the little end table?
“Stop, seriously. Just watching you is giving me hives. Just sit down and watch TV or something normal for a bit.”
I checked the clock again. Still about a half hour. But TV sucked. Of course, all my homework was done last night, even that essay. Whoever heard of a 500 word essay? That's like... a blurb. Literally just a few paragraphs.
Cartoons, cartoons, cartoons... hey. A political discussion. This one on mutants in politics. With a round table discussion no less. A democrat, a Republican, a Libertarian, some MCO official or other, and the token H1 nut-job. The H1 nut-job managed to clean up the best in an expensive suit and slicked back hair, but I wasn't fooled.
So, no doubt like many people tuning in, I waited for the inevitable blow up. As usual the Republican started it with a simple observation.
“An American born mutant is a human being and a citizen of the United States. As such, any hypothetical mutant that meets the requirements can run for and hold office. That's the law. If you want to keep a mutant from holding office, then work on changing the law, not picketing polling places or engaging in strong arm tactics.”
All that said in a calm reasonable tone of voice, as if he wasn't lobbing a verbal Molotov into a metaphorical theater.
As the H1 nut started to froth at the mouth and scream, I turned it off. It was time, or close enough. I made sure to grab a book, just in case. You could never tell when you would need a good book, and I expected to do a fair amount of waiting.
A quick thought and I brought one for Jamie too. She wouldn't remember, and she might have to wait as well. Mom didn't look interested in the TV, so I turned it off, grabbed my phone from the small table beside the door, and left.
The morning air was more bracing than chilly; which meant that in an hour or two it would be a bit hot for a jacket. I was still glad I brought one; my books were small enough to fit in the pockets. With my phone in my front pocket it meant my hands were free.
My battered bike was wobbly, and riding it hands-free was taking your life into your hands. In a few months though, mom had all but promised me a car of my choice outright. Well, nothing new, but any used car I wanted. I don't think she wanted to risk me cracking up a brand new one.
I was going to sneak in a sports car, provided she chose her words wrong. I really wanted a Porsche of some kind, like an old Boxter or something. Until then, I could make do with my bike. I couldn't wait for the end of a waste of time spent biking, and greater freedom.
You needed some kind of transport here; while the area was urban, it was urban in only the loosest sense of the word; houses were somewhat secluded from each other here, and the forests beyond were in everyone's backyard. You could go a mile in some cases without seeing another dwelling.
Wait, why was Rex Davies in front of the Howe house? He was clearly staring at it...from across the street, and behind a bush. Not readily visible from the house itself.
Rex was a rising tennis star, fit and with an athletic medium build, topped off by blond hair and blue eyes. I liked him normally, we hung out in a few of the same circles. I was a bit bigger than he was, and I knew he was nervous around such people; I would use that today. Because I was fairly sure I wouldn't like whatever he was doing.
His focus on the house was ironclad... he ignored me pedaling up.
“What are you doing Rex?”
He looked at me, and a blow to my estimation of his intelligence, he didn't immediately turn around and run.
“Oh, I'm trying to get a glimpse of Jamie. Rumor has it she mutated, and I want to see what she looks like now.”
And another few notches down. Rex was almost as intelligent as a similarly named dog now by my own reckoning.
“Just... go home Rex. Just go home. Before I'm forced to do something we will both regret.”
He finally realized who he was talking to.
“Um... right. I'll just be going.”
He decided he needed exercise, jogging away.
And just in time too, the front door opened, and the object of his weird voyeurism was standing there, a vision of harried loveliness staring down the street. The moment our eyes met she motioned me inside. I checked the street then walked over, walking my bike. It wouldn't do to get hit after all, for all that the traffic on this road was always light.
I had a feeling that for a little while, the traffic would increase.
“You're checking for me kind of early.”
She pulled me inside and shut the door with a slam.
“My parents are driving me nuts, and I thought they were going to leave without you.”
I replied perhaps a little louder than I needed to, but I wanted to make sure her parents would hear.
“Don't be silly, they both know that wouldn't stop me. How are you this fine morning?”
I knew how she was of course; it was obvious.
“Nervous of course. I don't want to do this.”
I hugged her close and she did not object. Neither did her parents, who entered the room together with a hesitation normally reserved for meeting ax murderers.
“It'll be fine, relax. Have you had breakfast yet?”
She gave a small tight nod, catching sight of her parents mincing in. They were dressed in their Sunday best a day early; a really expensive black suit for Mr. Howe that managed to make him look like a mini version of Lurch from the Adam's family. I had to suppress the urge to ask who had died.
Mrs. Howe made me suppress a giggle however. A skirt suit for Mrs. Howe was the order of the day. A skirt suit in an unfortunate shade of dark red. With stripes. The non-slimming kind. I was far too polite to tell her she looked like a lumpy barber's pole... but I thought it very hard, with Jamie catching the look and rolling her now lovely amber eyes at me.
Jamie saved me.
“Yes we've all had breakfast. Eggs and Spam.”
I mock threw up at her. Eggs were fine, but mixing them with that mystery meat that was one step down from high school cafeteria mystery meat? Why ruin perfectly good eggs that way? She smacked me on the arm.
“Quiet you, it's good.”
There is something to be said for them all eating a common thing together. Maybe there was hope for them all yet. I still didn't like how skittish they were however. It was as if Jamie was wearing a bomb vest or something.
At least they were getting better.
Mr. Howe cleared his throat.
“Well, now that we're all here, we can get going. Shall we?”
Mrs. Howe was really slipping. Normally she'd at least ask me if I had breakfast myself; now she just led the way from the house; I could just make out the big gulp of air that had been her sole noise so far.
The drive over was boring and awkward. We had all seen the same trees, houses and wildlife many times over, but I at least was too worried to read my book. From the looks and stiff posture, Jamie was as on edge as I was. I handed her the book I brought for her and she smiled. Then I tried to set an example, even if I didn't turn a single page the entire time. At least I don't think she noticed.
We were there just in time for the office to open. It was a rather small strip mall style building up front, cheap paintings and all. It looked much like my dentist's office, complete with the waiting room. After Jamie gave her name to the receptionist, a pleasant looking young lady who looked to be the victim of a hangover, we all sat down.
I had seen the appointment book; we were the only ones on it, at least for the morning hours.
The reason why we had to wait with our anxieties eating us alive became clear a moment later, when another car pulled into the nearly empty parking lot. It was a dark later model sedan with a bubble light on top. The man stepping from the driver's side was thin almost to the point of skeletal, and wore a black suit that seemed a size too big for him. A fedora, also black, was perched on his stringy white coated head. He was old and wrinkled, but moved with a spry speed that left me blinking.
The one getting out of the passenger side was a bit more normal; just a man in a doctor's coat, black haired and unremarkable. Perhaps in his early 30's, though I doubted it. He had the sort of fresh faced look one sees with new college kids.
So this had to be the tester... and his escort? He wasn't a cop, and I wasn't going to....
No sooner did they reach the door than a police cruiser, one of our new ones, pulled up and two officers got out. I had been wondering what kept them. I didn't recognize either, but they had the crew-cut look with chiseled features, uniforms that I could see the creases in from here.
The vibe of confidence was also easy to spot. And with them here I could breathe easy... right after I checked something.
They both wasted no time at all, all but charging to the door. They were both at it before the man in the fedora could be more than properly through it. He raised an eyebrow at their antics.
I just got my phone out.
They walked up to the Howe's, who had all stood up. The lab coated guy and old man both had genuine smiles on their faces, and outstretched hands.
“Hello, I'm Dr. Paige and this is my associate agent Berkowitz.”
Mr. Howe answered. He didn't sound too nervous, which was a neat trick.
“I'm Flynn Howe, this is my wife Sydney, and my daughter Jamie.”
It didn't take long for them to look my way, so I answered the unspoken question.
“Lucas Del Bosque. Pleased to meet you.”
Dr Paige had a sweaty palm, but agent Berkowitz had a strong dry grip. He also looked me directly in the eye.
One of the cops cleared his throat.
“I'm officer Trask, my partner is officer Stahl. We're here to make sure there are no... incidents during this testing.”
Mr Howe just nodded, but I had my phone prepped.
“Badge numbers please, officers?”
A mild look of surprise and respect, but they both rattled them off with no hesitation. Trask was 328 and Stahl was 329. Kind of odd. Did they graduate in the same class or something? Was that even how it worked?
I phoned it in, my hand and forefinger up in the universal one moment gesture. If they tried to go anywhere before I had my answers I would be tackling somebody.
“Redding police force; how may I help you?”
“Yes, can you do me a favor and call officer Trask, badge number 328 for me please?”
“May I ask what this is regarding, sir?”
“I'm trying to confirm that the officers in front of me is in fact officers Trask and Stahl of the Redding P.D.”
United States citizens are allowed to question the identity of police officers, and even call in complaints while being arrested. I just wanted to make sure these two were actually ours.
“One moment, sir.”
It was a long moment, but we all waited. It was obvious doctor Paige wanted to get going, but agent Berkowitz was cool as a cucumber.
I was almost to the point of foot tapping when officer Trask's radio squeaked to life. I could hear the call connect over my phone.
“Officer Trask, come in.”
He made a show of answering his radio.
“Trask, what's your 20?”
Again, I could hear it through my phone. I wiggled it and mouthed good enough.
“Staring at the kid that just called you, at the testing center.”
The receptionist? Fellow officer? Whoever, she came back on the phone.
“Does that satisfy you, sir?”
“Yes ma'am, thank you.”
I hung up and turned to the officers.
“Sorry officers, I just had to make sure.”
Officer Trask waved his hand as if at an annoying fly.
“Think nothing of it, Mr. Del Bosque. In fact, I'd rather you checked. We don't mind at all.”
I grinned, turning to agent Berkowitz.
“That's good to hear, because I'm not done quite yet.”
With a matching smile, he handed over his card. The number on it matched the number Jamie's parents had called to make the appointment, and google had revealed it as legit. The only difference was his card had an extension.
I called it.
“Good morning, Mutant Commision Office, Redding branch.”
The receptionist had picked up. This office couldn't be some weird plant, as the MCO office had been here for years. Everyone knew it. Agent Berkowitz motioned for me to keep the card as I went to hand it back, the congenial grin still on his face as he asked:
I handed the card back and walked over.
“Excuse me miss? Do you recognize that man?”
She looked up from her magazine confused, her gum popping in her mouth.
“Yes sir, that's Agent Berkowitz, our field agent. He was out picking up Dr. Paige.”
I turned to the assembled group.
“Good enough. Sorry, I had to make sure.”
And Jamie's parents were too nervous and overwhelmed to. They wouldn't think of it until after any such disappearance on her part.
Doctor Paige couldn't contain himself anymore.
“Alright then, now that we are proven to be who we say we are, how about we get started? This way, Miss Howe. Mr. Howe, Mrs. Howe you may follow agent Berkowitz to the control room with the officers to oversee the process.”
I started back too, following the group, when officer Stahl stopped me.
“Sorry kid, only family beyond this point. It's a law.”
Deflated, I sat back down. Jamie looked like she wanted to protest so I told her:
“Don't worry; I'll be right here till you get back. Wild horses and all.”
She nodded and I eased back, grabbing my book. I had the feeling it would be a long wait.
I took another drink of my Pepsi, draining it. The guy was watching me, silently. The frat type was beginning to notice something was up between us, though he hadn't cared enough to start snooping. Which was good.
“So you two were close then.”
My seatmate said finally, his eyes unreadable for all this his body language screamed sympathy. I responded more out of a sense of needing to fill the silence than anything else.
“Yes, we were close.”
“I must say, you're not at all like you're portrayed in the news. At least some of the news. It might be better for you if you conducted some interviews.”
I shook my head. That's what mom had said too, but it hadn't worked out.
“No, after they butchered the first one by editing it to death I refused. The networks aren't interested in the truth.”
Just in vilifying me for ratings. He made a dismissive gesture and leaned back; clear signs of disbelief.
“Surely there must be a few?”
I hadn't found any, and I told him so.
“The closest to getting it right was Fox news. Even they screwed up a few points, but they got the gist correct.”
And isn't that just scary in and of itself? The idea that you might just be able to trust Fox news, of all things, with telling something closer to the truth than their peers?
He agreed with me on that point at least with a full body shudder, whether he knew it or not. Then I could see the shrewdness sweep over him like the creeping darkness over the moon in those recent big budget space movies.
“That's pretty bad. Yes I can see why you wouldn't want to risk interviews. So, you both are getting along, she did not 'get disappeared'... and then what?”
I heard the question underneath: 'If you didn't do it, how could she possibly get soured on you months later?'
I had to fidget some before I could settle back with a sigh. My tail was just large enough to make me uncomfortable if I sat on it wrong. Just big enough to be nearly impossible to hide and a complete pain in the butt, pun intended. But not big enough to give any special balance powers or be prehensile or any other really cool thing.
If I wanted to be really awkward, I could hold it out straight and balance a Pepsi on it... the extent of my powers. Well that and being in good shape. Nothing a human couldn't achieve, but I didn't need to work at it. The stupid ears increased my hearing, but without the clips in them to moderate the sound I'd more than likely end up deaf. And they were even harder to hide than the tail.
It wasn't even close to being worth the cost. I could have changed into Champion or Superman himself and it wouldn't have been enough.
“Well then she went back to school on Monday....”
I had read most of my book before she was done, and the sun was now streaming into the western facing windows. They had fed the Howes, but hadn't spared a second thought about me. And even with a food court nearby, I wasn't about to go anywhere.
I had just been... forgotten about. So I used that in order to grab a seat and move it into view of both the front and back entrances. I wasn't even sure where they had gone to test her, but they hadn't left.
The receptionist hadn't even looked up. Not even once. I was tempted to open the door and make it chime just to make her do something.
And then Jamie breezed out of what I had taken to be a basic examination room, and therefore way too small to hold any sort of real physical tests in and latched on to me, yanking me up.
“Come on, come on, let's go, let's get out of here!”
If they hurt her....
“Everything is fine, I just want out of here. Like, right now. I'll explain in the car, on the ride home.”
The doctor and agent came out, following Jamie's parents who were in no less of a hurry. The officers brought up the rear, thumbs in their belts, which was something I approved. Jamie all but dragged me out to the car, much to the amusement of everyone else. Even the lazy receptionist.
Then we were safely in the car and on the way home, the officers shadowing us. The MCO types went a different route, I assume back to L.A., or a hotel or something. As long as they stayed away.
The official verdict had been Devisor 2. She had apparently dodged a bullet there; devisors were prone to a sort of megalomania induced by the mutation itself, called “Diedricks” after the first one noticed to be afflicted. Or so says the internet, who knows how accurate that was.
The good news was that Jamie appeared to have none of the triggers for the disease. She wouldn't tell me how they tested her for it, but I could guess. I also guessed that if she did tell me, I'd have to find out a way to commit the perfect crime.
There was apparently an entire mostly unused complex under that strip mall dentist's office. According to Jamie it was the size of two of our gyms, and had all types of strange equipment. Doctor Paige had sent her into a dusty bathroom to get changed into a bodysuit, then run her through her paces. She was still mad about the ping pong ball somehow fired at high velocity at the back of her head.
Something about checking for esper powers.
She was also worked half to death there. Forced to pump iron and run a treadmill and other more mundane things. She was mainly angry that she hadn't gotten a true physical upgrade. I could read it in her tone; she very much wanted to be one of the 'faster, stronger, better' types.
I got the feeling it was mainly a case of too pretty superhero jealousy.
That was an honest affliction for most women, and worse for girls. At least, that was what mom told me. What it really was, was a version of model jealousy; where a female is jealous of another set of female's looks, like young kids are angry and jealous about the bodies of super models, and insecure in their own.
For someone as beautiful as Jamie, it was just ridiculous.
But I couldn't really tell her that. I had tried before, but my words in that particular arena just never took. I didn't understand it, and when asked to explain it in more depth, mom just said it was a girl thing. The only thing I could do was tell her how beautiful she was, and hope that one day she would get the point.
I personally felt most exemplar women were overcompensating for something. And what would happen to them when society's views on beauty finally changed? It had happened before. In Greek and Roman times the only women considered truly beautiful had been ones we would consider as overweight.
It secretly amused me to think that the next crop of 'super-hot' women could be closer to Rosie O-Donnell than Jessica Alba. Though I wouldn't deny Jessica Alba was super hot... and all without being an exemplar.
Having an actress mutate would be big news for at least a week, and every American would know. I hadn't received any such memo. Not that I'd really care if I had; life was too short and if it wasn't other people starving in the streets or dying from disease it wasn't a non-personal problem I could get behind.
“What are you thinking about?”
I looked over and met Jamie's wonderful new eyes, currently clouded with a certain suspicion. Uh-oh. I think she knows. I couldn't even lie to her; it just wasn't an option.
“How you look like Jessica Alba?”
She smacked me on the arm.
“Liar. I don't look a thing like Jessica Alba.”
Hey, she really didn't, but that was the best I could come up with. I wasn't suicidal enough to point out her little jealousy problem. Well only one thing to say; the right thing. I made a show of studying her, just long enough to make her a little uncomfortable with the process, then pounced.
“You're right; you look better.”
Then I totally aced her by kissing her nose.
Her mental reboot took awhile, and I allowed myself a little smug look.
Then she punched me in the arm again. I think I'm going to have to start wearing armor there or something; that spot is beginning to get a little tender.
I wish I had a camera, her face was as red as a tomato.
I handed her her book again. I didn't ask to see her new mutant identification card, and she didn't offer. At least this time we both got some actual reading done. At her house, I headed towards my bike.
“Sorry, I can't stay. The plan tomorrow is still for you to come over for lunch, right?”
“Right. I'll be there.”
I would like to stay and talk to her in private, to get more detail on these tests. But first thing was first. I had to go check in with mom. After all, I wasn't the only one worried about the MCO or vague threats. I couldn't quite insult the Howe's by making such a check in call in front of them. (“Yeah mom, we're on our way back, the Howe's didn't sell Jamie out to the MCO.”)
And making a check in call in the den of the enemy was a good way to end up choked out by ninja or special forces. I'd seen those old '80s movies.
Luckily enough for Rex, he wasn't here. If he had been waiting for his glimpse again I might well have been less forgiving. I wasted no time cycling back. Mom was in the front room watching TV. Some ridiculous Hallmark romance thing of a movie.
“Well, how did it go?”
“Devisor 2, no hint of Diedricks, and she's done. No chance of anything further.”
Like random tails or a second head or anything.
“Well, could have been worse. I take it there were no problems?”
My stomach chose that moment to growl.
“Other than me missing lunch, no. The agent was actually kind of friendly, and the cops didn't mind me checking their identity.”
“Good. Leftovers are in the fridge.”
She glued herself back into the movie while I suppressed a shudder. I couldn't understand how she liked such things. Oh well, the disaster of the day was safely averted.
Leftovers consisted of cold pasta... and I opted for a sandwich and Pepsi instead. Then I snuck both back to my room (mom did not like food going anywhere beyond the kitchen or dining room) and booted up my computer to play a few games. After all, my homework was already done and that new shooter wasn't going to play itself.
A few hours later, after coming to the conclusion that the new shooter was a haven of scrubs and script kitties, I shut it off. What a waste of what could have been a good game. Rolling the kinks out of my shoulders I noticed the time.
I also noticed my phone was vibrating on my desk, with one missed text. It was Jamie, and it said:
She, like me, was not one for shortcuts in typing or texting. I think she got that trait from me in fact, after about the 100th time I asked her what some seemingly random collection of letters and numbers had meant. The message was dated for an hour ago. Whoops.
I texted back: “No, you're missing the new script kitty shooter, scrublet.”
She wasn't a fan of that type of game, preferring something RPG like. But she sometimes played with me, just as I sometimes played hers with her. Compromise, and all that. To be honest, she wasn't half bad at them. She just got frustrated with enemy snipers and spawn campers.
At any rate, it was now late. Or late enough. I was drained from all the worry I couldn't show. I had to be the strong one of the two of us, and it was very wearing. I could only imagine how it was for Jamie. So I just texted her again. I knew she was still up.
“Sorry, tired and going to bed. You probably should too. See you tomorrow.”
The answer came back:
“Night. Sleep well.”
I only hoped she'd get the hint. Instead of nodding off to, well, the land of Nod however, I started to work on the assignments Jamie had missed while in hiding. No sense in her falling behind, and from what I read devisors could get up to speed quickly. So I would simply save her the tedium.
“Wait a minute. You did her homework?”
I flushed a bit, embarrassed at being caught; and by turning myself in, no less. I hadn't meant to let that part slip.
“Yeah. At the time I wanted to do anything I could to help her. And cheating was a way I could help lessen the load, so I did it.”
“And you weren't caught at it?”
“Well I thought that any discrepancies in the work would be glossed over by the really big news, and if there were any flags raised, I didn't catch wind of them. I made it better than her usual assignments, but not amazingly so. Her later schoolwork blew mine away, so I don't think it was ever challenged.”
“I see, and how did the lunch go?”
“It actually went OK; we ate Chinese and then I set her up in front of that shooter I mentioned, and she got wrecked while we both laughed and had fun with it. It was a great time, actually.”
“So even then, there was no hint?”
“None. She seemed perfectly fine. She did get angry, but it was a normal angry and quickly forgotten. She went home after her dad called to see if she was still there, at 9pm. I walked her home, and that was that.”
“And how was school? I assume she went back to her old school?”
“She did, and it was... difficult.”
Bright and early, Monday morning. I was currently walking a vision of loveliness to school. A very nervous vision of loveliness. I could feel the waves of anxiety in the air, and for a non esper to pull that off was quite the feat.
Of course when we got to school everyone was staring at her. Even when I pulled her close, I didn't rate a glance. I was secretly amused by the number of collisions throughout the halls as I walked Jamie to the office. She promptly handed over the doctor's absentee excuse to the harried secretary and walked out before said secretary could say anything.
I shot that secretary an apology in glance form as I hurried out the door to catch up. Even with all the stress, that was a pretty rude thing to do. I would chide her for it later. Once again out in the hall it was easy to catch up to Jamie; all I had to do was follow the stares.
Her first class was American history, and mine was algebra 3. So we were due to be at opposite sides of the school in about 5 minutes. Which meant I needed to hurry, and escort her to class in my plan to take over the world, or at least show other people that she can be trusted and won't eat their heads.
Me sliding up to her elbow actually startled her. That was a less than positive sign.
“Hey, gorgeous. Let's get you to class.”
She knew as well as I did where I was due to be.
“But nothing, I've got plenty of time to see you get safely to the sleepy class.”
Her name for it, not mine. I liked all history classes. And I wasn't about to let someone get her alone without a teacher near. There was no telling what could happen. Besides, I could tell she wanted me near as much as possible; her fingernails currently drawing blood from my forearm were a mute testament to that.
I stopped at the door of course, but watched to make sure she made it to her desk alright. And also to be seen, making sure she made it to her desk alright. A silent show of solidarity, as it were. Then of course I had to run to my class, flat out and dodging people. If a teacher saw me, well I'd just have to take the detention.
I made it with seconds to spare of course; and didn't knock down anyone at all, which was a surprise. And a new personal best record for me.
And class was boring and the work easy, so I amused myself by writing notes plotting a course for both my and Jamie's scholastic future in a social context. Which is to say, planning worst case scenarios. There were hints that Jamie's friends, being the popular queen bee types, would be less than accepting of her new mutant status. I hoped that wasn't the case, it would devastate her... but I just had to see, and the waiting is always the hardest part of anything.
The bell rang and I was out of the classroom before anyone else could do more than look up. Racing down the halls this time was simple for the first few precious seconds and that was all I needed. I managed to make it back to Jamie's side in just over a minute flat, only a little out of breath. She favored me with a wry smile.
“How long are you planning to hover over me like this?”
My reply was easy.
“As long as you want me to.”
Evidently this was the right thing to say, judging by her widened eyes and glazed expression.
“Dude, get a room if you two are going to do that.”
I smiled as I replied to that. It wasn't like I cared what others thought, after all.
“Mind your own business, Jimmy. Or maybe you and I should get that room?”
A slight wiggle of my eyebrows his direction and he was fleeing. But even better, Jamie was laughing, a carefree throaty sound of mirth. I loved to hear her laugh. She had several different types, and I loved them all.
Our next class was together, though we couldn't sit next to each other. Mr Peasely thought it would be disruptive. Perhaps he was right, but we wouldn't know unless we tried it, right? Seemed to work out for study hall. Then again, Mrs. French really didn't care what we did, as long as we weren't too loud. Some kids even watched movies on their phones with earplugs in. Sure, they hid them behind books but everyone knew what they were doing.
If I'd tried that though, my mother would find out somehow and ground me for life. Study hall was for studying. I brought my mind back on task in time to ask:
“So, how was the sleepy class?”
Translation; did anyone give you trouble in history?
Translation: No not really, but they stared a lot and whispered and it made me uncomfortable.
The next class was biology 2, and we shared it. Which was a blessing, as running around constantly would get me detention for sure. I didn't really care, but it would make it hard to walk her home. Having her take the bus alone would be worse, and a good walk never hurt anybody. Of course Jamie didn't know I was contemplating that move, and I was already framing a way to get around her objections to it. She was allergic to exercise sometimes.
In biology class we didn't sit together, she sat several desks behind me at the back. I sat second from the front; not up front with the teacher's pets, but close enough I could clearly see and hear everything the teacher said. With a slight wave I took my seat, taking careful note of the class and their reactions.
Then I spent most of the class staring down people who were staring at Jamie, while Jamie's own wonderful eyes attempted to bore a hole in the back of my head. I only barely took part in class, far from my usual, but Mr. Anders didn't say a single word about it.
He had eyes for Jamie too. He at least, was a bit more subtle about it.
I doubted it was something sordid; after all he was a happily married man. His wife was also a teacher, of P.E. And as old as she had to be she still looked good enough to make the dead sit up from their graves and take notice (though she didn't hold a candle to Jamie). So I was betting his new found interest was more clinical. Wonder what a biology teacher's interest in the lone mutant in his class (or town for that matter) could be.
The bell rang and I took note of the assignment before standing up. I hadn't even done more than open my book to the wrong page and pretend; I could always just do the assignment later, even if I don't know what it is at the moment.
I collected Jamie at her desk, and we walked to her next class, Home ec. The idea of Jamie playing little Susie home-maker was as always, endlessly amusing to me. My own class was Spanish 1. I had tried to talk Jamie into learning Spanish with me, but she didn't see the need. For my own part, I could always use more languages. Now American Spanish was not the same as the one from my mom's homeland. So what I was really doing was learning the cultural differences between the two.
My mother had taught me Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French. Though my French was pretty basic; enough to order at restaurants and ask where the bathrooms were. Mother despaired, she was a master of several more languages, but though I was willing, adding French seemed to crowd the others out. There seemed to be an upper limit to how many languages I could learn.
At any rate, I seriously doubted anything crazy could happen at home ec, after all it was home ec, and Mrs. Winters was a bit of a battleaxe. There was some debate among us students as to whether she was a clone or a robot; she looked like she was around for world war 2, but was suspiciously spry for someone that old.
On my own lonely way to class, I found myself bracketed and a beefy arm around my shoulder. My two bookends were Arnold Trask and Ben Vecilio, two of the bigger troublemakers of our school. And that's both literal and figurative. Locally known as Arnie and Benny, they were like something from fast times at Ridgemont high meeting the Hell's Angels. Hmm, maybe I should ask if Arnold is related to officer Trask? It was likely, this was a small town after all. Arnold spoke first:
“So, Benny here and I are concerned. Here you are, hanging out with a mutie. And I thought you were smart. Don't you know muties is dangerous?”
That's Arnold for you, not only an ignorant hater, but one with bad grammar. I decided to play dumb.
“Sorry, to whom are you referring?”
So far I was managing to keep a tight rein on my temper; but it was already getting difficult. The only thing that stopped me so far was the simple fact that grammar aside, he was correct so far. Jamie was a mutant, so it was a fair description; even if I wouldn't use the term dangerous.
“To your girlfriend, Jamie! It's only a matter of time before she flips out and kills us all!”
And then he was on the ground, and my fist was stinging. I tried to focus past the buzz in my brain and singing blood in my ears.
“That's my girl you're talking about, Arnie. Be very careful what you say. And as for that statement, don't let me catch or hear you saying it again. Because if I do, I'm going to hurt you.”
He jumped right back up, red faced, before Ben could jump in (Ben was always a bit slow).
“Now see here you....”
My cold, matter of fact voice cut through his yelling bluster. It was obvious I didn't care about his size or reputation as I jabbed a finger in his chest.
“No, you see here. I don't care what you say about me; I don't care about your reputation; I don't care about your friends. Impugn my girlfriend again, and win or lose, I will make you bleed buckets. Buckets, you understand?”
He quieted and gave me a long look. I waited. I was willing to wait there all day.
“I got it. You're an alright guy Lucas. I hope everything goes well. I'll just owe you for the sucker punch.”
I was suddenly all smiles again.
“Feel free to collect any time you want. I've got to get to class.”
“So you went as far as all that? Defending her honor and reputation and everything?”
My curious seatmate asked.
I nodded, swimming in my own remembered misery. I was saved by the stewardess.
“Excuse me, would you like a lunch?”
“Yeah, I'd like the ham sandwich, the uh... option number one.”
The stewardess dutifully handed over the deli style ham sandwich and a bag of generic potato chips; smile still plastered on.
“I'll take the same but with the apple slices please.”
That was also passed over, and then the stewardess turned to me, and that pasted on smile faltered ever so slightly. I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't been looking for it. My ears weren't out so I assume she was informed through the passenger manifest or the pilot.
“I'll take the vegetarian option please.”
She handed a prepackaged salad over with a separate packaged fork and napkin.
I didn't even need to think about it.
My seatmate didn't even bat an eye; no doubt due to his careful attention to the accounts of my sordid history he knew of my dietary restrictions. I couldn't help eying his sandwich as I broke my own food from its confinement. Even after all this time, I missed meat.
At least the salad had carrots in it. Nice, crunchy carrots.
I ignored the amusement I felt radiating from my side as I ate. Yes, I knew salad was stereotypical. Yes, I knew carrots specifically were stereotypical. But my digestive tract was no longer fully omnivorous; meat made me sick. The more I ate, the worse it got. No one was sure if it was BIT or genetics, but my mentor Ibby couldn't eat meat easily either.
At least he allowed me to eat in silence. He was rather focused on his own food. What was it about air travel that made people hungry for crap food? The salad was maybe fast food grade, and I'm sure the sandwich was the same.
Once finished it was a small wait for the stewardess to pick up the trash, then of course I needed to relieve myself. So then I had to be “that guy”... or rather, “that girl” and bother my seatmates. I probably could have waited if I wanted, but my ears were getting downright painful.
Just because I could fold them down, didn't mean it was pleasant to do for long periods.
As soon as I was alone and the flimsy door was safely locked, I pulled the hood back and let them spring up on their own. I couldn't fully suppress the sigh. Moving them allowed me to work the kinks out. Using the seat covers thoughtfully provided by the airline I did the thing bathrooms were actually for, almost as an afterthought. Then I sat there a bit longer, stretching my stupid ears as much as I could so they wouldn't cramp up again.
Then the hood went back up, and I went out to face the suspicious world again.