Down the Rabbit Hole (Part 2)
A 2nd Generation Whateley Academy Story
Down the Rabbit Hole
It didn't take long for the suspicions of the outside world to rear their ugly heads; one was just outside the bathroom door in fact.
The air marshal was a large man, just past middle age with rugged features and dressed almost like a cowboy; faded jeans over boots that could be real snakeskin, a large silk shirt that showed how well built he was, and a suit jacket. I expected a gun, but there wasn't one. I couldn't spot a bulge at the armpits, but I knew he had to be armed somewhere. I tried not to let the suspicion painting his face get to me; after all, he was paid to be paranoid.
Perhaps it was wrong to assume he was an air marshal, but Murphy stated I was to be a whipping boy – or girl – before. So wrong or not, I was looking for something to go wrong, and this guy screamed cop, whether I saw a badge or not. His ice breaker statement only reinforced the cop impression.
“Everything all right, miss?”
“Um, yes sir. Nature doesn't stop calling just because we're at 50,000 feet.”
He squinted an eye shut into my myopic smile a good long moment before finally moving and letting me though. Then he went inside the bathroom himself... though I suspected it was more to inspect it for nasty surprises I might have left as opposed to any pressing need of his own. On a whim I slowed my walk, and sure enough he came out about a minute later and went back to the stewardess's hold or workspace or whatever it was called. Jerk.
I once again bothered my seatmates by making them move their legs and scooting into my seat.
“Are you alright? You were gone for some time.”
The businessman, who I was beginning to have doubts about actually seemed concerned. Well, he at least already knew so I supposed I could tell him. I leaned in to whisper.
“Everything's fine. Just... well, sometimes if my ears are in the same position for a long time they cramp.”
I think the frat boy heard me, headphones or not, 'cause I caught him looking over at me. But my hoodie was still up, so I was sort of safe to scrutiny. I waited and he got the hint, going back to his phone. Through it all the businessman waited patiently.
A quick glance at his laptop revealed no open recording programs or word documents; which I took to be a good sign. He smiled when I looked up, and I knew he knew what I had been checking for.
“Now, so there you were, helping the young lady adjust, and everything was going swimmingly....”
“Right. Starting from there, then.”
Time flies, whether you're having fun or not. Eventually. After the big excitement of Jamie's mutation, things settled down to a new kind of normal. A change in the status quo. Jamie was out of the cool kids clique; it hadn't taken her former friends long to decide that she was too weird and they didn't want to be around her anymore.
She had taken to wearing jeweler's glasses (or something similar that magnified small things, for all I know she made them herself) and muttering to herself while tinkering with small devices of unknown origin, which has yet to help her image at school. Once a bright girl, she now outstripped me and everyone else in that area, which led to her cold shoulder among most of the geeks and nerds. Who knew geeks and nerds got jealous about such things?
Still, even outcast as she was, there were some brave few that would accept her for who she now was; and it was to that particular lunch table of unusual suspects that I was headed. It had taken time to root out the fakers and sycophants from the genuine article; the wheat from the chaff. Jamie had been reeling from the betrayal of her closest friends, so I had been the one to conduct most of the impromptu interviews. Which basically meant that I had just sat down beside them one day and talked.
Jamie did not like me spilling my guts about her situation, but she couldn't argue with the results. Several new friends, made to order and far less likely to stab her in the back the moment she looked away. I still hadn't gotten back at her old so-called friends for dumping on her like they had, but I would. I was only human after all, and better me than Jamie. Jamie didn't need that sort of karma.
Lunch was, of course, where the real difference was seen. The cafeteria had a heavy early 20th-century asylum feel, with dingy white walls and a puke green tile floor. I wasn't sure where, but the school had found long fold out tables with benches built in to match the floor, and set them through the place. Master decorators the school staff wasn't. At least the kitchen was mostly clean, and the staff tried to keep their beards (men and women both) out of the soup.
Long story short, we both had a new love for the outcast table. Jamie because the school at large stated she belonged there, and myself because the school at large said she belonged there. Like most of the smarter students I brought my own lunch, and I spread it out before me; a cold burger from the local burger joint along with equally cold fries. I subscribed to the firm belief that even cold it was better than the alternative... and sometimes I was able to warm it up using one of the microwaves next to the vending machines. One glance showed I couldn't do it today though, and I just sat down.
I sat down right next to two of the outcasts; the wonder twins. The wonder twins were Jeff and Jane, twins who before their simultaneous growth spurts had looked nearly identical, a fact which had made the small and petite Jeff a target for ridicule. Now he was almost as tall as I was, and had some real muscle while his sister has been filling out nicely. Despite all that, the resemblance was still uncanny, somehow.
At least nowadays anyone could tell them apart. I bet Jeff was relieved about that too.
Across the table from me was Marcus. Marcus was, well, out of shape. Or to put it less nicely, he had a shape – a pear. For all that he couldn't run 100 steps without gasping and grinding to a halt, he was a nice guy who was even more laid back than I was. We had actually been friends for a few years. He never did deserve the treatment he got for not living up to the California ideal, and really liked Jamie. Despite the fact that Jamie was trying to get him to exercise.
And so I waited with ill-concealed impatience while Jamie stood in the lunch line. That meant one of two things; either she had forgotten her own lunch again, or her mom hadn't made one. Jamie now required a little bit of help focusing in the kitchen; she had discovered how much cooking resembled chemistry, and was in an experimentation phase. A phase her mother did not want to promote in any way shape or form. I wasn't sure I blamed her for not wanting the mess involved, but I know I blamed her for how it made Jamie feel when Mrs. Howe scolded her.
Of course, that led to other problems.
I watched as Jamie was bracketed by her former friends on the cheer team, or squad, or whatever they wanted to call themselves this week. Before I could get up she was shoved, twice, a game of human tennis. Marcus reached out and snagged my hand as they left, preventing me from tracking the scum down and delivering a little retribution.
“No man, just ignore it. She will feel worse if you don't.”
I sat back down, mainly out of confusion.
“How would that even work?”
He looked me straight in the eye, something he didn't do to anyone often.
“Trust me. Just act like you didn't see a thing. If you want help settling up later, you got it, OK? But don't say anything to her.”
I shrugged and nodded. He hadn't steered me wrong so far. And then the light amongst the darkness was in our midst.
“Hey! How's it going today?”
Marcus gave his customary mumbled “fine” as I kissed her on the cheek in answer. She looked nervous as she sat down on my other side, but she rapidly took in my lack of visible rage to mean that I hadn't seen any of the bullying. She was almost certain of it when I stared at her lunch.
“Mom wouldn't let you in the kitchen again? Only reason to eat that garbage.”
She nodded with a sigh.
“You try one little recipe with rock salt and borax and you're banned forever.”
I looked at her with a smirk. “Isn't that the one that moved?”
She coughed a bit in embarrassment. “Yes, but only a little?”
Jane rolled her eyes and Jeff called her on it.
“Pretty sure things move when you cook too, sister mine. So no room to talk there.”
I shrugged it off.
“Don't worry about it Jamie, if she keeps giving you trouble, just ask her about the magic brownies.”
With one statement I managed to confuse them all.
“What do you mean, magic brownies?”
“Listen and learn, neophytes. They were kids once too; statistically the chances are good that your mom has made weed brownies before. Mention it and watch her closely; if she flinches, then she did, and you have ammunition that will let you back in the kitchen, should you want to go back that is.”
My mom had flinched when I suggested it. Then mentioned something about rabbits which I hadn't quite caught, cause she clammed up. I preferred not to guess about what that might mean... no one wanted to think about their parents that way. If anything, I had just made Jamie more confused.
“But that makes no logical sense whatsoever?”
“Of course not, but not every argument is logical, and not every way to win one requires logic. Usually, just the appearance of such is enough.”
There was a sparkle in Jamie's eye.
“That's remarkably underhanded of you.”
I mock preened. “Thank you, I try.”
Jane just poked Jeff in the ribs, as if to say 'take notes'. We finished eating in relative silence; for some reason the other regular occupants of our table weren't here. Sometimes they skipped lunch, but I still wasn't sure what happened to them when they did. Nothing bad I hoped.
Jamie stopped me as I got up to throw my trash away.
“We still on for after school?”
I had to admit, I was fascinated by my girlfriend. The things she could do were nothing short of amazing, no matter how weird they got. She was involved in some internet project posed to get answers on mutation, and how it worked. She was even getting paid a small amount from her work on it.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the current wave of human mutation was a concept called a “body image template,” which was a foundation for how the super pretty type of mutant worked. The term used by those in the know and Jamie clued me in. Their body actually conformed to an image, possibly an ideal, which was somehow tied to them. It was also considered that some of the more inhuman looking mutants also had one. How it was tied to the person, and when, no one knew.
That was what Jamie and several other smart mutants were studying. So far her own research seemed to indicate that the body image template was linked to the actual genetic code of the person, and existed well before mutation started. She also had mentioned something about it being similar to a form of mutation called an “avatar”, but that was where she lost me.
But lost or not, it was very interesting.
“Wouldn't miss it for the world. See you after school.”
My seatmate stopped me there, gently.
“Sorry to interrupt, but what is an avatar, exactly?”
“Oh, my bad. I've learned a few of the terms used to describe different mutants. An avatar is your basic host type of mutant that a spirit finds a home in, like Champion. The theory that Jamie was working on was that the mutant with a body image template and an avatar were actually similar mutations, and while the avatar mutation allowed for a sort of extra-dimensional space that served as a home for a spirit, the body image template mutation had a similar sort of space that allowed the mutant to host certain concepts involving body images, such as....”
“Young ladies with rabbit ears?”
I winced but suppressed the more violent reaction as I continued.
“… or super beautiful superman type women and men, yes. Supposedly it also explains the more monstrous looking mutants out there as well. Though the mutant may hold their own image of what they should be, there can also be images that are just out there in the minds and subconscious of large groups of people that might still end up being expressed, or altering the image the mutant themselves holds.”
I stopped when I saw his eyes start to glaze, and suppressed my enthusiasm. I was such a nerd, talking mutant theory without a care in the world with some random person on a plane while an air marshal watched me from a few seats away.
He wasn't very subtle; I could smell his cheap aftershave even if I couldn't hear him muttering about me.
“Well at least that is the theory anyway.”
“Alright, well please, continue.”
“Alright, so after school....”
I walked at a leisurely pace. It wouldn't do to arrive too quickly at Jamie's house; it would smack of hovering. We had already had one discussion on what she termed as 'hovering' and I wasn't anxious for another. So this week had been all about being fashionably late so she wouldn't get suspicious. That and chasing away morons, though lately there had been fewer morons to chase away ever since Karl Davies had shown up at school with the raccoon treatment (which was a black nose and two black eyes).
Jamie and I had made good fun of him, with Jamie wondering briefly who had beaten him up. He wasn't talking, and I didn't say.
But sitting outside the Howe home with a pair of binoculars trained at Jamie's bedroom window in the morning was a bit much. If anything, he got off lucky. And the only reason he wasn't in the hospital was because Jamie always kept her curtains closed in the mornings; she hated having the sun wake her up.
He hadn't known that, though, which was why he'd gotten punched in the first place. The one good shot he'd gotten on me was easily concealed, which made it the perfect crime. I half expected all his friends to jump me any day now, however. I'd cross that bridge when I came to it; many of those guys were my friends. Which I hoped meant they would at least let me explain why I was beating so many of their own down before they went straight for violence.
I figured there was a 50/50 chance of that. Most of the guys caught trying to peep hadn't said why I had been less than happy to see them, after all. If the harassment kept up though, I'd be calling the cops. I had hoped it would die down as people realized Jamie hadn't grown a second head, and some of it had, but there were still curious people. And for all I knew it could just be completely innocent curiosity over the lone mutant in the area. I still wasn't about to allow it in my presence.
A swift rap on the door and it opened right up; I had been expected. Mrs. Howe still wouldn't meet my eyes, though Mr. Howe had gotten much better about it. At least, Jamie had stopped griping about more than the usual stuff she used to gripe about them over; something I took as a good sign.
“Hello Mrs. Howe.”
“hello Luke. How are you today?”
“I'm well. How are you?”
I actually did stop to exchange pleasantries. My mother was adamant about proper behavior, and much as I tried not to let it, her lessons stuck.
“I'm fine. Jamie is upstairs.”
Well, so today was a networking day. Jamie alternated her time between chatting with people like her online or building devices on her own. Sometimes it was every other day, but more often she was spending much more time talking to other devisors online about BIT theory and other tech. I didn't understand a single word, but Jamie thought the information was advancing the cause, so I was fine with it.
What was the cause? Nothing less than finding out how mutations, or at least the mutations that caused powers, actually worked. I don't think Jamie liked being a mutant. Not that I could blame her. I tried to make things easier for her, but I could only do so much, and some days it seemed the entire world was against her, even from my point of view.
I managed to sneak up behind her, just walking right in after she didn't even respond to the knock. I was used to at least a few of her new habits by now.
As I suspected, she was hunched over her computer, her face painted garish by the light from the screen as shadows crept about the room. Next to her on the desk was some little something... some kind of gadget. She had made. Or was making, it didn't look finished.
I wrapped my arms around her and smirked as she squeaked and tried to jump up.
“Luke! You should knock first!”
I had to block her shot at my arm, gently as I could. She could pack quite a bit into a punch now. I pointed at the thing on the desk.
“I did. You didn't answer, which meant you were busy with things. I was right. So what is it tonight, brain?”
Her answering grin was as wonderful as ever.
“Same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.”
I looked over her shoulder as she settled back in, adjusting her glasses.
“No, really, what's going on?”
She gestured at the chat logs.
“Well, Etherz claims he's made some progress in determining which dimensions the body image template appears visible in; and is currently tweaking his astral camera to get shots. Genotrope claims she has made progress in mapping the blank genes responsible for the BIT. And Psychokidz claims progress in determining which triggers are responsible for starting the mutation process.
But none of them have put it all together; they are all just arguing about who is right.”
I sat back in the spare chair, wishing I had some popcorn to watch the fireworks with. The arguments were always entertaining. It actually took a good 20 minutes for the three stooges (as I called them in my head) to remember that JAH2000 (Jamie's internet name for the purposes of this chat) was still present and accounted for.
Then Psychokidz made the mistake of asking her what she thought. With a knowing smirk, I leaned in to watch her type the response back.
'I think you're all right.' she typed, then leaned back into me to admire the fireworks. They were not long in coming.
'What? How can we all be right?!? The very idea....'
'The only true answer is obviously genetic....'
but unsurprisingly the Psychokidz, the self described mentalist, appeared to be considering the words.
'Well we all know the mind can affect the body; saying all these factors are linked is certainly nothing new. But without being able to attach correct import to each one, we are left in the dark about the process overall. Do you have any ideas there JAH?'
The idea she typed back was pretty brilliant; even I could tell.
'MRI scans of the brain. We already do the genetic mapping and look through other dimensions for influences on body image. We aren't mapping the brain itself, and brain activity during the time of change or when powers relating to a BIT are used. Either type of scan would give us more information.'
The chat room was silent for several minutes while we grinned at each other; it wasn't often Jamie could completely stymie them all. Then the practical though came back from psychokidz.
'We don't have an MRI to test this with.'
Jamie had been waiting for that one.
'We do. Etherz camera has one according to it's specs. It should be relatively easy to re-purpose it or build a version for just such a thing, provided he agrees to allow us.'
This surprised me.
“You're actually waiting on his permission?”
She shook her head, grin still in place and pointed to the gutted electrical thing I'd seen on her desk earlier.
“Of course not, but he doesn't know that. And I'll just give up the idea if he says no... and simply look up the plans for something similar but different on the internet. If it exists, it's there, after all.”
She had a point. The next message came in, from Etherz:
'So how are we going to find subjects on the verge of mutation? I can see us scanning normals for a baseline, but how do we find any correlation?'
That was a good question and one she had an answer for. Interesting.
'Simple, we don't. We scan all humans while bombarding them with images or thoughts of mutation to stimulate the thought process, then compare them to see if there are any matches.'
Oddly enough it was Genotrope that came back with the first reasoned objection, considering what kind it was.
'we would have to carefully screen the images to ensure they only provide stimuli for the areas we want to test for; no extremely hot mutant women or massive GSD cases, as those might incite lust or disgust or other emotions we don't want.'
A good point, I'll leave it to you and Psychokidz to set it up; I'll work on modifying the camera specs, with permission.'
'Etherz knew what she was implying. I could almost feel the curiosity ooze from the screen as he replied.
'You have it. You going to run the first scan tests?'
'Sure. I have a number of willing subjects to help me establish a baseline, at the very least. TTYL, signing off now.'
I shook my head as she powered down her computer.
“You just volunteered us all, didn't you?”
The twinkle in her eye as she wrapped herself around me said it all. But she spoke to seal the deal anyway.
“No, not all. Just my boyfriend who loves me, and a few other close friends who won't mind being a footnote in the annals of science for one of the greatest mysteries of the modern age.”
“Sheesh, layer it on thicker won't you?”
With a wink, she turned back to her thing.
“If I do, do you think they will fall for it?”
“I don't think you need to worry. I'm sure we can find enough people to help you out; yes me included.”
“Good! I was hoping you'd feel that way; now hold still and think mutant thoughts. This might tingle.”
I looked up with alarm to note she was now holding the business end of her machine. Where she had hidden it I don't know, but now what looked like one of those old small motion cameras from the 40's or something was pointed directly at me. I did in fact. feel a tingle. I also stayed perfectly still. Survival trait; if a somewhat... distracted genius tells you to hold still while testing something on you, it was best to do it.
“And that's it! See, that wasn't so bad, now was it?”
“A little warning next time! Well, I haven't grown a third arm or anything. So what did you learn?”
Her face fell.
“You know I'd never....”
I waved that off.
“I know, I know. So what did you learn, seriously?”
She perked up briefly before her face fell again.
“Well, I don't know. I won't know until I plug the data into my computer and translate it. All I've really got at the moment is a snapshot of your brain activity at the time of' a slight pause as she looked at her watch while I rolled my eyes. '5:23 pm, and after a discussion regarding mutation, after which you may be more receptive and stimulating the areas we need.”
“Crap! Its really that late? Mom's working late and It's my turn to make dinner!”
She reached up and poked me in the forehead.
“Whipped. Alright, you better get going. But first.”
Her arms snaked around me and pulled me into a kiss. I was enjoying the effort when I felt a pull at the base of my neck.
“Hey! What are you doing?!?”
She held up a few of my hairs before placing them in a baggie.
“Simple. I needed your DNA too. It'll grow back.”
Hair didn't grow back when you pulled it out root and all. But then again, knowing Jamie, she probably had some scheme to give me hair like a rockstar at some point, so I let it go.
“Sigh, fine, but you should ask everyone else first. Mention the DNA thing specifically too. No shades of gray; you don't want to end up sued by irate parents over DNA research without consent or anything like that. Come to think of it, isn't that how Genotrope said he got in trouble?”
“Something like that. I'll do it by the book, I promise.”
I knew it, it was similar but much worse in his case. She had taken to slumming with bad influences online! And now I sounded entirely too much like my mom or some other parent! The horror!
“Alright, well I wish I could stay.' - I really did, she was looking down again -'but my mom will be out for both our heads if she doesn't have food by the time she gets home. See you tomorrow!”
I tore through the house at record speeds; I only had until 6, and I would need at least twenty minutes to throw what I had waiting in the fridge together and warm it up. Proper planning would save my bacon again.
Now I had to clarify a thing or two to my seatmate.
“It was around this time, that the one person who needed to be prosecuted more than any other in this entire mess hatched her 'cunning little plan' that made everything go completely south for all of us.”
I nodded, nervously eying the college bum, whom I was now sure was listening while pretending not to – along with shooting me gazes when he thought I wasn't looking. I was kind of sure he was trying to check me out through my baggy clothes, but on that much at least my disguise was fairly foolproof.
“yes, one Amy Milsner. She had the idea that I was better off with her, and had come up with a foolproof plan....”
“You sure this'll work?”
Daniel was an idiot, but for now, still a useful one.
“Yes, it'll work. You do your part, I do mine, and you get your shot at the mutant free of interference, and I get Luke. Everyone wins. You just have to do your part and keep her tied up for exactly three minutes, then escort her to the gym as planned.”
She sees Luke with me, goes a little wild, they break up, and I can move in and save Luke from the crazy bitch. Simple. And Danny, who's had a torch for the mutie since freshman year, can pick her up on the rebound. Everyone wins. Even if they get together and compare notes later, once the damage was done it would be done.
I didn't understand what hold the bitch had over every male my age group in this town, but it was disgusting. She wasn't THAT pretty, or smart, or funny. What was it that she had, that the rest of us didn't?
Well, after tomorrow, she wouldn't have Luke.
A blowup and I would be there to pick up the pieces and pull that harpy's claws out of the most amazing boy in school. She could make do with second best, for once. Everything was set up, and my plants were in place. Even though I wasn't sure whose side they were on. I could hardly wait for tomorrow to come, and I knew focusing on homework was a lost cause. So after dropping my crap off at home I decided it was time for a walk.
I often walked to clear my head, it was one of the best things one could do. Even though I had a reputation to maintain as a savvy techno kid of the 21st-century, walks remained my guilty pleasure. I could always answer calls or texts while walking... if I kept it on. Sometimes silence was golden. I'd first met Luke on a walk; he liked them too.
Luke did everything for her; he had come to us after the witch's mutation, while she was 'still down about what happened' and asked us to support her. We set him straight quickly. But if he'd asked me, I'd have done it. Keep your friends close and enemies closer, after all.
But he hadn't.
Instead he had gathered the misfits and complete social rejects together in a new clique and thumbed his nose at us. All because we didn't like the hussy that had everything. He hardly ever spoke to any of us anymore, and when he did it was to warn us to lay off the hussy.
Without knowing it I had started running, moisture in my eyes. I forced myself to slow down, think, and put it out of my mind – at least until tomorrow, when I'd finally do something about it. I also hadn't realized the route my feet had taken. I was standing in front of his house.
I could see him through the kitchen window, making dinner for his mom, who wasn't home yet. I checked my phone; she was late. Looked like stir fry. I turned around just in time, as his mom pulled up in that old diesel Audi of hers. I don't think his mom knew I existed, and I wanted to keep it that way, at least for now.
I couldn't wait until I could meet her.
I heard mom pull up outside just as I was putting the finishing touches on the meal. Just in time! I snuck all evidence of my laziness into the sink and trash and managed to light the candle just as she slumped her way into the dining room. I'd have to be blind not to notice she was tired; though if I were I'd probably hear it...
I started massaging her shoulders the minute she parked herself in a chair; not her customary chair, the one nearest the hall and fewest steps into the room.
She bobbed her head in a way I took to mean yes.
“A client wanted to wrap their Lamborghini around a tree, and I had to work on damage control. Not sure why my clients feel the law does not apply to them. It's like a disease.”
“Well, stir-fry makes everything better. Dig in.”
She didn't waste any time, though she could probably chew before asking questions. “Homework?”
I'd done it early this morning, and she hadn't been awake enough to notice. Same as my chores. Gone were the days when mom could assign me chores in the hopes that I would 'stay out of trouble'. Not that I went out of my way to advertise that fact.
“Done. There is a new movie on 'Netmovie' I thought you might like, so I took the liberty of queuing it up for you.”
I knew how to press all the right buttons, and she knew it.
“What do you want, Luke?”
I knew that she knew, and knew she'd suspect something.
“Why not a thing mother dearest... perhaps store credit?”
She scoffed openly at that and waited.
“Alright, alright. Lessons this weekend?”
I know she wouldn't want to, having just dealt with a car horror story today, but extra lessons could help me pass my driver's test, and I would be 16 soon. That and I loved my mom's car; it had a sunroof; that stupid utilitarian Ford the school used to teach us was small and stuffy.
That and I trusted my mom over Mr. Miles, the driver's ed teacher. For all that his name lent itself to jokes, most of his advice was in tune of 'left, left, you little brat!' and 'That's a wall! Park this thing before you kill us and give someone else a turn.'
Not a lot of help there.
“Alright, you're on. One hour, and only one hour. And we stay local.”
Ouch, that was barely enough to get behind the wheel. But it would help. The roads around here were country ones, good stretches of asphalt that didn't see much traffic and had all the stops clearly marked. I knew them, there were no surprises waiting on them for me.
“Good enough. Now, we have a movie to watch.”
We got to bed a bit late that night. I stayed up to watch the movie, which turned out to be a bit longer than I suspected. I really should keep a closer eye on the run timers for these things. Then I ended up having to tuck mom into the couch when she fell asleep halfway through.
I wasn't about to wake her up, though; that way led madness.
As I did every night for the last six months, I checked my phone for texts. Sometimes Jamie or a few of my other friends liked to text me late at night, and it was rude to ignore them. At least, if they did it before ten. After ten pm I treated it like a phone call and ignored it provided it wasn't a huge screaming emergency. Nothing tonight, so the land of Nod was calling my name.
Mom wasn't there when I woke, but she had made breakfast... and a list of things she wanted me to do. The house was clean enough that most of it could be ignored, but I would have to mow the yard. Which meant that tonight I couldn't spend time with Jamie. Mom would likely work late again, and between the large yard and making dinner, well, it'd be late before I could go anywhere. Maybe I could invite her over? Mom likely wouldn't get too angry about that... unless Jamie started taking apart the toaster again. Mom took her morning toast seriously.
I was out and on my bike right on time, enjoying the morning. Summer was technically already here, complete with an early wildfire season warning. But the air was fresh and clean, and the birds were singing. The deer were bounding across the road right on cue, and all seemed right with the world. Then of course, in order to mock the wonder inherent in the day, I was forced to enter the dark and slightly dank confines of our local school. Go, completely original wildcats.
And straight into the boredom of the first class.
“And this was...?”
I nodded, cutting him off. He was trying to ask the question without asking the question, which was annoying. And my stupid ears were kinking again.
“Yes, this was Thursday, the 19th. THE day.”
I'd thought I had made that clear with the earlier reference to HER. My seatmate held his hands up in defense. Mock defense it had to be, because as angry as I was, the only move I had made had been away from him. Besides, threatening, I was not. He could probably take me, and if he couldn't then the frat boy next to us could.
I stared out the window and massaged my ears under the guise of scratching my head. I could feel the pressure of his eyes boring into my hoodie, my armor against the world.
“The school day was normal. Normal boring classes, standard crappy lunch, an annoying gym class, more normal classes. My only clue that something was up was after school. Amy Milsner is a cheerleader, and asked for my help with something after school....”
“Come on Luke, I need strong arms, and everyone else skipped on me.”
I wasn't happy with Amy, but she probably did need the help. No one liked to pick up the gym after school. I still wasn't sure which teacher she had pissed off to get the honors; usually, the honor went to the person that had failed the most in gym class. Normally she had no problem conning people nearby for the honor of helping her, but they had apparently gotten wise.
I was too nice for my own good sometimes.
The gym was empty of course, but several of the banks of lights were out too, and that was odd. It made some large patches of shadow in the large building. Normally if the lights were out, they all were; I smelled something funny at work here. The boxes of freshly delivered equipment we needed to pick up and put away was in the well lit areas at least. We got such deliveries sometimes, and the school didn't want to pay the janitor to move them; he was union. The coaches would probably do it, but they were busy with after school activities.
I started in, Amy of course supervising with a muttered “that box there” and “this one over there”, rolling my eyes. The door that led to the girl's shower opened and Amy jumped me immediately, wrapping her arms around my neck and dragging me down with her weight into a lip-lock so full it was almost painful. When she tried to stick her tongue down my throat though, I all but threw the box occupying my hands and tore free. There were flashes from the corner; Danielle and Marsha were both there with phones in camera mode, happily snapping away.
“What the hell, Amy?”
She was smiling. The gym door swung closed again, but not before I caught sight of the most wonderful and familiar backside in the school.
I should have known. I should have known she was plotting something from the start; it wasn't as if Amy had a shortage of people willing to do her bidding. Even though she already asked me, I should have known. But this? This ploy is one of the oldest plots in the book. And I fell for it.
I had to take the long way around; I couldn't go through the girl's showers. I almost did it anyway, and suspension be darned, but Danielle and Marsha were still taking pictures. Video evidence posted online would be bad. Especially if mom saw it.
I pulled out my phone as I ran, my heart growing cold. Letting Jamie draw her own conclusions would be bad; she tended towards the jealous under the best circumstances. I would have expected her to confront us immediately and possibly punch Amy out. She didn't, and I wasn't sure what that meant, but it made me uneasy. Speed dialing her number with my phone on speaker, I could clearly hear the click as she picked up... then a loud sob just before she hung up on me.
The next attempt just rang to voice mail. She must have turned off her phone. Not good, she must really be pissed. I didn't leave a voice mail and the moment I hung up my own phone rang. It wasn't Jamie however.
“Luke, come back. Let's talk about this.”
“I don't think so Amy. I think you'd better forget my number.”
I never regretted giving her my number more than this moment. I hung up on her but for some reason, my phone was now permanently busy no matter what I did. Oh well, not like I wanted to explain what had happened over the phone anyway.
I shaded my eyes against the bright sunshine as I shoulder checked the outer door. Somehow, she was faster than I was. I had taken to walking her to school, to keep the creeps in all their flavors away; I was in great shape, but somehow, I had completely lost her. Sure, I had taken the long way around, but she wasn't even in sight. Checking both directions of the street yielded nothing. Where had she vanished to?
Didn't matter; I knew where she would be headed, or if not, where she would end up. I couldn't run all the way to her house, but I could jog. And perhaps walk very fast. A full jog to her house would take me about twenty minutes. I might even be able to catch up to her.
But wait. When Jamie was upset and wanted to think, well before her mutation, she had always gone to her secret spot. The spot wasn't really that much of a secret, it was in a public spot after all, but it was a copse of trees by a stream were hardly anyone ever went. She had showed me the spot once, and I had a history of finding her there; mostly after she was mad at me or her peers, for some reason or another. Maybe the reason I hadn't seen her, was she had gone there?
Heck, maybe she hadn't come out of the school at all; if I started second guessing myself now, I wouldn't find her until school tomorrow. Her home it was. I set off again, only to be interrupted before I could really open up and get my stride. Danny had a car which he had gotten less than a month before, when he had been allowed to take his driver's test early, somehow. He never had told us exactly how he rated a license at 15, but we had all decided he had bribed some politician with his body and left it at that. We had all been appropriately jealous, admiring the rusted lime green hulk of an early '80's vintage Chevy tank. It was a 'classic' car. He was the first in our class to get both, but many of us were due soon enough. I'd turn 16 and be able to take the test over the summer myself.
And that tank sped up down the street and cut me off with a loud belch of foul smelling smoke.
Amy jumped out of the passenger side; she had always been one to take advantage, and her boyfriend having a car was too good to pass up, even though she had been caught more than once lamenting it's horrible condition. She had even gone so far as to say being seen in something so old and decrepit would ruin her reputation. She was proving what I'd thought of her upon first hearing that; that she was a bit of a drama queen.
I dodged her clumsy grab, and ignored her unusually loud greeting of:
Seriously, was she trying to piss me off? She started again, trying to match my stride (she couldn't, she wasn't tall enough) and speaking more softly.
“Come on, wait up Luke! Don't be like that.”
“Go away Amy. Just go home or something; I'm not in the mood.”
“Come on, let's talk about it?”
I stopped. Despite my lack of trust in myself, I found my eyes locking with hers. My fingernails were drawing blood from my palms, which was a neat trick considering how short I kept them.
“Fine, let's. How does Danny feel about you all but raping my mouth?”
“You can't tell me you didn't enjoy it,”
I could, and did.
“I didn't enjoy it at all. Now answer my question.”
Now that I'd stopped she leaned into me again. I moved and she all but fell over, pouting. She looked ridiculous.
“Danny is fine with it. Now, why don't you ditch the freak and hang with us? I'll make it worth your while.”
Danny was leaned up against his illegally parked car. He nodded stiffly when I looked his direction, confirming what Amy was telling me without a word. If anything, he seemed happy about it. At least, before he really looked at me. Then I could see the worry spring to life.
“I'm going to forget you said that, Amy. Last chance to walk away.”
She thought I was bluffing. She thought she knew me.
“Or what? You'll hit me?”
“No, I won't hit you. I don't hit girls, at least, not girls that cant fight. But I do know a few girls who can and do, and won't mind doing me a favor. Especially if it's you.”
I can fight dirty when I have to, and she was forcing my hand. She raised her hands in surrender.
“Alright, alright, I'm gone. But keep me in mind when you come to your senses, O.K.? I'll be waiting.”
She turned around and added some extra wiggle to her hips as she walked off with a laugh. I could hear my teeth creaking so I unwound my jaw; it took more effort than I liked. Deep, calming breaths Luke. In; out. I resumed my run as Danny's car drove off the opposite direction. Good, at least they weren't going to start something by following me or trying to beat me to Jamie's house.
Bright side, at least now I knew I couldn't trust them.
I was winded by the time I made it to Jamie's house. There were no cars in the drive; had Mrs. Howe driven somewhere? I knocked loudly on the door, then took three steps back so that Jamie could look out her window and see who it was. The curtains didn't move. No one answered. I knocked and backed up again. I fought down the urge to yell for her since the house was rather well insulated and she likely wouldn't hear me.
A few more knocks convinced me that no one was home. Or that Jamie was so pissed she wasn't answering the door. Trying the knob, I found it locked, and that clinched it. I couldn't break in, no matter what the circumstances.
I checked the back yard just to be sure; she wasn't there. I turned my phone back on and it immediately beeped with a text.
Heard what happened. Saw Jamie near 44. - Clayton.
Clayton was a neutral party in all this; well mostly, he was an old friend of mine, and whatever rumor he had heard, (how had those flown so fast, anyway? That was almost faster than a cell phone call... I obviously had a few witnesses to pound later on sheer principle) he would take with plenty of salt. Near 44 she could only be on that old service road that led to her special place. Which was, unfortunately, on the opposite end of town, some forty minutes away, again at a jog. Wonder how long ago the message was sent.
I couldn't get a car fast enough. If mom were at home, I'd go there and con her into giving me a ride; it'd be slightly faster, and my mom liked Jamie. Jamie liked my mom too, so that might help the fallout. I was pretty sure I was going to have to talk fast regardless, though the more time that went by, the more she'd calm down. Maybe.
I started off again. My phone stayed silent, thankfully. When I tried to dial Jamie's however, it was still busy or off. So I composed a text of my own while keeping an eye out for traffic. I couldn't quite keep the frustration out of it:
Jamie, we're being played by Amy. It was all a setup. Please talk to me. Let me know where you are, I'm looking.
I was in reasonably good shape, but I couldn't run all the way there. I gave it my best shot anyway, and by the time I reached the service road I was half wishing Danny would show up again just so I could get a ride. Luckily, Jamie wasn't ever really the most in tune with nature; her spot was only a few hundred yards down the road, and off to the left.
It was a beautiful spot overlooking a gorge an old creek had cut into the bedrock, probably a million years ago, with large old growth trees all around but an unimpeded view of many a sunset, including this one. The sun was just beginning to dip and just starting to spread it's red and gold hues across the sky. I was later than I thought.
As beautiful as the site was, the spot was empty. I searched around just to make sure she hadn't hidden herself anywhere nearby (I doubted she would even as pissed as she was, she didn't like getting dirty) and nothing. Had I missed her somehow? There were two routes out from town to this service road, had she taken the other, the longer route from her house?
I didn't know for sure, but something smelled a bit fishy, here. Perhaps this was a bit bigger than just Amy and Danny? If so, then I had to hurry; there was no telling what was else was going on behind my back. I took off again, calling mom; she had to be close to getting out of her car now if she wasn't in it. She answered after the first ring; good, I hadn't caught her on the road; she was home.
“Luke, what's up?”
“Gonna be late today.”
“You don't say?”
I smacked myself on the forehead; of course I was going to be late; I was already late.
“So why are you going to be late?”
I had to dodge a car before I answered.
“Some drama at school happened. Going to head over to Jamie's and get it sorted out. Going to take me maybe an hour.”
She didn't read too much into it, thank God. “Alright. Dinner will be on the table. Try and make it home before dark. If something comes up, call me and I'll come get you.”
“Mom, not a little kid. I can be out when the street lights come on.”
“Sure you can... just not when I say you can't. Do what you need to, but hurry home or you don't eat.”
Ouch, she really knew how to hit where it hurt. My stomach was already rumbling in sympathy.
“As soon as possible.”
And I started off again, this time racing the sun. Jamie had to be home by now; she was too much of a shut-in lately, too sensitive a bout the others reactions to her lately, and well... just too invested in making strange tech crap to stay away from it for long. She had already been away from her projects the entire school day and then some, so she had to be hard at work by now.
I was getting more exercise today than I had the previous week; yet another exhausting forty minutes later and I was back at Jamie's house. This time her mom and dad were home at the very least, cars pulled up side by side and one of them still making that ticking noise cars tend to do when cooling down.
I wasted no time knocking on the door. Mr. Howe wasted no time in answering; I could tell he had just gotten home.
“Hello Luke, come on in. I think Jamie's in her room.”
She probably was. That was where the magic happened; her parent's wouldn't let her do her thing anywhere else. She had tried to explain it to me once; the pressure, the need to create things, like an itch that needed scratching. I didn't think I could every really understand it, but then I didn't need to. Hopefully, she was immersed in her work and calm by now.
“Thanks Mr. Howe. Do you know how long she's been home?”
He shook his head while pulling off his tie and plopping into his favorite chair with a sigh.
“No, just got home myself. Probably since school let out though?”
“I don't think so sir, I've been looking for her. I knocked earlier, and there was no answer.”
Mr. Howe puzzled over that.
“Odd, Sydney should have been home. Sydney!”
I started up the steps just in time to nearly run Mrs. Howe over.
She was wide-eyed and pale, wring her hands, the very picture of nerves. There were even stains on her dress; something dark. Oil maybe? Had she been helping Jamie?
“You shouldn't be here.”
She said it in a whispered rush, and I began to get the feeling something was very wrong.
“Why? What's going on?”
Her voice gained strength and command.
“You betrayed her, and you really shouldn't be here! Leave, now!”
My heart twisted as the muffled sing-song voice erupted behind Mrs. Howe.
“Oh, Luuuuke... is that you? Could you come here for a minute please?”
Mrs. Howe grabbed my arm as I drew even with her; eyes even wider than before, entire face pleading without words. She was terrified. I moved back a step and was rewarded with silent gratitude.
“Oh, Luke... don't keep me waiting, stud. I have a surprise for you.”
There was something... manic in her voice. Perhaps discretion was the better part of valor here after all? Mrs. Howe certainly seemed to think so. But no, I had to face the music and explain things. I had to set this right. A step, and Jamie's door splintered. She stood there, blood dripping from her left hand and framed by the hall light. What I could see of her face was all twisted; wrong.
And in her right hand she held some sort of gun.
“Jamie, I need to....”
She raised the gun and fired; it released an eye-searing coruscating beam of energy that missed me when Mrs. Howe pushed me down the stairs; she following right behind me to avoid the beam herself.
I landed well and moved again, dodging her next shot and speeding past Mr. Howe, who seemed frozen with his mouth open.
“Come on Luke, stand still; it won't hurt... much.”
Mrs. Howe seemed to be OK; at least she was moving. I couldn't really check on her while Jamie was doing her Carrie impression. I needed to get out of here; outside I'd have more options.
“Come on Jamie, it was Amy! She did it all, trying to drive us apart!”
The door was too solid to jump through, but I tried before opening it. I risked a look back; Jamie had stopped at the foot of the stairs and was aiming her gun at me. It almost looked familiar, somehow.
“Luke... lover. You have her lipstick on your shirt.”
I dove through as she fired again, this one made my hair stand up. My shoulder bounced painfully off the sidewalk and I scrambled up. Turning around revealed that Jamie was standing in the doorway, less than ten feet away. There was no cover, nothing at all in range to hide behind, and dodging would be 50/50. Talking was my best bet, though I didn't hold any hope of that at all. I was going to die, killed by Amy's stupid grade school plot. The ray gun started to emit a high-pitched whine; Jamie's inventions weren't always stable, and the more rushed, the less stable: maybe it was breaking?
“Jamie, please. I was set up. We were set up! I'd never cheat on you, please listen!”
Her hand twitched, and I bolted for the cars, the only cover close enough. I had one last moment of clarity when I realized I had been had; I had calculated wrong, and the beam hit me just as Jamie disappeared from view behind her father's car. At first, it was a feeling like being in a meat locker; everything was bitterly cold. Then every nerve lit up, and I realized I was on fire. My entire body was on fire, every inch. Distantly I heard screams that made me worry; piteous pain filled wails. I rolled as best I could but my body refused to respond; hopefully that would put out the fire.
My last sight was Jamie, pure horror on her face, sparking gun held limply at her side, and her voice, clear as a bell through the screams I now realized were my own.
I came fully awake realizing that I was already sitting up, hands outstretched and shout dying on my lips. A look at white tile, white painted walls, a white sheeted bed, with tented sheets over my legs, and it came to me; I was in a hospital.
And then mom was there, crushing me with a hug.
I felt no pain, even as mom's weight forced me back onto the bed. I had been on fire; I know I had. Jamie had... shot me with a gun. So how long had I been out? The only pain I felt was... from my tailbone?
“Luke, oh Luke....”
“Mom, what's going on?”
My voice sounded odd; higher. I tried to raise up, something I could have done easily before, I found myself pinned now as my mother cried over me. I went cold. Had I been in a coma for years or something? My voice was rough, as if I hadn't had water in a year, but under that, there was something else wrong with it too.
“Mom, tell me: how bad is it?”
She loosened up for a bit, looking into my eyes, before crushing me again with another hug and beginning to cry again, this time painfully loudly in my ear. I flinched; it was too loud!
Something on my head twitched and moved in response, and the noise became slightly less.
The door opened; mom didn't even seem to notice until a voice rang out. It was pleasant, sultry, yet it was even louder than the crying.
“Rella, Got your coffee. You wouldn't believe the lines in the cafeteria! Took forever... oh, hello. You're awake, good morning!”
The body attached to the voice was quite simply, amazing. Covered in a well-cut dark blue business suit was a tall statuesque blonde. She looked every inch the magazine model she was, dressed up to impersonate a secretary or something. And she was easily recognized, by the large white furred ears sticking straight up from her head. I knew there would be a large puffball over her butt. I couldn't see them clearly from here, but I even knew her eyes were a rich chocolate brown.
This was the Iron Bunny, a retired superhero.
Everyone from this area knew who she was; a retired super who had been active in the 70's, she was a successful model for Playboy and a few other magazines, knew Hugh Hefner and several other big shots like Hollywood actors and directors personally, and donated to several charities and institutions yearly... like the Redding school district, which had used the cash last year to construct a new score board that hardly anyone but the football team ever used.
But what was she doing here? Was she a client of mom's? Mom usually did get tapped to handle high profile clients. Was she here for moral support or something? Were she and mom friends? I had heard some weird rumors about Iron Bunny. The shortened name seemed to indicate they were friendly at least.
Whatever her reasons for being here, she immediately crossed the distance in two long strides, set the two cups of coffee down, and began to gently peel my mom off me.
“Rella, come on. Ease up, you're scaring the poor kid. Let go, at least for now.”
She was right about that at least. My mom managed to tear herself away from me, reluctantly and I took stock. Something was wrong with me still; my body was covered in a sheet, but my arms weren't. They weren't bandaged either, as I'd expect from a burn victims arms. They did seem smaller than I remembered them being however, with no visible hair at all. And my hands... they were downright delicate looking.
I shifted uneasily, trying to get comfortable; the pressure on my spine eased.
“How long have I been out?”
My voice was definitely different, and louder than I remembered; I lowered it. Mom wiped her eyes, which only stemmed the flow, and answered.
“Almost a full week. After Jamie... shot you, you were in a coma; it's the 26th.”
I remembered now, the terror, the empty look in Jamie's eyes, my own brief burst of desire to know which direction she was going to shoot... and the pain. But again, there were no burns. No pain or wounds that I could feel; had the gun just been some sort of pain gun? Had I hallucinated the fire that flowed along every inch of skin?
No, there was something my mom wasn't telling me; she seemed at an honest loss for words.
“The weapon... thing, that Jamie shot you with Luke. It wasn't designed to kill.”
Her words further jogged my memory, and knocked something loose. A connection I had been a little too focused on survival to make. The gun Jamie had shot me with... had had a lot in common with her machine designed to alter mutants.
“Oh God, what did it do?”
Something, the distracting things on my head, twitched again in response to my shout. I could feel something moving up there, yet there weren't supposed to be any muscles or moving parts on the top of ones head. Not to mention the whole loud sounds hurting thing.
I reached up but mom caught my hands. Iron bunny went to the other side of my bed, face serious. Dear God, what was it? Was I so hideously disfigured?
“Steel yourself, Luke.”
Before I could respond the Iron Bunny flung a sheet aside, revealing a full-length mirror and the probable reason for her visit in all too horrible clarity.
We could have been sisters.
Sure, I still could see my mom in me, now more than ever; I still had the same olive complexion, her cheekbones, her large eyes... but my hair was beginning to go from brown to a darker color at the roots, my eyes were now an arresting shade of purple that clearly showed off the flecks of gold within, and my nose was almost a spitting image of the one Iron Bunny sported, same slight tilt upwards and everything.
I could easily be mistaken for Iron Bunny's sister, or my mom's daughter, depending on who I was standing next to. Of course, I shared the second and third most arresting traits of Iron bunny as well, furthering that illusion in a big way. Two absolutely large rabbit like ears raised from my hair; they were covered in short black fur shot through with purple that seemed to reflect the harsh halogen lighting.
And there in the mirror, past where the sheet pooled around me, where my spine would normally end, was the impression of a rather large bulge. No doubt my new tail. We were all three related, and there were no men in the room; chest or not, I was sure of that fact. There was still some traces of me left, but those were few and minor. The shape of the chin; the bridge of the nose.
Fingers snapped suddenly in my ear; I was being hugged tightly again while I stared into the Iron Bunny's concern filled chocolate eyes, she had crossed the distance when I didn't notice. She sat back with a sigh.
“She's back, Rella. Think you can hit her with the rest.”
Mom took a breath, holding a finger to my lips as I opened them.
“I'll answer all your questions. Just let me try and get through this. Alright, to start off, you can guess now that that.... bitch shot you with her own invention; the very invention you were helping her with. The device was supposed to cure certain genetic conditions or mutations in people by overwriting them with code from another; a way to remove non-beneficial mutations.”
I tried to get a word in edgewise, but Mom shushed me again.
“Not yet dear. Now, the machine is supposed to be a therapeutic device, requiring many uses for the requisite gene therapy. Not to mention it wasn't actually working. I'm taking all this from Jamie's own statement to the police, you understand.”
Jamie had been arrested, and Mom knew how to get a hold of police statements somehow. She read the look on my face.
“Aggravated assault with a weapon.”
I nodded. In the mirror I saw my ears droop to coat the side of my head. She hadn't known what she was doing; I was positive of that. The reflection of those large eyes glistened wetly in the betraying light.
“Anyway, unknown to the world at large, apparently the machine was designed to add mutant traits as well as subtract them, by the same method; that... person planned to use it to give herself a better body,” Well Jamie had always been rather vain. “When she became angry with you, she decided to punish you. Her punishment consisted of testing her devise on you, in order to make you... well, in her words, in order to make you the whore you were.”
I was wrong; there was pain after all. Had my heart stopped?
“But, how does that make any sense at all? She thought I had cheated on her, so why zap me into.... this?”
It made no sense at all. I didn't like mom's look.
“I didn't cheat on her mom, I never even touched Amy. She planned the whole stupid stunt in order to break us up.”
I had to fight hard to bury the hysterical laughter. Amy had definitely succeeded in opening a rift between Jamie and I.
“Baby, I know. Everyone knows that now. No, that person... Jamie.” She had to struggle with the name. “Jamie has diedricks; the devisor mental disease. When she gets angry, when she snaps, she won't often make any sense at all. No one knows what she was thinking that night, she's lawyered up and stopped talking.”
I remembered her face; the feeling that the real Jamie wasn't home. How she hadn't even wanted to listen to me. I didn't want to believe it; not of her. She had seemed so normal, for months!
“But she hasn't done anything like this before!”
The Iron Bunny interrupted.
“From what I've seen of her file, there were signs of it. The theory we're going with is, well, it's grim. The normal episodic fits of diedricks was over-ruled by a more severe mental illness; as a result, when last week happened, the pressure finally became too much.”
They didn't want to tell me what the 'more severe mental illness' was, but I could guess.
There had to be a way to fix this. If I could talk to Jamie, now that she was calm... maybe. One look in the mirror stopped me. But I couldn't talk to her like this; not looking like a relative of this larger than life icon in front of me.
“So the cops have the gun, right?” I could endure a little pain to go back to normal.
Unease. The tension in the room became thicker with just those seven words. The Iron Bunny's gaze got as hard as her namesake.
“We aren't done explaining just what happened yet.”
I suddenly knew why she was here; the mirror made it clear enough after all. Yes she and Mom knew each other, but there was more to it than that.
“To fully explain what's happened to you, I have to explain a little more about mutations. There is another kind of mutation, the kind that Jamie was trying to harness; it's called a BIT, or body image template. It's my kind of mutation.”
I nodded; I'd read and heard some of this before around Jamie, after all. Jamie had said they all shared the most attractive traits of humanity, looking universally movie star good. I could definitely see it in her though the ears seemed a bit off-putting on that score to me. After all, human they were not. Then again at the moment my own were flopping around as I nodded, so who was I to judge?
“Body image template is a sort of blueprint for your body to follow. The reason for all the interest in modifying them, even temporarily, is that thus far they have proven permanent; even many drugs or processes that affect the majority of humanity are ignored by those with BIT's. My own BIT has a few things in it that I'd like gone... and so I donated my information to the project she was working on, in the hopes that something beneficial would come of the research, and my own unique condition could be cured. Jamie used my body image template to attack you.”
I thought as much... but wait, if they were permanent then...!
“You mean I'm stuck like this? Jamie's gun made this permanent, and it can't fix me?”
How could a brainiac mutant make a condition that couldn't be fixed? She took a breath and forged into the teeth of my burgeoning horror.
“I'm saying we don't dare try. Somehow Jamie's devise overwrote a large portion of your genetic code, almost in an instant, with my body image template. It shouldn't even be possible to do that, not the way it was done, and so far you haven't reverted. Which means the transformation is likely stable... but anything done to it, any tinkering at all, could make it worse. The best minds around here say that barring what's left of your own genetics rejecting my foreign BIT, something that carries huge risks to your health on it's own, you're stuck this way.”
I wanted to curl up and wait for the world to go away, so I did.
I hadn't been out long; at least I didn't think so. I found myself on Iron Bunny's lap, with said celebrity running one hand through my hair while the other scratched the base of my new left ear. It felt... nice. I jumped up, embarrassed, and Iron Bunny let me go with a faint smirk. What she was doing... shouldn't have felt that good. But she knew somehow. My mom was watching, though her face only showed her concern.
“Are you alright, Luke?”
“Yeah, I think so. I'm sorry, I... don't know what came over me, exactly.”
I glanced at the mirror, and it betrayed me all over again by showing three females in it. The bitter thought came unbidden; why should it be any different than the people in the world? I looked again at the thin mud haired teen. Her roots were black, I could see now; black to match her ear fur.
“Am I really stuck like this? For life?”
Mom hugged me again, sandwiching me into Iron Bunny, who didn't seem to mind as she answered.
“Either for life kiddo, or for long enough that it shouldn't matter. Without knowing how BIT's work, regular science can't do a thing, and devisor science... well even if they could do something, it would mean dealing with the devisors themselves. There is one in Karedonia that might be able to manage it for example... but only by turning you into something worse. And the price for the cure would be slavery. Best not even try that route.”
Wait, wasn't that what she was trying to do when she sent her info to Jamie? Or maybe she thought it was just going to be research? No, something didn't ring true about that, but I'd have to ask later.
“Luke, there's more.”
Oh great. How could this get any worse? How could any of this get any worse? Before I could ask, Mom answered me.
“The media got a hold of the story. It's been the top story for the twenty-four-hour news feed for the last several days; and the internet has been even more... virulent. Worse, not all of the press has been favorable; some of it has been downright slanderous.”
So, not only have I been turned into an inhuman mutant, not only have I been turned into a girl, not only was there no fix for the situation but now the press was talking shit about me when I was in a coma and couldn't even defend myself? What the hell was wrong with people? Iron Bunny interrupted my train of thought in the worst way possible.
“Well, there is that, but that wasn't what I was talking about.”
“There's even more?”
Before I could tell her I didn't want to know, she nodded and continued.
“The BIT you were hit with... it was mine. I can see you figured that out already. But we don't know how much of it came through, or what else Jamie might have tried to add, so you may not be out of the woods yet. Though the good news is, my BIT does include some regeneration, so if she tried to do something weird the chances are it'll get rejected.”
This was all so surreal, so far beyond reality that I couldn't accept it. I was still stuck on Iron Bunny being in my room, and apparently knowing mom. I wanted nothing more than all these tubes and machines unhooked, and to be away from here.
“Do I have to stay here? Can we please leave?”
Mom frowned as Iron Bunny jumped up.
“I can check, though my first guess is the doctors will want to keep you overnight for observation.”
Weird, how could she check? We weren't related, she shouldn't be able to ask about my treatment at all... unless mom put her on the list of relatives.
Mom was stroking my hair and ears as we hugged; she wouldn't let me go.
“I'm sorry mom.”
Her grip tightened as she shifted, looking into my eyes.
“You have nothing to apologize for, to me or anyone else. Though I would like to know, what exactly happened?”
I told her. About midway through, Iron Bunny returned, but she didn't interrupt. When I was finished she shook her head in wonder.
“So the MCO actually got it right, this once. Wonders will never cease.”
I looked at her blankly.
“Right, I'll um, let your mom explain that one. The doctors say it's a no go kiddo, you have to stay here overnight. If nothing happens by morning, we can discharge you and take you home.”
Mom sighed and shot the celebrity a look that made her hunch her shoulders defensively. Then she looked at me, that earlier serious look returning.
“I suppose I should tell you about the press, so you aren't surprised, but I'll let you make the choice. Would you like to know?”
She really didn't want to tell me; she didn't want to add another shock right now, I was sure. But I was always the kind of kid to rip the band aid off quickly... and really, what was one more screwed up thing to dump on me at this point?
“Go for it mom. I should probably hear it from you.”
She sighed and forged ahead.
“Well, the press are... interested in the sensational. Your story qualifies. As such they have been covering it from the beginning, and it's national, maybe even world news by this point. I haven't been inclined to follow everything, but you've been portrayed as everything from an innocent victim of an evil mutant, to... to a teenage man-slut who got what he deserved for cheating on an innocent mutant.”
She was picking her words carefully, and yet that spilled out. Which meant that I had probably been called worse, and that was the best of the worst she could think of to mention to me. I swallowed my outrage with real effort; I had heard of past attempts at character assassination from mom before, but never my own. Iron Bunny piped up, her words a distraction.
“Yeah, it's actually been all kinds of twilight zone; the MCO and pro-mutant crowds both have been having a field day with it, though currently public opinion is favorable to you at the moment. The police are backing the MCO's version of events, and your story matches both.”
Mom and Iron Bunny's eyes both got huge at the same time; the effect would have been comical under other circumstances.
“Oh crap, the police! They are going to want a statement from you. We should call them in.”
I really did not want to deal with the police right now; I didn't want to make all this any more real.
“The moment we call the police in, the press are going to know and start up full force again.”
“It can't be helped. We already screwed up a bit by telling Luke what happened, though I wasn't about to follow that stupid request that we keep her in the dark anyway.”
Now that I could agree on.
“I think I'd have been most upset to find bunny ears and a tail, and receive no explanation for them.”
So I waited while the police were called, slowly going a bit stir crazy. Mom had vetoed any television, so it stayed silent in the corner. She had also vetoed any internet use, and wouldn't hand me my phone, if my phone even still worked. I'm not sure I blamed her for either decision, but it left me staring at Iron Bunny, looking for similarities between us.
She seemed to be doing the same thing.
The police must have been waiting for the call; really that's the only reason I could think of for some middle aged guy in an ill fitting suit that showed off the beginnings of his spare tire to the world to walk in a mere fifteen minutes after mom had ducked out to make the call. He walked into the combined stares of all three of us without so much as a flinch, though he did plop down into an extra chair with a sigh when he realized I was more informed than he wanted.
“Detective Gosser, miss Del bosque. I'd like to ask you a few questions about the 19th, if I may.”
It took a moment to realize he had said miss, and not ms. He was talking to me, not my mom.
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Ah, one second.”
He pulled a small voice recorder from his pocket and made a show of speaking into it.
“This is detective Boyd Gosser questioning Lucretia del Bosque over the event that occurred May 19th, 2016.”
Lucretia? I looked at my mom, while she did her best to look innocent. Lucretia had been my grandmother's name, and Luke had been mom's way of naming me after her. I had already suspected what my name would have been had I been born a girl. We needed to have words, later.
“Please, in your own words, explain what happened last week; everything you can remember.”
I did so, already bored of telling this story. Repetition didn't make it any easier; the opposite in fact. All it did was drive home all that happened. I tried very hard not to cry again; I didn't want my embarrassing, blubbering tears to be a matter of public record. I failed, but managed to keep it together enough to finish. Then came all the questions; what else I saw, what else I remembered. The sun was setting and my throat was dry and raw by the time he turned his recorder off. Iron bunny picked up on that.
“I'll go get you something to drink.”
She left quietly as the detective retrieved the device. I had to ask.
“So what happens now?”
He paused, still showing no emotion. He must clean house on poker night.
“Now we prosecute. With your statement and all the corroborating evidence, we have a clear cut case of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Jamie Howe is going to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
My mom was probably going to take this the wrong way, but I had to ask.
“You don't... need me to press charges?”
He shook his head, still unreadable.
“Your mother and the state are pressing charges, miss del Bosque. You are a minor.”
The meaning was loud and clear; while my being on board would help, it wasn't necessary, and any lack of support on my part wouldn't change a thing. I wasn't sure whether I would have pressed charges had it been up to me. I wasn't sure what to feel at all, other than drained.
“I understand. So, will you need me for anything else?”
“I don't believe so, though if I do, I'll let you know.”
He left as Iron Bunny came back. She handed me a wonderfully chilled snapple, which I wasted no time at all downing. Then she pulled another from behind her back and placed it in my hands with a smirk; that one I took my time with.
“I don't blame you; water is for fish. You hungry at all?”
I shook my head. My stomach flopped dangerously at the very idea.
“Alright. Best not to ignore it if you are. How about the bathroom? Need that?”
I didn't, and I really didn't want to think about what that meant. How would I ever look at the nurses who took care of me without dying of embarrassment? And of course, just as I was thinking of the devil, one came in. I had wondered where the staff of the hospital had been up to this point.
She was mid twenties, brown hair and brown-eyed, about 5 foot 6 inches and with a lithe build. She had a ready grin and soft voice, and I bet she was pretty popular on this floor.
“Sorry you two, visiting hours are over. I'm afraid I will have to insist on it today. Go home, get some sleep.”
“Right, right. Oops, almost forgot.”
Ibby reached over into my personal space and fiddled with my ears. I couldn't even move her arms and she ignored my efforts. I felt something snap gently on each ear, and her massive bust retreated. As soon as she backed up I warily put my hands to my new appendages; each one sported some kind of clip near the base.
“There. You'll thank me later. Those clips are like mine.”
She pointed out a pair of small boxy clips that were painted white, and mostly blended into her own white furred ears while she continued explaining.
“They act as noise filtering devices, automatically lowering the volume of loud noises to manageable levels. I'd leave them in, without them sounds like doors slamming or hospital alarms could be painful.”
Joy. I'd noticed everyone being mostly quiet around me, but hadn't thought of the reason before. It should have been obvious. I pulled my hands away from the small devices. They felt weird and heavy, but at least they hadn't pierced my ears or something.
“They do come off, right? You didn't just....”
“Oh, no, they can come out. There is a switch on the bottom of each that releases them, when you need to replace the batteries or something. I'll bring the spares and the recharge station later... got to go!”
The nurse, still with that smile, started to push her out of the room; Ibby did not resist, but simply waved dramatically as she was shoved out of sight.
Mom stayed another moment, staring at me. Then before the nurse could interrupt, she gave me another crushing hug and left. I hoped she would be able to sleep; those chairs did not look comfortable, and I didn't doubt for a moment that she had spent the week in the one by my bed. For some reason, I felt tired myself, which seemed insane considering all the sleeping I had been doing.
“So, um, nurse' I looked at her name tag - “Jessica, How am I?”
She pulled out a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope.
“Healthy, as best we can tell. I'm just here to get the standard metrics and compare them to the last week. You hungry at all?”
“No. why are you the first person I've seen? I mean, I would have thought being in a coma was a bigger deal here.”
“Well, the doctors did examine you earlier, gave you a pretty good once over. But as I understand it you were a bit out of it at the time, so it isn't surprising you don't remember. You had quite a shock to get over after all. And I'll bring you something to snack on in case you change your mind. For now, you should get some rest... right after I take some blood.”
As she pulled out the needle, still wearing that smile, I surrendered to the inevitable, looked away and presented my arm. I hated needles. I felt the needle and the tell-tale pull but she was fast.
She went on to my eyes, ears, and throat, scribbling stuff on my chart in that impossible to read jargon all medical professionals seemed to share.
I hated myself for asking.
“Perfectly healthy, all vitals green and no evidence of any infections. You had an MRI while still under, and the results for that came back today; negative on any lumps, growths, or other concerns. I'll be checking you again during the night, and the doctors will check you again in the morning, but your prognosis is that you're stable and healthy.”
Stable and healthy. As a bunny girl. With no way back; or at least no safe way back. Yay, me. The nurse reminded me she was still here.
“Hey. Don't give me that look; it could have been much worse. I've dealt with devisor tech before, and most of the time it goes wrong. And when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong. You're alive, and that's what counts.”
She seemed to want a response, so I nodded and she left, satisfied.
The television remote was near, but I didn't want to touch it. I didn't want to deal with whatever the news was saying about me, not right now. My phone was gone, for obvious reasons probably, and there was nothing that could access the internet in my room. There wasn't even a roommate to talk to; probably because they were worried about me being dangerous somehow, but it was still depressing.
Sleep seemed like the best plan at the moment.
I don't know when it was exactly, but the moon was shining into my window when something woke me up. I just lay there, trying to figure out what it had been. Maybe the night nurse, Jessica? She had already been by to check on me twice, waking me up both times to take my pulse and blood pressure, and I suspected just to see if I was stable and hadn't lapsed into a coma again.
No, it had been the door. But the footsteps I was hearing entering were less open, more... furtive. A faint clink informed me that my chart was being read. A doctor, then?
“Jessica? Is that you?”
I winced over my voice, it kept surprising me, but at least it was clear. The movements and breathing had stilled. Something was wrong here, very wrong. I hit the call button on my hospital bracelet, and rolled over to try and get a better look. A flash blinded me, and then I think there was another. I fumbled my way out of bed; was I being attacked again, or something? There was no pain, but....
The nurse came in, flipping the light.
“Luke, you alright?”
We both froze. There was a man in my room, with my chart in one hand, and a small camera in the other. He was rather tall but plain faced, and dressed in some tasteful slacks and a polo shirt. But despite him having a doctor's coat on over that, it was clear from the look on Jessica's face that he wasn't supposed to be there. Nurse Jessica didn't even hesitate, turning right around and shouting for security with a bellow that made the man wince. I was sure I'd have found that shout painful too, if not for the clips still in my ears.
The man was at my bedside in an instant, pressing something into my hand.
“Kurt Carmen, associated press. Please call me as soon as possible.”
And then he was gone, pushing past Jessica. A moment later I caught sight of two uniformed men chasing after him, just before the door closed. I looked; he had given me a business card with three phone numbers and a web address. Jessica immediately walked over and took it.
“I'm sorry about that. We've been doing what we could to keep them out, but apparently the guy on shift, Artie, decided to go on coffee break and not tell anyone. He will be reprimanded for it.”
That was all fine and good I guess, but it left out a pretty big question.
“What the heck was all that about?”
“Oh, you don't know?”
“Know what?" Mom and Ibby had said some things about the press earlier, but I had been having a good freak out earlier. Did that have something to do with this?
Jessica looked uneasy suddenly.
“Sorry, I shouldn't be the one to tell you this. But the press got a hold of your case, and are having a field day with it. Every day we've had to turn away reporters, and every night is a struggle too. That guy is the first one to get so close though. Don't worry, security has the floor locked down. They'll catch him.”
I was more worried about those flashes. Had I been fully covered when they occurred?
“He took photos.”
“I know kiddo, we'll get those too. He won't be able to send them inside the hospital, and we are perfectly within our rights to wipe the memory card and throw the book at him. Da- err darn ambulance chaser.”
I felt the corners of my lips tug up briefly. Then really focused; mom had told me there was a media circus going on over my case, but big enough to break into a hospital after hours? Seemed silly. Unreal. I couldn't process it.
A shift caught my attention; Jessica sitting down beside me.
“Hey, don't worry. It'll be O.K. I see all kinds of people come through here, in all kinds of conditions. They all share one thing. They all fight, win or lose. The guy next door from you? He's eighty and has both kidneys failing. He also has a weak heart. Both are the result of some sort of poisoning event in his past. I can't tell you what it is, exactly. What I can tell you is that he isn't giving up at all, he's a crusty old fart.
What I'm trying to say is, don't dwell on it. He didn't. The others on this floor haven't either. Live entirely in the moment if you have to, but don't let things overwhelm you. If you can't think about the future, if you feel lost, just don't think about it; you'll have plenty of time for that later.”
Sound advice... maybe. I wasn't so sure.
“Now, since I'm here, let's go ahead and get the next check out of the way!”
She bounced up and flipped the lights off, pulling out that blinding penlight of hers.
My seatmate interrupted, so I finished off my drink. Something about the plane cabin made my throat dry up faster.
“So, I don't remember any photos of you in hospital garb....”
“Nah, security caught the guy, true to Jessica's word. He never made it to the roof, where apparently he might have been able to get a signal over his blocked phone; they tackled him on the stairwell and then brought him back. I verified it was the guy, we made sure the phone was the same one, with the same memory stick, then destroyed both in front of him.”
“I bet that went over well.”
I smiled at the memory.
“He cried like a baby. Apparently the phone was pretty expensive. They ended up arresting him too; the detective in charge said I wouldn't have to do anything. I later heard he got probation and banned from entering that particular hospital again.”
It was kind of a good thing he wasn't local, come to think of it; that hospital was the best one in the entire county.
“Just desserts I say. Trying to take pictures of a minor while in a hospital is fairly deplorable.”
“Well I can't really argue with you there; some people are truly smarmy. Anyway, the staff didn't find anything unusual, or more unusual than normal I guess, and I was allowed to get some sleep....”
Sleeping sucked. Or rather, the act of trying to get to sleep when you had a tail that just seemed to be a piece of spine and a million clusters of sensitive nerve endings prevented you from finding a good position to sleep on your back. So of course, sleeping on your stomach was a no go because you had a sensitive... front, and couldn't lay flush against the mattress that way either.
And no matter what you tried, your stupid ears and hair tangled themselves and got in the way.
Some people got daily reminders of how much life hated them; I got up-to-the-second updates.
So it was a bit of a surprise when the nurse (a different one than the night nurse, named Peggy by her tag) woke me up by opening the blinds.
“Up and at 'em, kiddo! Got some last minute things to do, then you'll be out of here. Breakfast first, of course!”
I pulled myself up as she wheeled one of those hospital trays that fit over a bed over; I even managed not to catch something or get tangled up. She pulled the cover off with a smile to reveal… oatmeal, toast, and juice. It didn't even look to be the good stuff.
“I know that look. Eat up! It don't matter if you don't like it, your body needs food. If you don't eat it, you don't get released.”
I ate, and we studied each other over my food. She literally sat down and watched me eat it, which seemed a little odd to me; surely she had something better to do? I'd have asked her except it was rude to talk with your mouth full, and I was starving. I tried to take it slow though; if Mom walked in and saw me pigging out it wouldn't go well for me.
I looked up as I finished, and saw the nurse doing a crossword puzzle while waiting for me. I knew she hadn't left, of course. I also knew the patient a few doors down from me had a really nasty cough, and his door was open. Or maybe it was a her with a nasty cold, it wouldn't do to assume. The nurse looked up after a moment and started.
“Oh, sorry. Let me just clear the tray and we can get going.”
“Excuse me, but why did you stay in here? Is something wrong?”
She laughed. “No more than the usual; and I stayed because hospital food isn't always agreeable to everyone, and I'd rather hold a bucket than a mop.”
Well, that made sense, in a totally disheartening way.
“Alright, so, testing.”
She wheeled up a wheelchair; and of course she was serious.
“I feel fine; can't I just walk there?”
I was lying of course; I felt weird, a stranger inside my own skin, and probably always would. This body… it wasn't really mine. Peggy seemed to be on to the ruse.
“Nope! Hospital rules – even if you weren't a coma patient on the mend, you'd have to take a seat; so take a seat.”
I took the seat, and she wheeled me down the halls. It only took a few feet to wish I'd had something a little less flimsy and a little more covering that the gown I was wearing; something like a box, or a bag over my head. People were staring, and they weren't even being subtle about it. I scrunched up as best I could so they had less to stare at; it didn't really work.
The halls were nearly deserted at least, as well as the back elevator Peggy wheeled me into. There were actual cops in the halls, placed at the elevators and nurse's station. Were they here for me? Because of that guy last night? Four cops seemed too many for that.
The first test was X-rays. Standing in front of a machine with only socks to cut the cold of the tile floor while that irritating hum droned on. The doctors and nurses just put their heads together and whispered, but wouldn't show me the actual results. The only thing I could tell from the glimpse I caught was that my new tail did in fact have bone in it. They broke after a few minutes and Peggy came back.
“Well, everything looks normal to us. We'll be sending it off to an expert to give it a better look.”
“Good bone density, good structure, well placed, good looking marrow. So far as we can see no tumors or cysts, no odd growths of any kind, internally. So, normal.”
Well, that was good I guess. Peggy wasted no time leading me back to the chair. Obligingly I got in.
“So, next test is the MRI. We've had one every day you've been here, to document changes. Doctor Ladoga, that's the specialist in charge of your case, wants the clean sweep. Now, there are two choices here; the first is we can sedate you, and the second is you can simply lay in the machine for an hour without moving.”
That wasn't a hard choice at all; if I was awake I'd never be able to stay still.
“Just sedate me.”
“I was kind of hoping you'd say that. You look like you could use the rest anyway. But the problem with that is if we do things that way, we need to depart this lab for the one next door and draw blood first, to ensure a clean sample. You aren't afraid of needles, are you?”
I was a bit.
We went across the hall and she took my blood. She had steady hands, and a variety of needles, including one that looked quite capable of taking blood through power armor. Thankfully she didn't need that one; the standard needle worked fine. The blood looked normal enough; I mean it wasn't green or anything.
“Alright. Time for the fun stuff.”
Peggy held out a pill and a cup of water. I took it and was wheeled back into the first lab. No sooner had I lay down on the cushioned slab then I woke up on it, with arms and legs strapped down. I was about to panic when Peggy appeared in my vision, a strap in her hands.
“All done, just unstrapping you. Have to strap in the sleepers to make sure they don't shift; some of them get a bit restless.”
I was still in the hospital, and I recognized all the people. Peggy got my hands and feet while I got my waist (they really didn't want me to move an inch) and then it was back into the wheelchair, and on the way to some other exotic locale.
“So, how did it look?”
“Everything looked fine and healthy; no problems at all. I think you're good to go, just a few more tests to go, and then it's back upstairs.”
The next test was, oddly enough, a vision test. I looked in the machine and rattled off all the lines, only realizing after the fact that I couldn't do that before.
Peggy raised an eyebrow at me and moved a dial.
This time, I was able to read two lines more than halfway down.
“I can't read the rest.”
“Alright. Next step.”
The next step turned out to be flashing lights to the left or right just inside my vision; they even parked a few flashes over my nose, which seemed weird. I called them as I saw them, as I was supposed to.
“Last step, hold still please.”
A light came on and flashed my eyeballs; blue or green or some mix in between, it didn't hurt at all.
“Alright, all done. Your vision is 20/9, which puts you just under the best visual acuity ever recorded for a normal person. The interesting thing is your peripheral vision is either as good or almost as good as your normal line of sight vision, and your eyeball shape is perfect. Nothing bad at all there.”
She smiled, but I knew what she was telling me. My eyes were weird; my eyes were weird and I hadn't even noticed; while my vision had been good before, it hadn't been that good. And yet her word choice led me to believe she had seen better, either in person or from reading somewhere.
The next test was hearing. The normal headphones for the test wouldn't fit someone whose ears had migrated up and changed shape, so we ended up scrapping the test idea, though Penny and doctor Lagoda did look in my ears. Once they had stopped pawing at them they actually went into another room to talk, which of course did wonders for my confidence. It would be pretty ironic to get ears like this, then go deaf as a result.
I waited, kicking my feet idly in the air until they came back in.
“Well? Cancer of the ear?”
“No, nothing like that. The shape of your inner ear has changed a little though, so we had to consult with a few other people. Everything checks out as normal for your new ear structure, and your hearing should be top notch. The MCO should be able to test it, once we clear you for that.”
“What would the MCO want with me? I mean, I'm not a mutant.”
Just a guy who got shot by his jealous girlfriend, move along, nothing to see here.
“Well, they will want to test you, and they have more experience at it than we do. The Redding field office is actually good at this sort of thing, and might catch a… complication that we miss. So despite the horror stories you may have heard or read on the net, it's probably a good idea.”
She hit my knees with a rubber hammer while I thought it over, idly brushing my hair out of my face. I couldn't just tuck it behind an ear anymore after all… and it was weird. No one said anything, but seeing someone that had head hair growing where their ears should be had to be a little off-putting. Well, at least where the top half of my ear used to be; yet no one was saying anything.
Peggy noticed my fumbling and grinned.
“I foresee cut bangs or hair clips in your future. Alright, reflexes check out, let's see what's next.”
She consulted her chart, hanging on the back of my chair.
“Hm, next is… well, that's just stupid. We can skip that one. I think we're done here, and just in time, too.”
A stupid test at a hospital? “Just in time for what?”
“Early release and an early lunch. Your mom is waiting upstairs.”
I really liked Peggy. If I had to come back here I'd ask for her by name.
She started wheeling. “No problem kiddo. I can only imagine how badly you want out of here. I don't see any reason to keep you.”
Back upstairs Mom was waiting in the lone chair next to my empty bed, fidgeting. Iron Bunny was there too, fiddling with the remains of my breakfast tray. Surely she couldn't be that hungry. It was kind of surprising she'd be here anyway.
Mom shot out of the chair the moment she saw us.
“Well, how is she?”
And immediately she acts like I'm not even here.
“She's fine, Mrs. Del Bosque. No anomalies other than the obvious ones, and no signs of cancer or any malignancies, or even anything out of the ordinary, internally. No sign of instability at all, so far. She's a perfectly healthy girl.”
Yes, stable and perfectly healthy. Never mind that stable meant I was trapped this way barring a miracle.
“And the obvious ones?”
“The ears and the tail both have brought some minor structural changes with them, of course. We will have to wait and see for anything else. Perhaps the MCO testing will turn up something, but I doubt it. There are no signs of the stronger aspects of your mutation, Iron Bunny.”
Iron bunny shrugged.
“It takes awhile sometimes; it did in my case, at least until the regen kicked in.”
“No evidence of any of that, at least yet. The standard hypodermic worked, and the mark didn't fade.”
There was still a band-aid holding gauze over the crook of my elbow, and Iron Bunny glanced at it before crossing the distance in a stride, grabbing my arm, and peeling it off.
“What are you doing, exactly?”
Her hand was like a vise; I couldn't move at all, even though she was gentle about it. The drop of blood welling from the needle wound was clearly evident to all.
She covered it back up and let me go. Mom walked up and flicked her nose; just what was that about?
“I'm sorry, it was the easiest way to check! No regen though, which is odd. I wouldn't think you'd change so fast without it. Heck it took my ears months to fully grow, the first time. I had a really awkward growing up phase before I became the amazing package you see today.”
Pfft, ego much?
Oh God, and here I was, able to pass for her frumpy sister. Mom knelt beside me.
“Alright, so, ready to get out of here?”
I nodded and jumped up.
“I was ready hours ago if everything checked out. When can we leave?”
“Soon, we got a few things to do before we can go. Your Mom needs to fill out paperwork… and we need to go play spy.”
I'm sure that at some point Iron Bunny would talk sense. As it was, she wasn't doing her reputation any favors.
I waved to Mom as Penny pulled her out of the room.
“I'm just down the hall, honey!”
Yes Mom, thanks, Mom, I know Mom.
Iron Bunny beckoned me over to the window; she was to the side of it, peering through a slight gap her fingers made in the blinds. I walked over and she pulled me to her spot.
“Carefully look out there.”
I did… and under me and to the right, in front of entrance to the hospital, was a circus.
Of course, it wasn't a regular circus, but I now fully understood what a media circus was. There were vans parked along the street in at least a drove, if not droves, and loads of reporters and cameras. There was a food cart down there! Cops were actually patrolling behind yellow tape, keeping them back. A CNN van was parked next to a BBC one, and one I didn't recognize. But, the BBC?!? Did that mean they knew about me in Britain?!?
No, wait, that couldn't be for me. There had to be a sick senator or something, further up. I mean, even though that guy had snuck in my room last night, there was no way this could all be for me… could it? I turned back to Iron Bunny, hoping she'd tell me I was just being silly.
“Yep, that's all for you. The media got a hold of your story just like we told you yesterday, and pretty soon 'Teen mutated for cheating by devisor girlfriend' was plastered on all the major papers and news blogs.
“But I didn't! It was all a big misunderstanding!”
Iron Bunny ruffled my hair with a smile as she pulled me away from the window.
“I know, kiddo; I believe you. But newsies are like hungry animals smelling weakness. They don't really care about the details if it makes a good story, or they can twist it into one. And the story here is that you cheated. Anyone who knows the whole story knows you didn't cheat. But what's really funny is the Mutant Commission Office also stepped in, and has been telling the truth about the event, for once. There have even been talk shows on the case, at least, the details released by the cops.”
“Talk shows? How would that even work? It was just a week ago!”
“Never underestimate the ability of people to jump on a bandwagon, kiddo, or to try and ride that bandwagon as far as they can for money, power or notoriety. But enough about all that, what it means for us is we need to disguise you if you're getting out of here without all that outside turning on us. I have no problem with my adoring public, even the vultures, but something tells me you might. So let old aunty Ibby here show you how to go incognito.”
I eyed my ears in the mirror she placed me in front of. Experimentally I tried to focus on moving it, and it perked up obediently.
“There is no way to hide these. They're just too big unless I use a hood or something, and even then that'd be suspicious.”
Iron Bunny – or was it Ibby – nodded and produced a sun hat.
“That's why we're not going to, not exactly. It's officially summer, so one of these won't be out of place on a beach goer who happened to twist an ankle. That's you, by the way. So the idea is we put you in a sun dress, and tape your ears to the underside of the hat so that if they are seen, well, then you just have a weird looking hat. I've used this trick before, and it works, though I've never tried it with someone whose ears are black and purple. White goes better with the illusion, you see.”
There was absolutely no way that was going to work.
Iron bunny wrapped my ankle first, then handed me a bag with a dress in it. I looked at her. She looked back at me, blinking.
“Can I have some privacy, please?”
“What? Oh, sure! Sorry.”
She walked out of the bathroom, but didn't shut the door, so I did.
There was more than the white sun dress; there was also a pair of panties in the bag. Nothing to quite bring reality crashing in on you than to slip those on and realize you didn't need support anymore. The dress had purple accents; I slipped it on and opened the door. Iron bunny was inside again before it could swing open.
“Got it on? Good. Hm, let's see.”
She squished a hat on my head; it was white tightly woven wicker, obviously painted. I felt her spread my ears away from my head and felt the sticky pressure of double sided tape. It was strong tape; I could probably pull it off if I tried, but I wasn't sure my ears alone had the strength. I tried to keep them from moving anyway; having the hat wiggle as I walked by someone would be bad.
“Not quite, your ears sort of stand out. But I came prepared!”
Iron Bunny pulled out a strip of cloth, black laced with purple. It didn't quite match the fur on my ears but it was close. When she wove it around the hat so it would drape down a little, it did manage to camouflage my new ears, as long as no one looked too closely. The dress didn't do a thing to hide the tail on it's own, but Iron Bunny threw a shawl over my shoulders; it was black and almost as large as a blanket; it draped almost to my knees.
“Now, I'm going to try to help here, but this part is tricky. Do you have any kind of control over your tail? It looks like you should, but… well, just try to move it.”
I focused, and eventually found the trick to it.
“Good, you do. Now, try and hold it up against your body, please.”
I moved it up. It wasn't easy to hold there; it was like flexing a muscle or lifting a weight. I heard tape peeled, and the pressure went away.
“Sorry, it wasn't going to work unless I taped it. It'll probably hurt a lot, later.”
We made our way out of the room; Iron bunny led the way after checking the corridor by sticking her head out in a very suspicious manner. She waved me up, then sat me firmly back in the wheelchair I had been using.
Mom was talking to two doctors and Penny as we walked up. Even with my new ears in the position they were in, I could hear them.
“If there is any change in her condition, any change at all, no matter how minor, you should bring her back here immediately. Any change at all could lead to a destabilization of her condition.”
Peggy chimed in.
“That includes the emergence of any powers, too. So far we've noted nothing, but you should be watchful.”
The she turned and her eyes swept past me… and then snapped back again. Just like that she fought a smile and failed; my eyes were mostly obscured by the cloth, but I saw that much.
“Great, I look stupid.”
Mom heard me, turned around, and started. Her attempt to reassure me seemed a little flat.
“No, Tia. You look fine! You look very natural. The hat might be just a tiny bit much, though.”
“It's okay, as long as we match, no one will look twice. They will just blame eccentric old me.”
I looked over at Iron Bunny. Her hat was just as draped as mine was, her ears hidden but her eyes visible; she looked like she was modeling beach wear. She also had a shawl over her tail, but I could just make out the bump there. I wondered how much of mine was visible.
“Ready to find the back door?” Penny asked with a smile.
I nodded. It was still hard to believe the press was here for me, but I had no reason to doubt it. Even if they weren't it just made sense to stay out of their way.
The back entrance actually turned out to be the ambulance entrance; it was right next to the ER entrance, which was on the other side of the hospital from where I was. There were a few reporters watching, but they didn't even bat an eye when we walked out behind a few EMT's and I played the part of gingerly getting out of my chair and limping. I tried very much not to oversell it, but it seemed the blood was in the water already. One reporter, an older woman in a maroon pantsuit that did nothing nice for her at all, dropped a cigarette on the pavement and motioned to her cameraman, while staring at Mom the entire time.
We might have made a slight miscalculation here; Mom didn't have a disguise, and it looked like at least this reporter knew her. Mom immediately turned and muttered out of the corner of her mouth while walking away from us.
“Just act like you don't know me. Take a left and go to the tan Ford at the end, Ibby knows which one.”
Iron Bunny… Ibby… led me away while the reporter tried her best to corner Mom. The rest of the pack that had been present followed suit hungrily but ignored us after a cursory glance.
At least at first. Then one of the reporters, a young handsome blond man with wild, wind blown hair, stopped, and looked back at us. I faced forward in a hurry, trying not to make eye contact, but it did no good.
“Hey, Iron Bunny! Any comments for us on the state of Luke Del Bosque?”
He wasn't looking at Ibby. He was looking at me; I knew it, I could feel his gaze trying to bore it's predatory way into my disguise.
Ibby cursed, muttered something about pin up posters, and grabbed my hand, and reeled me in like I was a fish. With an arm around my waist we lifted a few inches off the ground and started rocketing along. My gaze met Ibby's, taking in her wry grin.
“Normally, I'm all for meeting my fans and the press, but I really don't think you're up to this today.”
I shook my head, agreeing with her. We set down in front of an old rusty tan car that I knew my Mom didn't own; maybe it was Ibby's? She set me gently down in front of the passenger door and then hopped over the car to the driver's side.
I noticed the reporters had stopped chasing us as I got in and belted up, and many were running back to where they were hanging out.
“Did they give up?”
“Heck no, kid. They went to go get their vans; this is a chase now. Don't worry, I'm an old hand at this; they won't catch us.”
Ibby had been nice so far, and it was probably unfair to her, but I didn't want to be alone with her.
“But what about Mom?”
“Your Mom will catch up, kiddo. She knows this song and dance almost as well as I do. Right now, the best thing we can do is just avoid all this until you're ready. Now, all strapped in? Good cause here we go!”
She didn't bother with her seat belt. The car turned over with a flemy roar, and she wasted no time, almost clipped the car parked in front of her. We were probably doing forty before we hit the end of the parking lot, and Ibby didn't even slow down to merge with traffic. I tried to force my hands to let go of the old armrests and was rewarded with color flooding back into my knuckles.
“So, where to kiddo? I don't know about you, but I'm famished. I could really go for some lunch right now.”
I looked behind us; the procession of speeding vans with radar dishes atop them was just starting; the police were probably going to pull us all over and throw us in jail.
“Yeah, a burger sounds nice right about now.”