Down the Rabbit Hole (Part 3)
A 2nd Generation Whateley Academy Story
Down the Rabbit Hole
A burger did not, after all, sound nice. It wasn't nice at all. I fell as another cramp hit, my stomach twisting itself into a pretzel despite the fact that the offending piece of meat was long gone, back the way it came. I dry heaved a few times as a car door slammed; Ibby stepped around the car and lifted me up.
“Hate you so much right now.”
Ibby didn't seem at all offended; if anything she was contrite, and making some sort of pouty scolded puppy face.
“Aw, come on, don't be that way. I couldn't say anything, I wasn't sure if you'd… inherited the condition or not. I didn't want to tell you not to do it, if you actually could.”
It seems that people with Iron Bunny's BIT… could not eat meat. Ibby herself told me that it was theorized to be from her digestion being too efficient, and then told me my guts are likely to shrink. She seemed to infer that was desirable, somehow. I thought she was full of crap or deluded on both counts.
But either way the fact is, Ibby let me order a burger, a nice burger with everything on it, and waited while I discovered (it took all of five bites) what a bad idea that was. Then rather than drive me back to the hospital for something that was clearly a change in my condition, she drove me to her house.
Her house was a large one, set far back in the hills amidst the redwoods, much like my home town was. Unlike my home town, the appearance of location was an illusion; the place wasn't more than fifteen minutes from Redding itself.
It was a large cabin, all weathered and stained logs on the outside for a rustic look, and with matching shed and garage. The scale was much larger than any pioneer had ever managed, however; It was two stories and sprawling, with a porch and even a porch swing.
Ibby was single, last I'd heard. This seemed like a lot of space for a single woman. On the plus side it was also pretty isolated; it had taken Ibby some doing to lose the reporters from the hospital in order to stop for my late lamented burger.
Ibby picked me up and brushed me off. “You okay to walk?”
“Yeah, the fit or whatever has passed for now.”
She grinned brightly at me; the sunlight could probably blind people reflecting off her teeth.
“Good, I know the best cure for that sort of thing. Let's go inside and get you fixed up.”
Ibby tossed me her phone as she fumbled with her keys without a word. The phone was unlocked, and a text was showing clearly.
“First house compromised; go to the 2nd, on my way – Strella.”
The number was my Mom's phone.
“We prepared for this.” Ibby said as she went inside, flinging her hat like a Frisbee with a sigh. It ended up on a coat-rack.
My own fling was less well aimed, and I was forced to go back and pick the hat up while massaging my ears. It felt weird when the fur on them was the wrong way. I also pulled the tape on my tail off with a wince. A quick check revealed no fur on any of the tape, which struck me as odd.
Ibby came over and looked too; she shrugged and took the tape from me, heading for what had to be the kitchen.
The living room was very posh and put the lie to the rustic cabin impression outside. There were still the slat wood walls, but they fit together too neatly be anything other than machined; there were electric lights designed to look like oil lamps, a television and one of the new holo-visions were both hanging on the wall, the sound system wasn't more than three years old. The large throw rug, spread across the wood floor was a thick, plush thing. There were trophy heads decorating the walls, and a 'stuffed' polar bear growling in one corner, but even from a distance, I could tell they were fake.
The only thing that looked real to the time period the house was built to mimic was the large stone fireplace… and there was a grill next to it. Not the wire mesh kind (though one of those was close) but an actual outdoor kind, sitting on the stone portion of the floor, in the house.
There were three remotes on the ancient teak coffee table. One had to be to the television, the other to the holo-vision, maybe the third was the sound system? It didn't look like a stock remote, though.
“That's the house remote.”
I looked up to find Ibby coming back, two cokes in one hand, and a bowl in the other. With a start, I realized my hand was already halfway to the remote in question, and my ears were twitching. Why were my ears twitching? I pulled my hand back quickly.
“What does a house remote control?”
“Oh, the lights, the central air, the door locks and alarm, the hot tub floor hatch, those sorts of things. Don't worry, if we end up staying here, I'll show you what each button does.”
Wait, stay here? We?
“Why would we stay here?”
“Well, um. Kiddo, the media are sort of camping out your house. So are a few other less than savory people. It's easier just to avoid them for now; since they aren't actually breaking the law the cops can't do much more than ask them to leave.”
This was a nice place, but I didn't want to stay here. I wanted to go home. I didn't belong here, with this bunny woman.
No matter how much my twitching ears told me otherwise.
I sat down on the couch; it was very soft. Ibby set one of her cokes in front of me on a coaster and sat on the other side. A flick of the television remote and it was on, showing CNN. She flicked that off in a hurry, but not before I noticed my name, my old name, in the ticker crawl on the bottom with a picture of the hospital I'd just recently checked out of over it. She slapped the bowl down; it was full of some green looking almost pear thing cut into slices… an avocado.
“The best thing to cure the meat heaves, I've found.”
I took one as the television turned to a movie on demand. Some drug-addled guy selling drugs for money, trying to avoid getting squashed like a bug. Some movie of the week style thing with so-so acting and a bad plot. The avocado wasn't bad; I had it finished halfway through the movie. Ibby snagged a few pieces herself, but I got most of it. I wasn't sorry about that either, not after what she pulled.
Mom arrived shortly after, a shopping bag in hand. She looked pretty frazzled as she kicked off her shoes and threw her coat; it landed on the rack too.
“What happened to you?”
I wasn't hiding my lingering anger as well as I thought I was, I guess.
“Your friend here,” they had to be friends, they mentioned something like that yesterday, “decided not to tell me that eating meat could potentially make me sick. So when we stopped to get lunch at the drive-through, I ordered a burger and fries.”
I hadn't even been able to look at the fries afterward. Mom winced and shifted her gaze. She was in on it too?
“Sorry. I didn't want to pile on the maybes; yesterday was bad enough. The plan was to test for these sorts of things. However the test was supposed to be later, and I was going to mention it first.”
“So any other things I haven't been told? Any other tests like that to be conducted?”
Any other horribly nasty surprises I need to worry about? Ibby looked like a kid with her hand caught in the cookie jar, but mom met my eyes.
“Yes Luke, there are. There are a couple more nasty conditions that could potentially develop. If you ask, I'll even tell you what they are. But you're alive and healthy, and you're my child, and I love you.”
Did I want to know? How badly did I want to know? Mom seemed to think just worrying over what could be was preferable to having grounded fears, which was pretty scary. But was it really better? Mom took my hand and we sat down.
“I think I want to know. If I don't, I'll just worry about it until I do.”
Ibby beat Mom to the punch.
“I'll do it, Strella. How much do you know about me, kiddo?”
Well, that wouldn't take long to answer. The hardest thing would be being polite about it.
“I know you were a hero for a couple decades. I know you have some history with Playboy, and know Hugh Hefner personally.”
Every boy knew about the old Playboy centerfolds; when Playboy went digital they even re-released them. They even included the articles and interviews, and in those, Ibby was supposed to be a bit of a free spirit, which was something I could easily believe.
“Right, well that's a start. I mutated in the 60's, and went from an awkward gangly teen to the vision of hawtness you see before you.”
She actually managed to stress the word like that, so that it came out 'hawtness'. Mom cleared her throat meaningfully.
“Right, getting serious. There are three problems with my BIT… weaknesses, if you will. The first is the meat thing, but that's actually just a nuisance since I don't seem to require the nutrition at all. The second is the ears and tail, they are just big enough to need special clothes for and be hard to hide…' She didn't sound merely put out about those, for some reason; I could relate. She took a deep breath and forged ahead.
“But the third thing is a kicker. I am, for whatever reason, a nymphomaniac. An actual one, not the fake ones that just claim it. As a result, I have issues sometimes with modesty, propriety, and impulse control. I even take medication for it, and have for years.”
She just looked at me, as it sank in.
“Oh. Oh, no. No no no. You're trying to say….”
She grinned as Mom hugged me. “I'm not saying anything. The doctors couldn't find any trace of my condition in you, and in any case, the medication works wonders. But it does explain why your ex decided to blast you with my BIT over others, sort of.”
Ibby weathered Mom's yell with remarkable aplomb. “Sorry Strella, but I'm not the only one thinking that. Even the cops are running with that theory.”
I did not want to become at all like Ibby; she was a nice flake, I think, but she was still a flake. I most especially did not want any of what she was saying. I was raised catholic and hadn't lapsed yet. Jamie and I hadn't even done more than kiss, we had been waiting for marriage... and Ibby didn't strike me as the waiting type.
“Did...did Jamie say why, at all?” I hated my stumbling tongue.
Mom sat down beside me, forcing me to scoot over. “No Luke… she hasn't said much of anything, really. She's… well, Jamie isn't well.”
That chilled to the bone; 'not well' was my mother's way of saying insane.
I couldn't help myself; I worried about her, after all that had happened, all that she'd done. What was wrong with me?
“Can we just finish the movie?”
Ibby tapped me on an ear. “Nope. Finished while you were yakking, so now we have to watch a whole new one. I'll go get another avocado.”
“Bring me something to drink back, would you?” mom asked her.
“Sure!” Ibby disappeared into the kitchen.
A good time to ask; I was sure that if I could hear Ibby puttering around (and I could) she could hear us, but my questions were polite and innocent enough.
“So, you and Iron Bunny, huh? I didn't know she was a client of yours.”
Mom grinned. “You don't know many of my clients. Some of whom are even villains and politicians. I happen to manage many different people with issues, and she was one. I've done right by her and a few friends of hers, and now I'm calling in favors.”
“Favors?” I didn't like the sound of that.
“No, not like that, Luke! Ibby wanted to help. Heck, she… well, I think she half views this as her fault. The favors come from a different source; like this cabin. It's not ours, and it's not Ibby's, which makes it much harder to trace back to us and therefore safe enough from the press to stay at.”
Ibby was waiting in the hall. I knew she was, and she knew I knew, but she was giving us a little space. I debated about saying it, but couldn't see why I shouldn't just speak the truth.
“That's really stupid. Ibby can't be held at fault for what someone does with her DNA or whatever unless she handed it to them, and the think-tank she handed it off to was supposed to be about helping people. No one should hold her responsible; I don't.”
The real one at fault was Jamie, with a rather large side helping of manipulative bitch. Ibby had been taking a risk, trying to help people.
“Snacks are here!” Ibby announced as she entered the room, cokes in one hand, avocado bowl in the other.
“Just in time for the crappy show to start.” I grabbed a piece from the bowl as she set it down; if she didn't want to make a big deal out of what I said or hearing it, I was fine with that. Just hoped she'd grant me the same courtesy later; my hearing probably extended for miles now.
“So your first day out, you just found a place to relax and watch movies? I doubt I could be so… laid back.” The business man was on his second drink by now, which was all the airline was going to alot him.
It made him a little louder than I'd have liked, and our third seatmate was paying more attention; I was pretty sure he was just pretending to watch the football game that was on his phone. I was pretty sure he wasn't hearing me, though; my whisper couldn't be carrying that far.
“Well - I didn't have much choice, actually. What was I going to do? I was out of the hospital, but still recovering. I was very tired. In fact, I fell asleep on the couch, and the two adults moving around didn't even wake me. In fact… no, I'll get to it, you'll just have to be patient.”
I woke suddenly, experiencing a moment of disorientation that almost saw me hit the floor. Right, I was on a comfy couch, and covered in warm blankets, and it was now very dark.
I stretched as best I could to cover my look around. As best as I could tell, no one else was awake. I couldn't see much, but true to form, with my clips dialed down, I could hear everything. Even the soft even breathing of two adults in separate bedrooms upstairs. Heck, I was pretty sure I was hearing a mouse or some other small creature in the walls, somewhere near the kitchen.
Well, it was almost perfect. I hadn't been told what the security code was, and if I tried to open a door or window I'd set it off, and I really had places I needed to be.
Luckily enough, I could also hear what sounded like a breeze rattling a loose window pane coming from upstairs… near one of the adults. Moving slowly and carefully enough that I barely made any noise at all to my ears, I grabbed Mom's car keys from the foyer table and held onto them.
I was still in the stupid dress disguise, but I wasn't going to worry about that now. I wasn't cold and trying to change clothes was a risk. I did grab the shoes, though; they fit and I didn't think my feet were calloused anymore. I tied them together and wrapped them around my neck.
The room turned out to be Iron Bunny's, and the door was open. So was the window across from the door, and there was indeed a breeze rattling a loose window pane in it. I tiptoed to it over the thick carpet, keeping my eyes averted so as not to tempt fate.
I didn't even need to move the window; I could fit right out of it, and there was an unfurled canvas awning for a patio under it. With the window already open the alarm was inert here, right? At least that's how it worked back home.
Sticking my leg outside didn't cause anything to go off. I was able to avoid any awkwardness because my feet touched the awning before I needed to use my hands to hang out the window. A good thing because I doubted I could hold on with one hand anymore.
The awning was strong enough to hold my weight with no signs of tearing, something I couldn't really test but was glad for. I shimmied down it and realized I still had a good six or seven feet of empty space under it. No help for it, I put the key fob in my teeth and grabbed the edge, easing off.
Seems I had been right not to trust my new body; I only managed to hang on for a few seconds before I fell, landing on my feet. My feet made a muted slap on the concrete, and it stung fiercely for a moment. I waited, but it seemed the Iron Bunny hadn't heard it, so I put the shoes on and eased around to the front.
Chances were Iron Bunny at least would hear Mom's car start; would she wake up? I couldn't exactly walk the distance. I could try putting it in neutral and pushing, but if I didn't have enough strength to hold myself from a window, I doubted I could push Mom's car; it was a full sedan. I was an idiot; I really should have thought things through before diving out an open window; now I was stuck.
But I had to know. I had to go home.
I got in the car and started it up, then waited. There was no response, either from inside the cabin or out. Neither Mom nor Iron Bunny came out yelling and waving their arms, or anything like that – so I put the car in gear and drove.
I was super careful. If I was stopped, the cops would arrest me for only driving on a permit, or for stealing the car if I couldn't prove who I was. And even at night, there was enough light around to get a good look at my ears; I shouldn't have left that silly hat behind. At least the highway out was dark. Now that I knew where the cabin was, I was sure I could navigate back to it; it was only twenty minutes from home, using the back roads.
Iron Bunny flew in front of me just before I was about to turn onto my street; I almost wrecked the car. Heart jack-hammering, I pulled over and parked.
She didn't look angry, just concerned and maybe a bit amused. She also didn't have Mom with her.
“So, where exactly do you think you're going, Luke?” As if she didn't know.
“Home, of course. I wanted something other than this stupid dress to wear.” And I wanted to see it. My home, my block, my street.
“I could have loaned you something.” There was definitely amusement there.
“I don't want 'something'; I want my own clothes.” My own things. If I couldn't have my house, I'd settle for that much – but I wouldn't settle for less.
“Hm… follow me, quietly.” Ibby tiptoed across the street like a big kid; I rolled my eyes and followed, as silent as she was despite walking normally. She took cover behind a large tree and I followed; we didn't blend in at all, her with her coloration and me with my dress, but it seemed we didn't need to.
The entire street was a circus.
There were more vans and other vehicles parked on the street than there had been on station at the hospital. There was almost no room for a car to pass on the two lane road, and there was no way at all for two cars to pass each other. The reporters and cameramen and whoever else? It looked like a convention had set up shop, right there on the street. There were lights set up everywhere.
There were even tents on certain lawns, some lit with people moving in them. It was insane.
“Now do you see why we didn't take you home, kiddo?” Ibby whispered, looking not at the circus, but at me.
I nodded. It was one thing to hear about it, but another thing entirely to see it. I still wasn't about to leave empty handed though; I was going to get punished for doing this anyway, so I was going to get what I came for.
Ibby read it in me. “Right, of course you're going to be stubborn. Alright, look. I'll go ahead and get the stuff you want; the press won't bother me. You stay here - no wait, second thought, if I come back to the car they may follow. You go find an out of the way spot to wait, and stay out of trouble, alright?”
She moved off and I had to stop her. I handed her the car keys. “I'll wait at the park on the other side of town; it's on this street, can't miss it. If the reporters are going to follow you to the car, they will either follow it or wait for me to come back, so try and keep that in mind.”
She gave me a look. “Good point. Alright then. Give me a little bit.”
She took off, floating above the mess, and I moved before someone got the idea to track her path back to her take-off point.
It was late enough that no one was out, though I did have to dodge a Redding patrol car. I was friends with all our police, but I really didn't want to get stopped; if I did, Mom would know what I'd done come morning. I wasn't sure I could convince Ibby to cover for me, but I was sure I stood a better chance with her than anyone else Mom knew.
It only took two blocks to realize I had made a serious mistake in my choice of locations; the park was a favorite haunt, nothing wrong there… but Jamie's house was down this street too. I stopped across from it; it looked normal. There was no sign of the broken door, no police tape… the only sign I could see was a patch of yard burned totally clear of grass; even in the dim light the soil looked coated with ash. The mark extended to the driveway concrete, and it looked like some steps had been made to wash it off. The car was still parked where it had been, but the dent I was pretty sure I'd put in it was gone.
I was across the street and staring at the spot before I realized it. It seemed like such a small thing; I felt there should be more of a sign. I bent over and felt it; there was grass seed mixed in with the wet ash.
I took another step and some automatic lights snapped on; right, those were new, and it was time to go.
I couldn't run more than a block before shuddering to a gasping messy halt. My body was absolute crap; my stamina was just gone. The only good news was aside from a dog about three streets away, there was no other sounds of life.
Still, the dog had stopped barking before I got my breathing and rubbery muscles back under me.
The park was dark and empty; there were only two large lights on either side of it, and one of those had a broken bulb. It was the go to place for any midnight rendezvous that wasn't lover oriented (since it was easy for cops to keep an eye on) but it too was empty right now. I sat on a swing near the tree line and waited, wondering why the press hadn't set up their tents here, on public property.
I wondered how much my neighbors were getting paid to have people camp on their lawns.
I wondered what I was supposed to do now.
The only car that came down the street was Mom's, which was probably for the best. I'd picked my spot to be able to hide quickly, then just zoned out. I rushed down there and got in; the entire back seat was filled with trash bags full of stuff.
“Really, Iron Bunny?”
She shrugged as she pulled off again. “I wasn't sure what you'd want, and I can always put anything back later.”
I had to ask. “Did you have any problems?”
She grinned back at me, taking her eyes off the road in a way I wasn't really comfortable with. “My dear Lucretia, I can fly. There is no trouble newsies can offer me that I can't simply ignore. I had the door open and shut and locked again before any of them had taken two steps, and well, a window works really well to leave a place when you don't want to be seen. Something you know already, eh?”
I felt my face heat up. “I didn't know the alarm codes, and didn't want to set it off! Hey, speaking of which, our house alarms should have been on too; how did you avoid setting them off?”
“Oh, I know the codes.”
What. “But you've never been to our house before. I've literally never seen you in Redding before.”
Not that I usually saw Mom's clients in any capacity; she was a firm believer in leaving work at work.
“Just got them last week… your Mom and I are good friends, and I wanted to be able to keep an eye on her. Besides, I owe you, kid. At least some of this is my fault.”
No, it wasn't. But I knew somehow that she wouldn't just accept that; maybe it was that she hadn't earlier. So I needed to try another way, and I was curious anyway.
“Tell me about it. How did Jamie get your sample, anyway?”
She glanced at me and I motioned her eyes back to the road. “Well, about a year ago I was contacted by Marsupial Medical – no, I'm not making that up, that's what they're called... laugh away – they are a company based in Australia of course, and they specialize in taking, collating, and storing samples. They wanted to gather as many samples as they could of mutants with BIT's, both genetic and otherwise, and cross reference them for any similarities; sort of like a mutant genome experiment.
The idea was supposed to be to pin down faulty or dangerous genetic markers among mutants both with BIT's and without among the populace, and eventually work to correct them with new types of gene therapy. Since I have some conditions I'd like to see corrected, I said sure, against my better judgment. I've been down this road before, you see.”
Ibby was understating here, I was sure. She was now focused on the road, but I could see the pain in her profile.
“So, fast forward, and Marsupial Medical (or double M was I call them) is outsourcing the research to enterprising and bright young people to save costs, having researchers running internet think tanks on ways to better profile and use the data. That's where Jamie comes in; she was hired into one with the understanding that she could build a BIT scanning device. At least that's what double M told me when I asked.”
“Okay, stop there.”
She glanced at me again, curiosity dulling the anguish briefly.
“You yourself just said, the limit of your involvement was to hand over samples of your DNA. Something you did to an established company, and probably under contract, right?”
She nodded, looking back at the road in time to avoid a Raccoon, for which I was grateful.
“Then it wasn't your fault. I was in the room when Jamie signed her own contract, stating she wouldn't do anything stupid with the samples she received. I was there for most of those discussions; your name didn't even come up. The company might be responsible for all the internet shenanigans to cut costs, but even they couldn't know that Jamie would… do what she did.”
The only ones responsible for this, were Jamie, Amy Milsner… and me. I could have stopped this all from happening if I hadn't been so stupid.
Her return look was a little too long for my riding comfort, given that she was driving at night and had already avoided one animal.
“You know kid, you're alright."
What could I possibly say to that?
She wasn't done though. “I think I'll adopt you.”
“What?!? You do realize I have a Mom already, right?”
She grinned. “Yeah, but I'm cooler than she is.”
I gave her my best indignant sniff. “You aren't even close.”
She mock grabbed her chest. “Ack! You wound me!”
She was such a nerd. A nice silence passed and soon enough we turned onto the service road to the cabin.
“So… you know how to drive, it seems. At least, when I was following you, you didn't make any mistakes. You were very methodical, very… cautious, I guess.”
“Well, hitting something with Mom's car would be a disaster. Which is probably why you should watch the road a bit more.”
“Heh. Maybe, though I think Strella would forgive me, at least unless you got hurt. That raises a question, though; why sneak out at all? You're going to catch hell for it.”
I thought about it as she pulled up and killed the engine and lights. I wasn't sure I knew myself, not all of it. How could I explain?
“I just… had to. I needed clothes, at least, needed something of me, and I had to see.”
I had to see my home again, under siege by strangers or not. I had to see her home again, where it happened. I had to see my home town to take it in. Ibby nodded understanding, even though I didn't say the last part out loud; how could I? It sounded dumb enough in my head.
Ibby got out. “When we get in, let me do the talking.”
I followed her. The reason Ibby wanted to talk was easily apparent, even if I didn't hear any movement past the door. Once Ibby input the security code and opened the door, Mom was there, standing in the foyer with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. Which meant she had to have been holding that position or one like it for awhile now.
“So, where have you two been?”
I opened my mouth but Ibby started in, loudly.
“Tia here couldn't sleep, so we went to get her some clothes and other stuff from your house. The circus is still in town, so I went in while she waited for me; had to go out your bedroom window before the alarm reset, so it's not locked, but well, the alarm is set and it's on the second floor, so it should be fine. Not like anyone can break in with an entire army of reporters staking out the house, at least not without drawing some attention.”
Iron Bunny was pretty smart. Nothing she'd said was specifically a lie. I'd set off to get some things, she'd heard and followed me, so it was 'we'. She went into the house, and I did wait, but not in the car as her words seemed to imply, and that last bit I'd bet was pure distraction, to take Mom's mind off me sneaking out.
Mom was smart too, however. “Why did you take my car?”
“It's both safer than my loaner and in better condition. I didn't want to break down with a bunch of stuff on my way back. Plus, the kiddo wanted to drive and I didn't see the harm; good night time practice with no traffic. I drove on the way back.” Ibby was very good.
Mom turned to me. “This true, Tia?”
I still wasn't a fan of that nickname. “Yes, Mom.”
Mom still didn't look happy but moved to let us in. She pinned Ibby with her death stare as she passed, though; Ibby just shrugged it off. I breathed a sigh as I headed to the kitchen. Iron Bunny had covered for me, and now all fallout for my little stunt was on her shoulders. I had been willing to accept the consequences of being caught, but I couldn't say I wasn't relieved.
I did wonder why she'd done it, though.
Mom followed me into the kitchen; I turned on the prominent teakettle and she helped me find the mugs and tea.
“So what did you get?” Mom just seemed like she was curious, but this could be a fishing attempt.
“Just clothes, mainly. This dress is a little drafty.” The underwear could stay; I had no doubt it'd be less annoying than my old boxers.
“Ah. We had some other sets for you here...”
I had to interrupt her. “Yeah, but I wanted my own clothes.” I'm sorry Mom, I just couldn't sit here and listen to the clock tick. Please try to understand.
Ibby Joined us. “Nothing wrong with comfy old clothes to slum around in. You'll probably have to stay here a little while at the very least.”
“Right, and on that note, I'm going to go grab some. The alarm still off?”
“Well, for now, pretty much.” Her answer baffled me.
What the heck did that mean? Ibby waved me off. “It's fine, you won't set it off, go, go!”
I went. I grabbed the first bag I could see a hoodie in and locked the door; I could bring in the rest in the morning. When I shut the door the kettle whistled; seemed a little fast to me.
I hadn't asked before, but if we were staying here, I probably had a room. “So what room should I be putting this stuff in?”
“Third one on the right!” Mom called back. I couldn't help but grin; that was the room next to the one she'd been sleeping in. She wanted me close.
I didn't mind… well, not that much. The cabin had over a dozen bedrooms, something I noted earlier but dismissed. It seemed like a lot of space.
The room I ended up dumping my bag in was decorated in tans and browns, with dark green furniture to match the walls and the forest outside the walls. It was very well done, and not at all bright like Iron Bunny's room had been; it blended in.
A tee shirt, a hoodie, and some sweatpants later, and I did too.
I came down to find my tea on the living room coffee table, the two adults already seated.
“You two don't need to stay up on my account.” Sure I was a bundle of nerves and awake, but they needed more sleep.
Mom answered me, with teeth. “Oh, we aren't. I was just going to have words with Ibby here about her sneaking out with you without telling me. But that can wait, I suppose. How do you feel?
I took stock. It felt better to have clothes surrounding me, and I smelled me on them, faintly. “Okay. Better now.”
Though I was beginning to feel tired again, after only being up around two hours.
Ibby shrugged and turned on the television again. It was still on the same sappy channel. Mom gave her a pointed glance and she turned it to some crime drama while I went exploring a bit. Turned out the cabin had a den, and that den had a library.
“Ibby, do you mind if I read in the den?”
I could see the face she pulled as she looked back, and I was pretty sure it was feigned just to annoy Mom.
“Nah, knock yourself out with all the dusty crappy books. Yell if you see a romance, though!”
“So,' my seatmate grinned. “what book did you decide to read?”
I grinned back. “Watership down.”
He snorted quiet laughter. “How very fitting.”
“What can I say? The cover just leapt out at me.”
The jock was now making no pretense of anything other than listening. At least he wasn't using his phone to record us. I lowered my voice just to see him strain; I was kind of bad like that, sometimes.
“The book did help illustrate a problem, one of the worst problems involved with the attack in fact.”
“I'll get to it later, in due time. First things first.”
He smiled gently and I couldn't help returning it. “Alright, fair enough. What's next then?”
I had an appointment, bright and early. No one saw fit to tell me that last night of course, but it seemed the MCO could not wait to test me – literally. And of course Mom was on board with that, because there was still the chance, no matter how slight (so she told me) that something was wrong.
So at nine, bright and early, freshly showered and dressed in my old clothes, I was blinking the sun out of my eyes and trying to stifle a yawn as Mom drove us to my doom.
My doom had plenty of reporters in it, it seemed. I wondered how they knew about my appointment. It was a pretty rush job, after all, made for me almost the minute I woke up; it would have been the same day, but the expert assigned to Redding and its environs was elsewhere.
I don't know, maybe they hacked the MCO computers or something – no matter how stupid that sounded. After the one reporter in the hospital, I wouldn't put it past them. I was forced to dial my clips down, as the reporters started yelling questions even before Mom stopped the car (right outside the front door at the beckoning direction of two police officer who looked familiar).
Ibby got out well before I did, waving jovially to the crowd while managing to shield me from them. “Come on, give us some space here! Plenty of me to go around, no need to crowd. Come on, we can't understand you when you all yell at once!”
For my part, I put my hood up over my head and tried to keep her between me and all the microphones. I was pretty sure I'd say something stupid if I didn't. Mom joined us right as the reporters started to get wise and take turns; now we couldn't pretend we couldn't understand them. Well, we could, but it'd be pretty obvious.
“Lucretia, is the transformation permanent?”
“Lucretia, any truth to the rumors that you are a Casanova?”
“Lucretia, how do you feel?”
“Lucretia, can you tell us what happened on the 19th in your own words?”
And so on. I didn't answer any of them, I just kept walking, almost on top of Ibby. Mom brought up the rear, and she wasn't a large woman, but no one tried to get past her glare. The reporters were remarkably well informed; how had they gotten my new name so quickly?
Also, just what sort of stupid question was 'how do you feel'? I actually stopped a moment when that on registered, and Mom kept me going. The police stopped the reporters at the door. This close the feeling that I'd seen them before was even stronger. They actually locked the doors to keep the reporters out and turned to us with blank faces.
It was when I saw the specialist that I remembered. The two were officers Trask and Stahl, and the specialist was agent Berkowitz. I had indeed met all three, the last time I was here. My ears actually stiffened in rage.
“Hello again, miss Del Bosque.” His urbane voice made me twitch; how dare he!
“You have some nerve, coming here for this.” I was proud of how even I sounded, how cool. I wanted to deck him, but there was barely any rage in there at all. Now if I could just get my left ear to stop twitching.
“I wasn't scheduled to be here for this testing; I asked for it.” He walked up to me, an old man in an antiquated suit, looking far older than last time I saw him. He met my eyes the entire time, stopped just out of reach - and bowed deeply.
“I wanted to come here first and foremost to apologize. I was wrong, I made a mistake, and you paid the price. For that, I am deeply and truly sorry. If I can at any time make amends within the law, I will do so to the best of my ability.” He didn't straighten, just held out his card.
I sagged back in surprise, my rage swirling the drain to somewhere, and took the card on reflex. He straightened up as Mom stepped forward.
“Don't think this absolves you, agent Berkowitz. I intend to see this case investigated and all guilty parties punished to the full extent of the law.”
He nodded to her. “I wouldn't have it any other way, Ma'am. An investigation into all my past cases, including this one, is already underway by both the police and the MCO; I will abide by any decisions made by either.”
I had to ask. “And how likely is that to happen?”
He answered with no deflection at all: “Not likely; I followed proper procedure in testing miss Howe. The psychological screening failed to turn up anything, and the current theory is certain... extenuating circumstances muddied the readings.”
I wanted to ask what circumstances, but something told me I really didn't want to know. It no longer mattered anyway.
Ibby had a good question, though, and she asked it as we all moved to the back, past the lone secretary in the office (who happened to be staring at me and Ibby as if we were Martians or something). “Won't you being here be seen as a conflict of interest? You tested Jamie, you're now here to test Tia….”
Berkowitz nodded. “It probably will be, yes. But I felt it best that I be the one to test Tia. May I call you Tia?”
I nodded. Might as well, Mom and Ibby both had outvoted me on nickname choice, (something I felt was a bit unfair considering I'd already been outvoted on my name) and getting used to it was probably for the best. I'd already found out that if I didn't answer to Tia Mom would give me this look that made my heart flip.
Agent Berkowitz continued. “Regardless of current events, I am a senior field agent, Iron Bunny. I won't claim to be good at my job, not anymore, but I will claim to be selfish. I wanted to know if young Tia was alright, and I wanted to be the one to test her. So I called in a favor.”
Ibby just shook her head. It made me wonder what she was thinking; hopefully, I could ask later.
The room agent Berkowitz led us to was a somewhat large gym. Another person was waiting for us, this one in a lab coat.
“Doctor Paige couldn't make it today, so everyone, meet Doctor Henry.”
Doctor Henry was not your classic scatterbrain. He was tall, had skin the color of dark mocha, and short curly black hair His eyes showed he was anything but distracted, focusing on each of us in turn with intensity that I swore I could feel, at least for a moment.
“Good morning, and pleased to meet you all; I'm doctor Jacob Henry. Your reputation precedes you, Iron Bunny.”
He held out his hand to shake, and she took it before asking blandly: “Which one?”
Oh dear God, she did not just say that. Dr. Henry just answered her. “The heroic one, of course.”
Dr. Henry then turned to me so fast I almost jumped, sticking his hand into my personal space, but his smile was large and warm. “Nice to meet you, miss Del Bosque.”
Well, at least he didn't say my reputation preceded me. Then he moved on to Mom.
“Mrs. Del Bosque, your reputation also precedes you. I am a fan.”
Mom looked a bit lost. “A fan of what?”
His answer made both mom and I pause. “A fan of the way you shred the modern self-styled newshound, of course. It's such a joy to watch.”
I wondered what the media had done to him; his hatred seemed a bit more personal than most.
I didn't see much here but the gym, a glass-walled room in the corner with some desks in it, and a machine in the corner, that looked like a large computer scanner placed on its side. It looked old. I looked at agent Berkowitz, and he looked back blandly; unless that machine scanned brains or something, I could see how they missed Jamie's mental thing. Or anyone else's issues, including mine.
Agent Berkowitz correctly read my expression: “Budget cuts. Large cities have better facilities, but we have enough here, or at least enough to determine if more testing is needed.”
I didn't really like the sound of that. At least I was dressed in decent workout clothes; loose and comfortable.
“Alright, how about we get started? I'd like to get you out of here as quickly as possible, Tia. The bathrooms are behind you to the right. We need you to grab one of the bodysuits in the box by the door, change into it, and join us when you're done.
“I'll help!” Ibby was quick to offer, even raising her hand like this was school. Mom just rolled her eyes.
The bathroom was like any public bathroom everywhere, if a bit more clean. Ibby wasted no time looking around curiously while I checked the cardboard box next to the door. It was filled with various sizes of black bodysuit, with some sort of sensor network built into it. There was some dust on the top suits.
“Here, let me help.”
Ibby pawed her way through the box while I looked on, bemused. She finally stopped with one pulled from the bottom that looked way too small for me.
“So, what were you looking for? Seen one bathroom, seen them all.”
She frowned, held the suit up, and threw it back in the box haphazardly. “Cameras. No little sister of mine is going to undress in a random bathroom in an MCO office unless I'm sure there are no cameras.”
She held up a suit that looked even smaller; then she pulled some scissors out of her purse. Why did she have to mention cameras?
She caught me looking around. “Relax, it's just us girls. Or if it isn't, whoever placed the cameras is better at that than I am at spotting 'em.”
Well, that was comforting. Ibby clapped me gently on the back. “Relax, relax. My purse didn't go off, so there's nothing here. You didn't hear an oven timer noise, did you?”
I shook my head; what did that have to do with anything? Ibby grinned. “Good, neither did I. The place is bug free. Get dressed already, I need to make some alterations to the suit.”
“Is that, you know, accepted?” I started undressing, putting my clothes on the sink; I would never trust a bathroom floor.
She nodded. “In cases like ours? Sure. The suits are cheap, mass produced, and if you want you can take them home. But if you don't, they get used once, thrown out, and recycled. It's just easier that way.”
I dressed and she looked at me critically, then widened one ear hole. The whole thing felt tight and while it didn't restrict my movement, I didn't like it. A glance at the mirrors above the sink showed I looked ridiculous.
No one laughed as I stepped outside in the suit, adjusting the stupid cowl; Agent Berkowitz did come forward with a belt for it, though. The belt had wires sticking out of it, to match the wires sticking out of the suit. I put it on, matched them up and plugged them together and was rewarded with a slight hum. Doctor Henry gave me a thumbs up as Agent Berkowitz moved me over to a weight machine. Well, at least it looked like one.
“Just sit down here, lock your feet against the rests here, grab the handles, and pull. The test is done when the machine manages to start pulling back.”
He demonstrated what he meant. Ibby took one look and had concerns.
“There is no way that machine is rated for bricks.”
Agent Berkowitz nodded. “It isn't, but the data can still be used to extrapolate ratings. If they start slow, by the time a brick moves the machine, we usually have a solid reading. We also have a very solid understanding of just what it takes to break the machine – but given that Tia doesn't have any known brick strength after a variety of tests, I'm willing to take the chance before we use the stronger and more expensive options.”
It wasn't long before the machine started pulling me towards it, no matter how hard I tried to hold on. Dr. Henry just hummed to himself and noted the number while I glared at the thing.
“Next, the treadmill.”
I only lasted five minutes on the treadmill, and the numbers were blacked out so I didn't see how fast I was going. Again Dr. Henry just scribbled the number down. I needed to take a breather for several minutes after the running.
And that was how it went; I felt like I was back in Gym. They had me do jumping jacks, and the rope climb, and even dodgeball. And each test was a failure, serving only to show that I was now completely out of shape and would need to start from scratch.
They also tested to see if I was a devisor by trying to make me fix some sort of clock. I was never so glad to fail a test; I don't know how I would have handled being one. I also wasn't psychic (they had me try to guess cards, of all things) couldn't fly (they dropped the floor our from under me, a trapdoor, and I fell a good five feet – thankfully onto mats).
The regeneration test sucked, though; the small cut wasn't too bad, but it hurt more than it should. At least my blood clotted like it was supposed to.
Agent Berkowitz tested my hearing and vision again and added my sense of smell, touch, and taste. All my senses were enhanced a bit, with the weakest being taste. I could still taste some weird things; he tested it by placing small strips containing weird stuff on my tongue. He said most people couldn't taste anything, but I got aspirin and bitter almonds and soap out of the experience. At least I couldn't taste sweat in the air, or roadkill or anything. It was bad enough being able to smell it from farther away.
By the time we all assembled for the verdict, I was worn out. Now I understood what happened to Jamie, all those months ago; at least Ibby didn't mind me leaning on her. I think she barely noticed, and that only because she wrapped an arm around me when I started to list like a sinking ship.
Dr Henry started off, staring at the clipboard he held as if he didn't know what it said. “Alright. I think we can safely say, with the testing done both here and at the hospital, that we have a good picture of your ratings Tia, and what may be going on with you. First, the good news: As far as it is possible for modern medical science to tell, you are stable, and continue to mutate at a slow rate. That is to say that you appear to be in no danger at all from rejection and complications. This is not exact; problems could still develop down the road, but I feel it's safe to say that currently you are in no danger. That said, I'd like you to get tested regularly. Not a full powers test, but just a genetic scan; something that can be done with a blood test.”
He took in Both my and Ibby's glares and coughed.
“They will, of course, be destroyed after testing to ensure they won't fall into the wrong hands.”
I could live with that. “Alright, what's the bad news?”
“The bad news is the only power we could confirm is your Body image Template,” which confirms your exemplar status and rating of one. Actually, it's slightly less than a full one at the moment.”
Ibby blanched. Mom muttered something that sounded like it might have been a curse.
“Well, what does that mean?” How was that bad? Wasn't a lower number better? Didn't that mean I was more human than someone who had a higher rating, stupid ears aside?
“It means that you're actually weaker than the average human. And because your exemplar rating is determined by your Body Image Template, your strength, stamina, and reflexes are unlikely to get better.”
What? No… nonono. I'd never get better? I'd be this weak forever?
Ibby blew on one of my ears. “Hey, don't even worry about it. My own mutation started out slow, then snowballed once the regen kicked in. It took about six months for that to happen, and it could be the same for you.”
She was right. I couldn't think like that, couldn't let this beat me. I'd just have to work at it, and get better again. I'd never get better if I just gave up.
“Right, I refuse to let this beat me… I'll just work out again.”
Ibby palmed her face in response, and mom muttered something again.
“Not entirely what I meant kiddo – A body Image template is like a blueprint, and it forces you to match it. So if your BIT has you as a one, then you'll always be weaker, no matter how hard you work, cause your body will just force itself back to the blueprint.”
I could read on the paperwork Dr. Henry had, that an exemplar rating of two was the human norm. Well, that wasn't too far past one, was it?
“Well, I don't care what you meant, Iron Bunny… I refuse the entire idea. I'll just work at it and force my body to get better.” After all, it was mine, screwed up as it was – it had to listen to me.
Agent Berkowitz interrupted Ibby before she could say whatever it was she was going to say next.
“That's a fine attitude to have.”
Ibby shut her mouth with an audible clack as Mom grabbed my other side. Mom was more interested in hugging, however, and I didn't mind.
Agent Berkowitz held out a card, and Mom intercepted it. “If ever you need any help adjusting, or need to talk, about anything at all, please call me at that number. But for now, I'm afraid, I need to go; I have another appointment.”
He started to walk out, but he did say ask about anything, and I had a pretty good question.
“Agent Berkowitz, did you make the same offer to Jamie?”
He stopped and turned, looking me in the eyes again. “Yes, I did, and using much the same language.”
So Jamie had heard the same offer… and either forgotten about it or decided she didn't need the help. I wouldn't make the same mistake, even though I was going to have quite the collection of cards soon. Who used cards anyway, and hadn't he handed one out to us before?
I was tired. More tired than I should be as I sat down at one of the desks on the other side of the glass.
“Alright, just one thing left, and that's the psychological evaluation.” Dr. Henry forced out with a plastic smile. “Just answer the questions as truthfully as you can, there are no right or wrong answers.”
It was a written test. An actual written test to determine if you were crazy. 'If you were a bug, which bug would you be, and why?' was the first question.
What the fuck.
“Did Jamie take this same test?” Dr. Henry tensed at my question, but answered.
“That one or one very like it, administered by Agent Berkowitz. It was felt that he should not be here to administer the psychological portion of the exam for obvious reasons.”
“Is this all of the test?”
“All that you need to concern yourself with, yes.” Was Dr. Henry's expected reply.
Well, it was easy to see how they had no clue about Jamie now. Standardized testing for mental issues probably never worked. Whatever; I answered the questions but didn't really take my time with them; I wanted to go home and sleep. And since I knew I couldn't go home yet, I'd settle for the cabin. I guess the numbers on my endurance were spot on. Well, that or I was still recovering, and that was throwing things off.
The MCO did have this habit of asking (or demanding) for testing on anyone suspected of being a mutant as soon as possible, after all. In that much my case was hardly unusual. Maybe the Redding branch just didn't have the resources available to hire a psych staff, or something. Hardly a cheery thought.
“Alright, I'm done. Do I stay here while you grade it, or something?”
Dr. Henry produced and envelope. “No. I use this, seal it, and all of you verify it as sealed. Then I send it to our resident experts, and they look at it.”
He slid the test in, sealed it with some special tape, and had the adults all initial the tape. The name on the envelope was “Lapin,” and he had me write that instead.
“What's that all about? Lapin?”
Ibby answered me. “All the testing and stuff is actually filed in a different name, a code name. Your MID will have that name on it. It adds a layer of anonymity to your paperwork and identity.”
I wasn't sure how that was supposed to work in my case; it's not like my situation was subtle. “Okay, so why Lapin?” There had to be more suitable names, right?
“Because it's an old name of mine, and I own the rights to it. I don't own Lapine, or Lupin, or Lupine, or any of the other spellings, just that one.' she muttered something about a lucky bi- err person from Ohio who got Lapine that I was glad my Mom didn't hear and continued: “So since I don't use it anymore and haven't for years, well, it was better than you ending up with something else. Trust me, there aren't that many good names anymore and it gets much worse from there.”
I didn't really mind, it just caught me off guard. I wondered what Jamie's MID had said; she never showed it to me. I was actually kind of touched; I could see the old name meant something to Ibby, and she had just officially given it to me.
“That's all we needed. This test is officially over, and thank you for coming. Now, do you need me to escort you out?”
Mom grinned at him, showing entirely too many teeth; I knew what was coming. “You don't often handle the more social aspects of your job, do you?”
Dr. Henry pondered that for a moment, visibly parsing the words. I knew what Mom was really saying: 'You don't get out, or deal with people much, do you?'
He just answered honestly and completely seriously. “No. Sorry, were there any questions or concerns you had for me?”
We all just shook our heads; I couldn't think of anything else, and I'm pretty sure Mom was stamping the word 'incompetent' over his file in her head. Ibby was the real expert here, something that didn't exactly fill me with confidence, and she just seemed bored.
“I don't have any, no.” Dr. Henry probably just wanted out of here, and that was fine; I most certainly did. But wait, there was something….
“Wait, I do have something. All we did was standard physical stuff, why are you so sure I'm fine?”
“The suit you wore is connected to a variety of machines. Between the readings from those machines and the samples I analyzed here, on site, while you were testing, I feel confident in our answers.”
I guess that made sense. The sensors didn't have to just check heart rate or blood pressure, after all.
Alright. “Just one last question. Why are you trying to get me to leave here with this stupid suit on? I mean, I'd be pretty obvious.”
Dr. Henry flushed and stammered while Ibby laughed. Even Mom chuckled a bit.
“It's fine, just give me five minutes to change out of this stupid thing.” I'd never admit it to another soul, but it chafed in places no one wanted to be chafed when it got sweaty.
I managed to make it into the bathroom without wobbling, and got the stupid thing off while Ibby watched. She gathered it up while I put my clothes back on; I wanted a shower, but I didn't want to do it here. Since we were headed right back home anyway, and I doubted I'd be able to stand up for one for too much longer, at least not without a rest.
“You look pretty wiped.”
Yes, thank you, Ibby. “I feel pretty wiped.”
I was pretty sure Ibby didn't have that problem. She probably only needed an hour or so a night or something. She grinned at me.
“It's okay, don't worry about it. You smell fine. Even with the rubber smell mixed in.”
Her senses were better than mine, clearly; I didn't smell anything. But then again, can you even smell yourself unless you roll in a dumpster or something? I didn't think you could.
I managed to get dressed without falling over and get out. The suit fit into Ibby's purse, somehow.
We rejoined Mom and Dr. Henry; Ibby was keeping close. I wasn't sure whether to be pissed or happy about that.
“Alright, we might as well get you out the front door. There is a back entrance, but it's nowhere near where you parked your car.”
Mom had a plan. “I actually have an idea about how to get us out of here with a minimum of fuss. Let's all go to the lobby…”
“..And have ourselves a snack!” Ibby finished. I didn't get it.
Back up front, the rabid reporters were still there; I couldn't see them with the blinds drawn, but I could definitely hear them. The police were still standing guard.
Mom walked right up to the receptionist. “Hi, what's your name?”
Startled, she stammered out “Linda.”
I'd seen the grin Mom had before. “Well, Linda, how would you like to make an easy hundred dollars?”
Ibby started grinning too, and I started worrying. “Another decoy play, eh? It should work, they never really learn.”
I get it. I looked at Linda; she was bigger than I was, but hunched over, with a hoody on, and maybe a hair clip or something that could make bulges under it like my ears… Yes, it could work, especially if the police would agree to escort her. So of course, she shot us down.
“I can't get involved with all that! I could lose my job, getting involved like that. I'm sorry.”
Linda said the last two words directly to me, so I felt obliged to answer, but before I could Ibby interrupted.
“No problem, we have a plan B. Officers, could you go secure our car?”
Officer Trask answered with a glance through the blinds. “We can, but the moment we move the sharks out there will go full feeding frenzy. They will know you're all coming out soon.”
Ibby agreed brightly. “Yep! But they can't really stop me from flying, and I can fly faster than they can run, even while carrying people.”
Officer Trask nodded. “Makes sense. Want us to start the car for you? We could, easily.”
Mom threw him the keys. If you couldn't trust a cop, who could you trust?
Officer Stahl unlocked the door and they both rushed out; Ibby grabbed the door and pulled it shut; it was doubtful anyone was going to win a tug of war with her. She waggled her eyebrows when someone, or someones, tried. Mom was busy watching through the blinds; she waved me off when I got close.
“No, I'll watch. Give one of them a glimpse of you and they might storm the doors.”
Ibby grinned again. “That's right, little sis! You're so cute and irresistible, they may mob us!”
I was suddenly sure I'd die from embarrassment before the week was out. How could she even say such things with a straight face? Even the receptionist was rolling her eyes, but Ibby was completely at ease with all the odd looks.
Wait a minute. If Ibby was going to fly us out, why not just fly us out the back door? Chances were there were fewer people to bowl over there, and the press still wouldn't be able to react. I reached over and locked the door, turning to Dr. Henry.
“Can you show us where the back is now?”
Mom caught on immediately. “Of course, now that they've seen us show up here, we can simply head to the back and fly over the building, right?”
Ibby looked down, ears drooping. “I'm an idiot. Why didn't I think of that?”
Dr. Henry waved us on, back down the hall. “Alright, it's this way. Hurry before they catch on.” He muttered something else, something that sounded like loving cloak and dagger stuff as he led us past the elevators and to the left down the hall.
The door was plain, metal, and unmarked, though there was one of those emergency exit lights above it. Dr. Henry opened it to reveal more than a few reporters staked out there, though less than the front. Before I could shrink back Ibby had a hand around my waist, and one around Mom's, and we were in the air.
People yelled, phones and cameras flashed, and questions I did my best to ignore were shouted, and then we were in front of the car, where more phones and cameras flashed and questions I did my best to ignore were shouted. A flash of officer Stahl opening the door and I was gently shoved inside the back. I locked it with my foot and pulled my hood up.
Then we were off, and we probably hit thirty miles per hour before we left the lot. I hoped no one would try to get in Mom's way; they would probably just get mowed down. Ibby was nowhere to be seen.
“Mom where's Ibby?”
“Dealing with the reporters.” Well, that was a statement that would fill anyone with confidence. There would probably be sappy vapid smiles and worse on the six-o-clock news. Maybe I'd have to watch… if I was awake that is; sleep was sounding better and better.
“So, wait a moment. When was the interview, then?”
“A few days later. Ibby had actually got together with Mom and arranged a counter-proposal; if the press would leave us alone and stop camping at our house, we would conduct interviews with the reporters of their choice, as soon as they deemed me sufficiently recovered.”
Ibby hadn't even cracked a joke while lining the proposal out on live television, remaining pleasant but serious.
My seatmate nodded; he'd seen that too. “That's actually pretty brilliant. It would have the reporters themselves arguing over who to send, angering each other and wasting their efforts on each other rather than you.”
I couldn't resist the grin and really didn't want to. “Yep. All my Mom's idea, and that's exactly how it went down. She's really good at her job.”
Maybe he could use a PR agent on the west coast, and would look Mom up. It couldn't hurt to plant the idea.
“So, with the deal in place, you were able to go back to your house?” He prompted gently, and I realized I'd been lost in thoughts of getting Mom a commission, and an allowance raise.
“Oh, no, that took a few days for them to get the message and thin out. I think Mom finally had to resort to injunctions, or whatever they're called, to get the die-hards to stop camping at our door. And the calls never did stop, not really; they just slowed down.”
He smiled, showing teeth almost as white as mine. “Alright, then what did you do next?”
I snickered. “Showered and slept, of course. I was still recovering, and all the testing wiped me out. Of course, the real fun on that front was just beginning; for a month, my doctors ran blood tests twice a week, and they wouldn't take no for an answer.”
He laughed along with good humor. “But after that?”
“Well, I guess the next big thing happened the next day – at least, it was big to me.”
I was putting my clothes away, going through my bags, reveling in being alone in the house. Mom and Ibby both were gone, Mom on errands relating to my...situation, and Ibby left soon after to see a friend of hers. That was also probably about me, somehow.
Mom was meeting with reporters.
I didn't have to do that yet, and I was just fine delaying it. I had no idea what I even wanted to say. Of course eventually, I'd have to talk to them, if only to get them to leave me alone. So I was unloading the bag and as I moved the final pair of sweats, I found my old math book staring me in the face.
School was long out, and I'd basically failed, even though there was some exception could be made for a traumatic event that Mom told me I could probably apply for that would allow me to pass; even without taking my finals. The book, Algebra 2, even had my old assignment worksheet for class folded neatly inside it, where I remembered placing it just before Amy Milsner had asked me to help her with something in the Gym.
Somehow this book had found its way from my locker, to my house, to here. That wasn't important. What was important was that I liked math and this gave me something to do besides sitting in the house and watch daytime television.
Except of course I couldn't. The equations were pretty simple, something I remembered doing before, but what was that symbol? A sideways cross, or a floating X? What did it mean, exactly? It was on the tip of my tongue, and I just couldn't… remember, at all. Was it some new symbol that had been covered in my absence?
The book was little help, evidently it was not a new symbol, not even close. It was all through the book, and one of those symbols that wasn't explained in it, which meant it had to be common. So why couldn't I remember it?
I finally managed to put two and two together by reading a few paragraphs and comparing them to the written equations. It was the multiplication symbol. I knew what multiplication was; I'd done it forever… so why was the symbol a complete blank? Even now it felt like the symbol and what I'd learned about it was slotted in a new spot in my head, and not something forgotten and now recalled.
I didn't know if I multiplied first to solve for X.
I didn't know what four times four was. That, at least, I could infer by remembering four times three and four times five… but it was clear I HAD known it, and just didn't anymore. I'd had to relearn it, just now.
I rushed back upstairs and found that Ibby had packed my other schoolbooks. Technically they were the schools property, but Mom had probably grabbed them first and thought I'd need them; probably before my coma took as long as it did. It looked like she was more right than she knew.
My history book was easy enough; any details I missed I could just re-read. English rules were confusing, maybe a bit more confusing but then again English was always a little confusing. More worrying was my social studies book was full of new old laws I didn't know.
I also couldn't remember how to say have a nice day in Spanish, or how to say goodbye in Italian.
The door shut and I blinked back tears to see Mom standing there, some bags in her hands. She dropped them and rushed over.
“Honey, what's wrong?”
There was no good way to tell her this. There was no good way to say it, or even think it. “Mom, I'm stupid.”
She hugged me. “Only when you say things like that. Now, seriously, what's wrong?”
I switched to Spanish as I told her; I could imagine her look of slowly dawning horror as I fumbled my way through the language, butchering words. I had to imagine it because Mom was now stronger than I was, and was holding me to her shoulder.
When I was done, she spoke, her voice only broke once. “Well, the doctors did say that there could be some memory loss. I guess we'll just have to work on it. Now come here.”
She pulled me up and led me into the den, and fired up the computer. Some tapping and she sat me down in the overstuffed chair in front of the desk.
“I'm going to go make dinner. Take every test loaded on that website, then come find me with the results.”
As she left I looked the site over. It was one of those IQ testing things, with puzzles and games and other things. “Mom, I don't want to do this!”
I didn't want to know exactly how stupid I was. I mean I wasn't any great shakes before, just average, so what would I be now? But she just pointed at the chair and left without another word.
Twenty minutes later, I had my answer, the words blinking at me in large text that I couldn't miss: “Well above average”.
That rating, according to the website, was one step down from a genius. I couldn't be sure, so I went to another site, and ran it's test - and ended up with the same result. If this was true, then I couldn't be positive, but I might actually be… smarter? I wasn't sure how that worked; wasn't memory and intelligence linked? I went to find Mom; she was smart herself; if she'd just told me I wasn't stupid, I'd have doubted. Taking these tests without her even saying a word was good. I wouldn't say I was completely convinced, but I wasn't freaking out now.
Mom was making a fresh salad, with some tofu burgers. The box promised they tasted like the real thing, with no actual meat or meat sauce content. I doubted that was possible, but I appreciated the effort Mom was going to. I moved up to help, washing radishes for chopping; I knew she wouldn't let me handle the knife, not this week.
“Well, going to keep me in suspense?”
She was going to make me say it. “Well above average, it said. So did the next one I went to, to get a second opinion.”
She grinned smugly. “I knew it. Tomorrow we have another appointment with a doctor; I think having memory issues counts as something new. But memory is simply retaining information. Intelligence is reasoning power and speed, and you clearly haven't taken a hit there.”
The dinner was almost done, so I set the table – and then we waited for Ibby.
And waited some more.
The heated portions of the dinner were well on their way to cooling when Ibby finally showed up. She stopped, startled, as she took in what we were doing and Mom shot her a look that promised words later. Her eyes sparkled suspiciously in the light for a moment before she dropped her purse and a bag by the door, and pretty much just appeared in the chair.
“Sorry, sorry. The meeting with my friend ran a little long; we had to discuss certain options.”
Mom looked pretty disapproving. “And you couldn't have called?”
Ibby's ears were drooping, and her eyes were large. “I honestly didn't think of it. I'm new to this sort of thing, Strella. I really am sorry.”
Mom harrumphed. “Just don't do it again.”
Ibby had one ear shielding her face from Mom as she gave me a wink and a nod. I made my hand look like it was cradling a phone to my ear in response. It wasn't cool to make my Mom worry, and I wasn't going to let her off the hook that easily. I wasn't sure we should worry, myself, since the rumor was Ibby was pretty tough, but it wouldn't hurt her to let us know what was going on, especially if she was serious about helping us.
Her grin faded a little as she nodded. She really did look contrite. Did I look like that sometimes?
We ate in silence; the tofu burgers didn't taste too bad; not like real meat or anything, but not too far off. As soon as I was done I leaped up to do dishes; Mom wasn't done yet, and Ibby was on seconds, but if I got the water ready they wouldn't knock me out of the way, I was sure.
Mom came in to dry a few minutes later, and again we finished in silence. A silence that Ibby didn't feel as at peace in as the rest of us. I could tell she was struggling for something to say.
“So, I noticed the den door open. Were you looking for another book Tia?” A weak verbal sally, but a good question and a good guess.
“Sorry, I did leave it open, but it was to use the computer. Mom wanted me to test something.” There was no way I was going to tell her about my earlier freak out; the last thing I wanted was to her hear that I thought I'd gone stupid and draw the wrong conclusions.
“Oh?” Ibby didn't want to let it go.
Well, it wasn't like I could keep it hidden forever. “I lost some memories, and they seem to be skill related. I don't know if it was the coma or… or the attack.”
I couldn't tell if I were missing any childhood memories or anything; Mom had promised to go over what she remembered later so we could compare notes, but I wasn't about to start that now. Knowing my Mom, she would drag out the baby pictures as visual aids.
“Ah, sorry. That sounds pretty rough.” Ibby's look was speculative; when Mom turned away, she pantomimed driving. I shrugged; if I'd lost any skill or knowledge of that, how would I even know? I hadn't even known about the math until confronted with it.
Ibby put the dishes up, clearly thinking. I took the chance to ask Mom the question of the day; I hadn't heard her phone ring since she'd gotten home, but I'd heard her answer it, and answer it often.
“Mom, what's going on with all the phone calls? Did you give the media your number or something?”
She grinned. “No, the office is forwarding the calls. They did get my old cell number, but not the new one. The callers are fact checking, asking if what I said about our willingness to negotiate was true.”
Wow, Mom's office couldn't be happy about that, but she didn't seem all that worried, so I guess I shouldn't be.
“So, what's the good word? Are they leaving?” It wasn't that I hated being here… but it wasn't home.
“They are, but it should take a few days yet. Most of them are arguing with each other about who gets the first interview, as expected. The frontrunner seems to be CNN, though channel five has called me three times so far. The rest are probably going to camp out a bit longer on the off chance we come home and they can pester us into a statement.”
It was still pretty unreal; didn't people have anything better to do?
Seems they didn't.
“Hey, kiddo. You look pretty awful. Why don't you go to bed?” Yes, thank you, Ibby, for reminding me of how tired I get from doing nothing at all now. At least the dishes were done.
I couldn't deny that I was dead on my feet, even though I knew I'd probably be up later. “Alright, so you both in the morning.”
I flagged the stewardess down and asked for another diet Pepsi. We waited in silence while she handed me one. I grimaced at her fake smile but she was too busy looking anywhere else to notice. My seatmate spoke up gently as soon as she left.
“So, memory problems?”
I answered with a shrug; it wasn't common knowledge, but it wasn't like the mention of it could hurt me anymore, even if he gave it to the press later. I didn't think he would, not anymore; he didn't seem like the type.
“Yeah, the coma was my brain reforging mental pathways, becoming an exemplar brain, whatever that meant. As a result, some purely skill based memories were lost. Thankfully it didn't seem to do anything to experiential memories, or memories that mixed the two. Something to do with the way memories are stored, I was told.”
My seatmate shrugged and took a sip from his drink, a recently refreshed rum and coke. “That doesn't sound that awful at all; bad yes, but it could have been much worse, right? After all, doesn't an 'exemplar brain' imply perfect memory? Wouldn't that allow you to simply relearn the skill and then never forget it again?”
This guy knew a bunch about mutant classification, it seemed; he really was a geek about this stuff. “Yeah, except my brain isn't quite there yet, if it ever gets there. I have the unique distinction of having an eidetic memory that somehow isn't really eidetic. I can forget what I had for lunch last week, but can't seem to forget four times four anymore.”
Well unless I got zapped again, somehow.
He sighed and leaned back in his seat. “That sounds pretty useful. I could use a memory like that. Self help books can only teach so much.”
I grinned at him, probably a bit more fiercely than I wanted to. “Doubt you'd want to pay the cost for it.”
He held up his hands in surrender, smiling. “You've got me there. I'll stick with the books. So, what happened next?”
I yawned. The sky was getting pretty bright now, and I'd been going for awhile. “Well, I slept, at least for that night. Got up early in the morning and watched some of the media experts give their opinion on my case; none of them seemed to know what they were talking about, and the ER guy CNN had brought in kept calling me a cheater. As far as I know, he never once actually showed up in Redding before the trial, so at the time he knew even less than the reporters. Mom later sued him for defamation; we didn't get it to stick, but it was close.”
My seatmate paused. “The ER guy? Evolution Rocks?”
I nodded as he sipped. “Yeah, Melvin Chambliss. He's a big deal in the organization, apparently. Anyway, that was where I first saw the debate, not that it should have been one. The MCO guy, Jerry Buchanon, calmly refuted him the entire time with facts about the case, and even eyewitness testimony; the kids who saw everything at the time ratted Amy Milsner out. Even if I had been the worst boyfriend ever it shouldn't have made a difference, but the ER guy was only interested in smearing me, for some reason.”
My seatmate hummed, toying with his drink. “Probably to deflect from how bad miss Howe made mutants look with her attack; any sort of bad publicity can set back mutant/human relations, and one like this, so soon after Fullerton? Could set it back years.”
I didn't think Fullerton was exactly a new event, though he had a fair point. But he was also way off about something. “Mutants are humans… just more dangerous ones, sometimes.”
He looked at me a long moment with hard, cold eyes, before laughing, loudly. I shrank back into my seat as people started staring at him. Hopefully, it was just him. “Oh, my dear lady, you are too precious. You're right of course, clearly mutants are humans, just sometimes they have a bit extra going on. It is a brave new world we live in, my dear, too new sometimes for this old man. I apologize.”
He didn't look that old, and I told him so.
“Kind of you to say so,' he replied, 'but hearing you speak like that makes me feel every year. I'll get over it. So, there you are, did you ever get that hike in?”
“The very next day. The cabin is surrounded by forest, and it's all private property.”
“Oh? Whose, may I ask? You implied earlier it didn't belong to Iron Bunny….”
I grinned. “It doesn't. Don't worry, I'm getting to that. Just trying to tackle things chronologically.”
My seatmate sat back again with a shrug. “Alright, but the media never did figure out where you were staying. That's a mystery I'd sort of like solved. Now now, no need to look at me like that! I won't tell them.”
I relaxed my glare and tried to order my thoughts. “I guess, what was next was the first interview.”
The press hadn't cleared off my block yet, even two days later, but enough had that Mom declared we could hold off no longer. That suited me just fine, as I wanted to get my side of things out there. Most of the news agencies were still all but calling me a gigolo. The first meeting I had was with a CNN reporter and Anchor named Max Maxwell.
He was a touch over six feet tall, with well maintained brown hair and sparkling blue eyes and chiseled features. He was in shape, and you could see him on every other billboard as the face of CNN news in California. He was also, like his name, almost disgustingly fake, chewing out his make-up people as they ignored him.
Without his make-up he was also more than a little less handsome. It was almost like the difference between an airbrushed photo versus the original.
My own make-up person, Glenda, was applying far more than I ever wanted, but less than he was getting.
“The lights are hot, and you'll need the powder to avoid glistening and sweating.”
I had to ask, even if he was in earshot. I tried to keep it to a whisper. “But what about Mr. Maxwell? He's getting something else.”
Glenda snickered, and it didn't look like she cared if he heard; at least she answered me normally. “That's concealer; Mr. Maxwell eats terrible things, so his skin breaks out. He needs more make-up than you do.” she sighed and muttered, but I heard her clearly:
“We all do. Not fair at all, really.”
A flash of something ugly prompted me to respond. “I'd trade situations in a heartbeat if I could.”
At least she had to good grace to look guilty; she added eyeliner and touch of lip gloss without another word.
We were conducting the interview at a studio in CNN's local affiliate, which was for some reason made to look like a living room, complete with a fireplace in the background; I thought the movie set approach was a pretty bad omen for how things would go but didn't say anything.
Someone else plopped me in an overstuffed easy chair, which wasn't too bad because at least it didn't irritate my tail, and then lit the fire. Mr. Maxwell came in and sat on a folding director's chair. The crew adjusted lights around us. I rated two, apparently, set just off my face so I didn't go blind. Mr. Maxwell rated one, and a teleprompter which was wheeled behind me somewhere. I wouldn't be able to see the questions before he asked them, which sucked. Mom had seen the list and cleared them, but didn't show them to me either; I wasn't sure why.
The lady who lit the fire came back with a microphone and battery pack for it raised in her hands, as if showing them to me. She clipped the microphone to my shirt and slid the battery behind me; I clipped it to my belt, since that's what it was there for, and she threaded the cord out of sight. I wondered what sort of bargain basement operation they were running here; why not wireless?
I was dressed in a nice white dress shirt and new blue jeans; Mom and Ibby both agreed I needed to dress like a simple teen, which was something I agreed with. I might have agreed more if that image hadn't included a bra; the thing was itchy as heck. I didn't even have anything there to need one – I was flat as a board, thankfully – but Mom had just held it out and stared at me while Ibby snickered and muttered something that sounded like 'soon, young padawan' that I was determined to ignore. I must have heard something else there and twisted it, my ears weren't that good, after all.
Finally, we were all set up, and it was time. The cameraman counted us down with his fingers, and Mr. Maxwell transformed from jerk to caring person right before my eyes; it was very unsettling. He still managed to get his name in first, though.
“Max Maxwell here, interviewing a name on everyone's lips, a person in everyone's thoughts; Luke Del Bosque. Luke, how are you?”
I was hoping his first statement wasn't true, is how I was. I tried to smile as the cameras focused on me. “I've been better, Mr. Maxwell.”
His response was immediate. “Please, call me Max. Now, I know this must be difficult for you, but can you answer a few questions for us?”
Well, it was what I was here for. To air all my dirty laundry to anyone who wanted to know. “It's what I'm here for, Max.” I didn't feel right calling this guy by his first name; it felt less genuine to me.
Max surprised me; I wish I could get a look at the teleprompter behind me because someone was clearly coaching him. His tone was gentle enough to soothe even a crazy person. “Can you tell us please, in your own words, what happened?”
I did so, and he let me, the words pouring out in a flood that took almost an hour. He made notes in a small book as I talked, but kept his eyes mostly on me, and waited patiently when I broke down. It wasn't getting shot that did it, it was the look in Jamie's eyes as she shot, and that look that I might have seen in her eyes after, as if her world were ending. I guess it did, in a way.
Mr. Maxwell - Max – waited until I had wound down after the hospital before he spoke. I wasn't worried about ruining any police investigation because I didn't know anything about it. The police hadn't even talked to me since the hospital, even though I suspected they had talked to Mom.
“Alright, Luke, may I ask you some questions?”
“Sure.” Here it comes; Mom and Ibby both had warned me this would happen.
“Alright; there have been some questions raised about the sanity of Jamie Howe. Do you think she's sane and fit to stand trial?”
Well, that question wasn't too terribly bad; I suppressed the image of Jamie's face twisted in rage before she shot me and gave my best answer. “I don't know. That sort of thing is for courts or her doctor to decide.”
He fired right back. This one was tougher to handle. “So you believe she should be prosecuted? That the court system should decide the case?”
I didn't even hesitate, even if I felt like he was laying a trap for me somehow. “I don't know. I've been told that the entire situation is out of my hands, and Jamie will be prosecuted. Those decisions aren't up to me.” I barely stumbled over her name.
He was sharp, or his people were. His next question proved it. “Would you prosecute her if the decision were up to you?”
“I don't know.” I couldn't afford to think about these; I knew I couldn't, but where did he get off asking a question like that? It's only purpose would be to trip me up.
“There have been rumors, even testimony given to the police, that you cheated on Jamie Howe and her assault on you was in response to that. Any truth to that?”
What. Even with Mom's preparation, I gaped at him a moment before the anger gave me back my voice. “No.”
“Not even a kiss with another girl? Nothing at all?”
“I have not kissed anyone other than Jamie or my mother in my life.” It was true, it didn't count if a manipulative witch kissed you. Well, maybe it did to this guy. At least I knew what his angle was now.
“My sources tell me you won't be testifying at the trial; is that true?”
Now what was he after? “I've been told it isn't necessary, and I won't be.”
“You're not foregoing testifying out of a sense of guilt, or to avoid lying under oath?”
What the fuck. No, seriously, what the fuck!?! I stood up and stated clearly into the microphone.“No, I'm not. I signed a sworn statement in front of witnesses. And we're done here.”
Then I took it off and threw it at Mr. Maxwell. To his credit, he caught it with only a slight fumble.
I met Mom coming the other way and tried to grab her; she was going to get into a yelling match while the cameras filmed her, I was sure. Ibby grabbed me instead, just as I broke. Again.
Ibby hugged me to her side, hiding my meltdown. “You did good kid. You did really good.”
It made me wonder what interview she'd been watching. “How?”
She started leading me away from where my Mom was making short work of Mr. Maxwell, verbally. She sounded mad enough to graduate to physical stuff as she chewed him, his cameramen, his other people, and his network out.
“You didn't punch him out? Honestly, you came across as a real natural. It'll be hard for them to edit or twist anything out of this.”
If I had punched him, I would probably have broken my hand. “You think they'll try?”
Ibby smirked as she handed me a tissue. “Yeah, they might. Not sure what agenda that would serve, but it's clear they've got something in mind. It doesn't matter, this one is over and you handled it like a pro – or an honest person.”
She hugged me while I blew my nose. Mom seemed done yelling, storming back with a sharp clack of heels as if she would simply run over all who got in her way. She let up as she got close, though.
“Mom, can we go?”
“Sure we can, sweetie. Let's go get some ice cream.”
It was the beginning of summer; I wouldn't say no. Provided I could still eat the stuff that was.
I turned the gain on my ear clips down to zero; there was still a gauntlet of reporters outside, and they had gotten wise to Ibby just flying me to our cars, so were camping out everywhere we could end up. I wasn't in the mood to deal with them anymore, so with my hoodie up and any sound almost completely dampened I wouldn't have to. I couldn't answer any questions I couldn't hear, after all.
Ibby watched me do it and gave a thumbs up. She would thread through the crowd, and I would be right behind her. Between the security guys that the network had and Mom, no one would stop us. I just kept my eyes on our feet when Ibby opened the doors, ignoring the flashes and bright lights and ignoring the muted sounds and conversations I could no longer entirely hear. Ibby kept one hand over mine, gently pulling me along while the other arm made way for us, probably a bit less gently.
We made it to the car with a minimum of fuss (well, for the new normal anyway) and were on our way. I didn't recognize the route, so it wasn't back to the cabin. I turned my ear clips back up in case Ibby or Mom said something, but they were silent.
It turned out it was to the Cold Rock Creamery, my favorite ice cream parlor. I recognized the person working there, distantly; even her name tag stating she was “Debbie” didn't ring more than a faint bell. she gushed as soon as she saw me.
“Oh my g-gosh! It's Luke! How are you, Luke! Are you okay?”
Mom struck first. “She's a bit tired of questions today, Debbie. I'd like a Caramel White-out please.”
Hmm, a white-out was the Creamery's way of saying blizzard without getting sued by Dairy Queen, and one of those sounded pretty good. When Debbie turned to me with a wince, clearly not even up to asking me what I wanted (Mom often left that sort of impression when angry) I was ready.
“Reeses cup white-out, please.”
She rang it up, then turned to Ibby, and it was interesting watching her face change to equal parts hero worship and envy; Ibby seemed to leave impressions of her own. “A blue slushie, please.”
That seemed suspicious; I turned to her. “Anything I need to know?”
It took her a second to catch on. “Huh? Oh, no, you're good. I just wanted a slushie.”
I could approve; blue slushies weren't bad. They weren't anything to the glory that was purple (blackberry as opposed to blueberry) but they were okay. They had nothing on the glory of a white-out, but little did.
Ibby paid and we all went back to the car; there was a small lot full of picnic tables in front of the Creamery, but Mom hated sitting there; so we all sat on the hood of the car instead. Debbie gaped at us a bit but soon got busy again. None of the other patrons got close to us, but more than a few stared and I thought I heard some camera phone clicks, here and there.
At least they weren't asking us to pose or something.
Ibby broke the comfortable silence. “So, the interview is supposed to air tonight by five. We have a few hours to kill. Anything either of you want to do?”
There was something I wanted to do if Mom would go for it. “Could we go to the park? Lassen peak?”
It was beautiful, and even if it would be crowded there was a trail most tourists never found that would be clear even if there were tourists this early. Most people didn't travel to Latour state forest until a month from now or so because most people drove. Now was the perfect time to go.
Mom finished up and threw her white-out in the trash. “Sure, we can do that. It's a nice day.”
Ibby shrugged. “Sounds good to me, I haven't been there in awhile.”
I had to ask. “How long was awhile?”
Ibby shrugged again as I threw my own now empty cup away, still slurping her slushie. She paused to answer. “About three or four years now, I guess.”
Of course, it was not to be. No sooner had we all piled into the car then a small (As if only four vans and two cars could be considered small!) convoy of news vehicles caught up to us. Just like that I no longer felt like going; it would just lead to a farce as the reporters followed us and ruined the day by shouting questions at us. The road to the Peak was just too open, too well known, and we wouldn't be able to lose a tail.
We all hopped in the car and rolled up the windows. “Never mind, I guess we can go another day. Mom can you lose these guys?”
She didn't bother asking me if I was sure; she knew how this would go if we tried to go for a nice hike now. “Of course we can.”
She drove us to the local police station and into the parking lot, parking between two cop cars. The reporters drove by and left us alone; all of them. Then she reversed with a screech and drove us out the way we came and took the first right, back towards Redding proper and well away from anywhere we'd normally go.
Ibby approved. “Strella, you've got some talent at this.”
Mom replied with a wry grin and a dry look. “I've had to learn a few tricks, dealing with certain people. So where to now?”
I didn't want to risk it. “Back to the cabin, I guess. It seems safe enough there.”
Ibby and Mom shared a look that I couldn't read but didn't say anything.
The reporters didn't catch up with us, nor did anyone else find us; we pulled into the cabin safely. Having nothing better to do, I went back to rereading my school books, which was slow going. Soon enough news time rolled around and we all gathered on the comfy couch to see how I looked on camera. Well, when I wasn't hiding, that was.
Turns out I looked pretty good on camera, and it was weird seeing myself there; almost like it was a different person, someone like me but not me. And of course, that person looked worse by nature of the editing that had been done to the footage.
It was seamless; if I hadn't been there, hadn't lived it, I wouldn't have been able to see the difference. A little bit cut there, a little bit added there, and while nothing I had said was outright removed wholesale, it had been twisted. CNN had made it look like I had been hiding something… like cheating. They couldn't do much with the final scene, but with the parts leading up to it altered, it looked more like I had just thrown a fit, like a child.
Mom was sputtering in anger. “Those… how dare they! That will be the last time!”
Ibby just gathered us both up and hugged us. She looked more than a little pissed herself, but sad and bitter more than anything.
My seatmate frowned and raised a hand to stop me. “So, that interview was indeed edited? I thought it might have been, but it was hard to say for sure….”
I nodded. “It was, whoever did the job was worth whatever they were paying them; they managed to make it look genuine, but every time the camera panned to Mr. Maxwell, to show him asking a question? That was an edit. They didn't change much, but it was enough to change most of the tone of things. I don't trust any taped interview anymore, that's for sure.”
I wouldn't even call that princess Jobe character evil, devisor or not, based on an interview. Of course her actions clearly painted her in the evil category all on their own; she made people orcs for crossing her. It seemed to be a kind of bad habit for devisors… and of course I was going to a place where they gathered to learn how; go me.
“So, what happened next?” My seatmate asked while taking another sip of his drink. He had the bladder of a champion.
“Well, next came the interview with Fox news. We had already scheduled it and Mom didn't want to cancel since there was an agreement in place. If we didn't keep our end of the deal, then the press wouldn't either. I expected another interview like the first, but they really surprised me. They put me on live, didn't try to cut anything off even for soundbites later, and were very nice on air. Mom didn't have anything to call them out on.”
Something suddenly occurred to me. “Say, what's your name, anyway? I mean you've probably told me, but…”
I was sure I'd asked him before, but I didn't remember it. His laugh told me he wasn't offended. “No, I don't think we properly introduced ourselves. Paul Stanley. I know who you are, so no need to say.”
He gave me a meaningful look around, including at the frat boy, who flushed but didn't say anything, and held out a hand. We shook.
“Now, where were we? Ah yes, I have the Fox news interview here, on my phone, so no need to cover that one.” A few clicks brought it up and Paul showed me the screen.
I thought for a moment. “Alright, then you probably don't want to hear about the rest of them either, because most of them followed that narrative, television and print news both. Even the one internet interview I did was pretty tame, at least by internet standards.”
I shuddered because there had been a fair amount of internet trolls banned that day; the mods of that site had worked overtime, but I had still seen a few things I wished I hadn't. Paul winced in sympathy.
“Well, I guess chronologically there was my big screwup next. It made some news at the time.”
I really didn't want to talk about it, but Paul just waited patiently. I guess since it had already been reported on it shouldn't really bother me, it was just another part of my life out there for anyone to know about.
“Alright, I'll spill. So the deal was struck, and I was living up to my end of it, and the media decided to live up to theirs, which meant they had stopped camping out. Well, there were still a few, but it wasn't a small mob or anything, and those that stuck around were easy to dodge and ignore….”
I put the last of my books back, and with that I was done unpacking again, and finally home, where things smelled familiar and everything was where I didn't have to go looking for it. Mom was downstairs restocking the fridge with more recent groceries from the sounds of things, and I was left staring at my computer.
With a shrug, I woke it up from its extended sleep and boggled as my email window came up. That email account was well and truly screwed; there were thousands of messages in it; how had all of those people gotten the account name? Only a few of them were my friends or names I recognized.
It would probably be best if I just started over with a new one, and called my friends to tell them what it was; there were emails in here from CNN, and many from people with questionable names bearing questionable titles. I didn't really have anything for xtends the fast acting package pump to work on anymore, after all.
Lapin wasn't open, not that I really wanted it. I should probably get a name far different than my own or old one. I went with good old Hiker 13187, which was more than anonymous enough not to raise questions.
Which was what made it weird when an email pinged not a minute later, as I was firing up a game. Even weirder, the email was empty; the name, subject, and body of it all blank. I'd just started shooting digital people when it chimed again. This time, however, the name and title weren't empty. It was from Howeareyou, and the subject read: “Luke, is that you?”
It was Jamie. It had to be, it was her email address.
How had she written an email? She was supposed to be in jail. How did she find my new email address? I'd just made it. Had she tagged my computer somehow, or something, when I wasn't looking? Was she emailing me from jail somehow? Did they even allow computer and email access in prisons? The message body just repeated the subject.
Well either that or someone had hijacked her account as well as bugging my computer or whatever. Game forgotten, I wrote back:
-Who are you, and how did you get this email? -
The response was immediate.
-Jamie, and I installed a program on your computer months ago that lets me know what you're up to. I need to see you, can you please come over?-
That was...creepy. I hadn't even noticed her doing that; it had to have been months ago. Why did she want to see me? Did she want to help, or finish the job?
It really didn't matter. I wanted to see her too. Why I didn't know, but I couldn't just turn my back on her. I didn't know whether it was to hurt her or hug her, but I needed to see her.
-I can, but not right now. Midnight, behind your house.-
After composing and firing off the response I set my alarm and put it on my desk; I'd be shot for focusing on anything else, and I got tired frequently now. I wanted to be well rested for this, but just going to bed would look suspicious for anyone checking up on me. I arranged myself a bit in the chair with the game on and the volume low in order to make it look like I'd just gotten tired and fell asleep, propped my feet up a little, and then made the illusion a reality.
I woke to my alarm blaring, safely tucked in bed. So that meant someone at least, had checked while I was out. I was more than a little shocked that I hadn't woke up when being carried and literally tucked into bed (which pointed to Ibby being the one to check, to me) and even more shocked to realize I'd slept on my tail, which had been folded up and against my back at some point, and still hadn't woken up. That sort of thing was painful. I must have been more tired than I thought.
But I was up now, and felt fine, and it was eleven-thirty, so it was time to go. I straightened my clothes out, threw a hoodie on over them, and used my ears. The house was quiet except for settling noises, and perhaps a mouse scratching around in the walls. I'd have to tell Mom about that tomorrow. The front door was clear; this time was different than the last; Mom trusted me, and the reporters were gone, and I didn't have to borrow a car to go anywhere. If I wanted to take a midnight walk somewhere, I could, so I didn't bother trying to sneak, just kept quiet.
The front seemed to be completely empty of reporters. I waited, watching for a good five minutes to be sure, and nothing. Opening the door and looking out, I waited; I could always slam it in a reporter's face, after all. It probably wouldn't even be the first time for them. But still, nothing; not a creature was stirring outside. Slipping on my running shoes (which were very quiet when you didn't run in them) I grabbed my keys, locked the door, and took off at a fast walk; I didn't want to wake up any dogs if I could help it.
I stuck to the sidewalk and blended in as best I could; the streets were empty of course, we had no nightlife to speak of here. Normally there were at least a few people out anyway, especially in summertime, but I didn't see and hear anyone. It was almost as if the town was holding its breath, tense, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Or maybe I had read too many horror novels as a kid.
The Howe's backyard was well lit and empty. There were no tricks that I could see, and no Jamie, but then I was a little early. I circled around and waited at the edge of the woods. I didn't have to wait long; a few moments later Jamie came out, alone.
Her eyes were red and puffy, there were tear tracks down her face, and was dressed worse than I was, in a formless baggy jumpsuit, the left leg of which had gathered around the ankle bracelet she wore. She looked around desperately, clenching and unclenching her empty hands.
She looked as absolutely gorgeous as ever.
My mind made up, I broke from the tree line at a jog. She locked onto me and I could see the hope there. Her voice whispering my name hoarsely was the sweetest thing I'd ever heard.
And then it all went wrong. As I stepped into the light my hood flew back, exposing my face, and the response was immediate. Jamie's face twisted into a look I'd never seen before, something that completely transformed her face as she hissed out one word like a curse:
I skidded to a halt, wary. “Jamie? What's wrong? You wanted to see me?”
I guess she didn't want to apologize after all.
“Not you, you usurping bitch! Luke! What are you even doing with his computer, or in his house! In his clothes! Where is he, and what did you do to him!?!”
I went cold when her grin turned vicious. “No, never mind, wait right there. I'll be right back.”
She turned and ran, actually ran to her garage door. I bolted at my best speed back into the treeline. I didn't stop until I couldn't move anymore and collapsed, panting for breath. I was still well short of home, stopped a bit over halfway of a distance I could have easily covered before, and for all I knew Jamie could be right behind me. I focused on my ears but heard nothing.
Jamie was insane. My Jamie was gone, and the new one viewed me as the enemy. For being myself, for being what she made me, I was her enemy.
As soon as I could, I levered myself up to my feet on my hands and walked home, carefully. I wasn't followed, but I didn't relax until I had my front door shut and the alarm turned on. I turned around and ran right into Ibby.
“You alright kid?”
She wasn't Mom but she'd do.
“Ibby, Jamie is out! I just saw her, I was walking and down the street and she was there and….”
She returned my hug with a hand as she tried to decipher what I was saying. Part of me was annoyed by how stupid, how unclear I sounded, but I couldn't stop myself. At least I wasn't blurting out that I was stupid enough to go to her house. I didn't like to lie, but admitting I was that stupid and getting grounded for a year wasn't a life goal, no matter how attractive hiding under my bed for a year sounded right now.
“Wait, what do you mean, Jamie is out?” Ibby's hand moved and I heard her phone chirping.
“She's out! She was at her house, and she saw me and said… things. Then she ran to her garage and I ran.” I couldn't repeat what Jamie had said to me; I just couldn't.
Ibby's yell shocked me. “Strella! Get down here!” Wasn't my Mom asleep?
Turns out she was. A minute later she stumbled down the stairs, glaring with sleep filled eyes and muttering – until she saw me. She was by my side, hugging me close, and I switched to her. Hugs were good.
I was still listening for oncoming footsteps, though; if Jamie was coming, I didn't want my Mom caught in the cross-fire.
Ibby got right to the point. “We need to file a restraining order, now. Jamie Howe was released on bond this evening. Most news networks have it up; we must have really left an impression since the press isn't knocking down your door to ask about it.”
“What?!? The police didn't even warn us! What the hell!” Mom took a step, towards the door. I didn't want her to go out there, so I held her tighter and dug in.
Ibby threw her phone to the couch and put her now empty hand on Mom's shoulder. “No, Strella. You need to go to the police. Get a restraining order, now. Not the Howe home. We need a way to get her thrown back in jail if she tries anything else, first.”
Mom sighed and scrubbed at her eyes. “Fine, on it. I'll get dressed.”
No, she couldn't go out there! My voice was gone, so I just held her tighter as she tried to take a step, back this time.
“Luke, please, let go.”
Fear. “I don't want her to get you too.”
Mom was able to peel me off with ease while Ibby held on, her ears sweeping back and forth like old radar dishes. Did mine do that when I was listening? “It's clear, there's no one out there. Well, if they are, they are too far to do much or not moving at all. I'd say you're clear to go Strella.”
She turned to me and wiggled her ears up and down with a grin. “Don't worry so much, Tia. Trust the ears.”
I knew what she was doing, but despite myself, I snorted a laugh. It just made her look so ridiculous. Mom went upstairs to get dressed while I was distracted, and Ibby led me to the couch, picking up her phone on the way. I wondered why she was here; she hadn't been earlier. Surely she had her own life she should be getting back to?
Whatever, I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. If Jamie ever met Ibby, well, Ibby would win, ray guns or not. Ibby had survived actual supervillains, even some of the worst around. She'd even had T-shirts printed: “I survived the Savage Six, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” She'd had a whole closet full of them at the cabin, one for each villain or villain group.
When Mom came back down to leave I got up and escorted her to the car, just to be safe. Ibby followed, it looked like she was escorting me, though. The car was empty, there was no one hiding in the back seat.
Once Mom was safely off I hurried back inside and locked up. It took me two tries to set the alarm; my hands were betraying me. Ibby just watched, and then reached out and gently steered me back into the living room. I ended up almost sitting on her phone.
She turned on the news and there it was, for all the world to see: “Millville mutant out on bail.” There was even one of those tickers at the bottom. I focused on that, and not on Mr. Maxwell droning on in that smug way of his. The ticker said she had been out less than an hour. If that was true, how did she email me, hours earlier? The hearing would have been going on, would she have had internet access during it, maybe during a break or something?
It didn't really matter now; it was done. What had the cops been thinking? She was dangerous… she wasn't well. Under the layer of fear my heart ached.
Ibby shut the television off. “Come on, kiddo. Let's do something useful.”
She escorted me into the kitchen while the cars and vans began pulling up outside. We ignored them and Ibby taught me how to make muffins. Never mind that I already knew and she was bad at it.
Paul shook his head. “Did you ever see her again?”
I suppressed the shudders. “Just once; at the end of the trial, when she was sentenced. She got Juvenile hall until she was eighteen and then some sort of reassessment thing, which means she can end up with probation or a few more years in jail. The DA failed to prove the assault was with a deadly weapon, and it was her first offense.”
I had wanted to testify at sentencing, to make the judge understand how sick she was. But the state psychologist, while admitting she was (crazy) sick, had cleared her to stand trial. He said she knew right from wrong, and apparently that was enough. Mom had overruled me, so instead of Restpadd psychiatric Jamie got Shasta county Juvenile hall.
She had seen me on the way out of the courtroom, and thrown what could only be called a screaming fit while cameras rolled and bulbs flashed. I was sure Paul had that on his phone too.
Paul didn't mention that, though, instead switching gears. “So, with all that the media was back?”
I nodded. “The trial was expedited after Jamie made bail – it was set at a hundred thousand dollars – and she was forced to wear an ankle bracelet. If she turned it off or tampered with it she went back to jail, and was basically under house arrest. The ACLU and ER people threw a fit over that, but it was set as a condition of bail by the judge, so there wasn't much they could do but protest.”
The view of protestors outside Jamie's house and around the local stores and gas stations with “Free Jamie Howe” signs had been unnerving, to say the least. They hadn't set up in front of our house at least… the reporters coming back had kept them away. Even when the real facts of the case were revealed more than a few of them kept on going. And of course the MCO and H1 people had counter-protested, leading to a big mess, but they hadn't given us any trouble.
Agent Berkowitz and I even became friends; he invited me to his birthday party and everything. I'd seen him at every test, and we exchanged email and phone calls all the time.
Paul wanted to speak of different emails. “So, did you get the virus or whatever it was off your computer?”
“Yeah, but that led to the next thing I should probably tell you….”
It was highly embarrassing, but I had promised to be thorough if he didn't rat me out. I thought he had what he wanted now, but I probably shouldn't risk it.
Saturday. Just another meaningless day, watching the reporters outside the house and the protestors down the street. Summer was well under way, but I was stuck here at home, with only tests to determine where my memory issues were and my language practice to keep me company. My alarm said nine; I had slept in and missed my morning run, but it didn't matter.
I had been getting better at talking to the media, mainly because they had been getting better at asking questions that weren't stupid or insulting. Things like 'Tia, how are you today?' or 'Tia, what do you think of Rex Davies's testimony?' (the latter of which I couldn't really answer) were now replacing 'Tia, are you going to be a cheerleader next year?' and 'Tia, what are your measurements?'
Thanks to the efforts of my Mom and Ibby, my new nickname was catching on. I couldn't be Luke anymore.
Any serious question I answered to the best of my ability, usually politely. The key was to answer a few questions as politely as I could and simply go on about my day; the reporters usually took the hint and let me go about my day with a smile. The ER crowd was far worse; they didn't seem to want to believe anything other than Jamie was a saint, no matter the evidence to the contrary.
I wanted a slushie from the corner store, something to cut the heat of the day that was even now rising, early or not. But the ER rocks crowd was that way, and my appearance would likely start a riot. At the very least, there would be eggs thrown or similar, and I wasn't really in the mood for that.
“Tia! Time to get up!” Ibby had been spending a lot of time with us, guarding us, and while I didn't mind it was a little weird. Yesterday she had walked around half the day in her underwear, in our house. When mom called her on it, she apologized, but her excuses were… off. Ibby had claimed it was simply too hot, and she had been told to make herself at home by Mom, and that was what she did at home when it was too hot, so she thought it'd be fine.
Mom had accepted it, then given me a weird look. Hey, she was a good looking woman, and while I'd noticed, I hadn't been about to say anything. I was assaulted, not killed. Then I spent the rest of the day happy I didn't bat for the other team; that would have been all kinds of awkward.
My doctor had told me behind a closed door that my hormones would settle and the levels rise, and that I shouldn't try to fight it. My response was to quote John Paul Jones at her. She had laughed, then told me exactly what to expect as my hormone levels rose, cementing my opinion of her as a very evil woman.
Thanks to her, when I looked, I could almost see my hips widening and chest balloon by the second. She already had me scratching as if I had a skin disease, just from the nervous reaction.
Back to Ibby, because it was impossible to get lost in thought when she just barged into your room. “Tia, time to get up already!”
She stopped, taking the scene in no doubt.
I agreed with her on the heat, and while I tended to wear more clothes that she did while she slept (the better to be decent to wander around the middle of the night in) my old pajamas didn't really fit anymore. Baggy before, I could swim in them now, so I was just wearing the shirt, which covered everything. Well, that and underwear of course; I'd tried boxers the first night back but I'd kicked them off somehow in the night. The panties stayed put. So I was sprawled out on the bed, stretching, with my shirt riding up when she came in.
I covered up with a yelp. “You're supposed to knock!”
Ibby straightened up, actually sounding contrite. “Sorry, sorry. But we have someplace to go today, and you need to get dressed and eat breakfast.”
Well, that was curious. Ibby didn't take me places by herself, and I knew for a fact Mom had plans today. “Where?”
Ibby shrugged with a smirk as she closed the door. “Just back to the cabin, going to have you meet a few of my friends. Strella said it was okay, in case you're worried. You can call her and ask.”
It occurred to me the clips weren't in my ears, and Ibby had carefully pitched her voice so it wouldn't be loud to me. Maybe if I asked, she'd teach me how to do that. “No, it's fine, I trust you.”
I'd barely gotten some pants on when the door opened again and Ibby burst through, startling me with a hug.
What? “What? What's wrong? What did I do?”
She was leaking tears, but she gave me a smile. “Nothing, I just couldn't resist! You're so huggable!”
I felt like I should scream I needed an adult… but then I remembered what I just said. I was even more surprised to realize that I meant it. Ibby had gone from a source of wary caution to a familiar presence, mutant or not.
“Alright, get out and let me dress already.” I couldn't shake her off and I knew it, so I had to wait patiently while she sniffled loudly, got up, then went out again, closing the door behind her.
And she had still been quiet enough not to hurt my ears, even while shouting. Well, kind of shouting. Shouting for us? I didn't know, I didn't really know the words for it. At any rate, the clips went on before I changed shirts.
Breakfast was waffles. Actual homemade waffles with strawberries or blueberries baked in, from our very own waffle maker. Wait, were those blackberry waffles? Mom made them then, and they would be delicious. I shoveled all of those I could find (which turned out to be four) and buttered them up. You just don't put syrup on waffles with fruit mixed in.
Ibby had apparently already eaten because she just drank some coffee and watched me inhale mine. It was sort of odd since there were a good ten waffles left and two dirty plates. That seemed like a lot of food to make, and Mom wasn't that big on cooking, or wasted effort. She preferred things be made fresh, just before they were eaten, and not stored.
Even though Ibby tried to hurry me up, after finishing I downed my orange juice and packed the other waffles in the fridge. Even if they were waffles of an inferior fruit mix, they were still food, and Mom hated wasting food – which might be why she never made any to store, come to think of it.
It was a bit after nine-thirty before we stepped out into the sun, and Ibby walked over to her car. I stopped, taking it in. Instead of the black and nondescript late model SUV, I expected, her car was a Mustang convertible. A bright pink Mustang convertible.
Well, I could see why she borrowed the SUV now.
I got in and hunched as far into myself as I could; the reporters were being respectful about distance and questions now, but that didn't stop the cameras from flashing and rolling. Ibby just waved at them with a sunny smile, immune to the embarrassment of her car.
It was a nice car otherwise, a classic perfectly maintained. I wasn't a car buff, but I could see that with ease. It was clean, really clean, and started right up. The members of the press got well away from the driveway, and Ibby backed out, still smiling: “See you later, my adoring public! Got somewhere to be!”
I looked back to make sure they weren't following; they weren't. When I turned my eyes front again I saw Ibby waving at someone.
It turned out to be two someones; Marcus and Rex.
I'd tried to see Marcus and a few of my other friends. My old friend Clayton hadn't even responded to my emails from yet another throwaway address, made this time after I wiped my computer clean. Marcus and I had spoke, but he said he couldn't even get to the door of my house, the reporters were too thick, and he didn't want to be on the news. Seeing Rex was a bit of a shock; I hadn't even known Marcus and Rex were friends.
The wonder twins had blocked me. I had seen them on the news, they weren't shy about stating they believed Jamie's version of events and believed me to be the worst kind of cheating trash. I couldn't even use the words they said in impolite company, let alone polite.
My other friends had yet to respond; I was getting a real glimpse of how Jamie had been treated by our peers earlier, and I wasn't immune to the irony. Even if the circumstances were different when admitted to by the experts; for one, some reporter, an Amanda or Amelia something-or-other had cornered Dr. Henry and asked him point blank if I was a mutant. Dr. Henry had replied that his testing revealed I was a 'powered individual' with better than human norm hearing and was baseline in every other area. I can only assume money changed hands because those test results were supposed to be private.
He then likened my situation to a hypothetical of advanced gene therapy to correct genetic defects, something that there have been breakthroughs on lately using nanite surgery, and were certainly nothing to be concerned about other than the obvious moral and legal ramifications.
The upshot of being thrown under the bus like that had been that my neighbors had mostly stopped treating me as if I were going to explode and pull another Fullerton.
Marcus saw Ibby, saw the car, and then our eyes met, hunched down or not. His jaw dropped and he pointed right at me, but we were past before Rex had taken his eyes off Ibby, if he ever had. Sometimes I loved Ibby, if only because next to her I looked like nothing special.
Speaking of Ibby: “Friends of yours?” She asked, in a normal tone of voice, which even with the top down and wind howling carried to me easily. She'd noticed where Marcus had been pointing, then.
I had to think about it for a minute. “Yes, I think so.” Marcus probably was, at any rate; very little phased him.
Ibby patted my hand. “Don't worry, they'll come around.”
“Probably; from what I understand, Marcus at least was simply chased off by the media. And not that I don't appreciate the gesture, but could you keep both hands on the wheel?” She was already looking more at me than the road and driving a good ten miles per hour over the limit.
Ibby grinned but dutifully turned back to the road. Her hand went to the gear shift and not the wheel, but at least it was closer to it. “Marcus, huh? That the fat kid?”
PC, Ibby wasn't. “Yeah, Marcus was the overweight one. He and I have been emailing each other.” He hadn't even asked for pics, the way some others of my class had. Probably because there were more than enough pictures of me running around already, and more every day. The way politicians were still talking about my case, it wasn't dying down. On the contrary, interest seemed to be ramping up. My name had reached a record number of searches on the net yesterday.
Ibby turned on the radio, singing along to some golden oldie I didn't recognize, and the now familiar trip to the cabin passed without conversation, if not silence. We pulled into the cabin's drive, and had to park in the little dirt lot; there were about twenty cars, more than a few of them pink mustangs or other sports cars. The exact same pink of Ibby's car. The ones left were nice understated sedans… except for the stretch limo. Who would bring a stretch limo out to California back roads?
Ibby headed for the backyard and I kept pace, following the smell of barbecue. A few steps and I could hear the meat sizzle. So, owns a stretch limo, and barbecues at ten in the morning.
I rounded the corner of the cabin a step behind Ibby and stopped.
The yard was full of hot women.
Some were setting up picnic tables. Some were setting up citronella candles. Some were lighting those same candles. Some were running to and fro with plastic plates, knives, and forks, a variety of liquids I was too young to drink, and other things. They were all dressed in normal clothes, shorts, and tees for the most part, and nothing skimpy. But I knew who they were, whether they were wearing their plastic ears or not.
And there, the man of the hour, standing at the grill with a lush young blonde helping him, was Hugh himself, in his customary robe, striped pajamas, and slippers.
I was in the midst of a Playboy convention.
“Come on, Tia. Time to meet the girls!” Ibby had turned and was tapping her foot, arms crossed. The smile and sparkle in her eye betrayed her ,though.
“You couldn't have warned me?” I was no longer as good with surprises as I once was.
She started dragging me. “Nah. You needed to get outside the house anyway, you've been hiding out in it for days. You needed some fresh air, and some friends of ours wanted to meet you, so here we are! This little get together is a yearly thing, we all get together and talk shop or catch up, and just celebrate being awesome.”
Celebrate being awesome? Yeah, I could see it.
She hadn't stopped pulling me; our target was the closest table, the one already completely set up of course. She stopped, still holding on to me, and yelled, loudly.
“Hiiii everyone! My friend here is Tia; Tia, everyone!”
I put an elbow in her side as everyone looked at us, which she ignored with a smile. It was almost like someone had thrown chum into a shark tank; anyone not already doing something was closing on us. No, not us, on me. At least they seemed like nice sharks. They took turns and everything.
“Hello, Tia, I'm Marsha!” Stated a chipper silver haired lady that had to be in her fifties, but had aged very well.
“Good morning Tia, I'm Andria.” Stated an even more chipper brunette that looked to be around Mom's age.
And so on, they introduced themselves politely, one at a time, sometimes holding a hand out to shake, and sometimes just continuing to do cookout stuff. There were a few guys as well, some dapper, some scruffy, but they seemed to be plus ones to the event. And through it all Hugh stood, manning the grill with his helper. Ibby tugged me over there as soon as the last playmate, a chocolate skinned raven haired beauty that rivaled Ibby's curves named Kalindra, introduced herself.
Ibby got close and introduced us. “And here is your host, Hugh. Hugh, Tia.” She apparently didn't feel his last name needed to be mentioned. She was right.
He turned and gave a sunny smile, dropping the steak he'd been inspecting. “Pleased to finally meet you, Tia. And please, call me uncle Hugh. Ibby is like a daughter to me.”
He held out a hand and we shook. I didn't grip too hard, he looked breakable. He was old. Old old. So skinny he was almost emaciated, lines everywhere, but his eyes still sparkled with life and vigor, and he moved a bit better than it seemed he should.
“Pleased to meet you, sir. So, this cabin is yours?” Of course it was, it was big enough that everyone here could sleep, at least if they bedded down two per room, and some of the décor… well, who else would have a hot tub in the living room, under the floor?
“Sure is, the summer home away from home. It was in a good spot and the real estate market was in a dip, so here we are. It makes a good place to entertain from, away from the mansion. And please, call me uncle Hugh.”
The playmate next to Hugh's side chose that moment to introduce herself: “Hi, I'm Jennifer. Pleased to meet you, Tia.” We shook.
Hugh winked at me and held up the steak he'd been inspecting. “Don't worry Tia, this one's actually tofu. It's actually pretty amazing, the things done with food nowadays. I can't even tell the difference.”
I couldn't tell the difference either, it even had a bone? Was the bone edible? “Sir…' I started and he gave me such a look of disappointment I couldn't help but correct myself. 'Hugh. Not to sound rude or anything, but why am I here? I mean, you don't know me, I don't know you….”
He smiled again, loading the grill up with hotdogs while Jennifer took some ribs off for room. “Ah, but you know Ibby, and I know both Ibby and your Mom. Strella does public relations work for me and a few of the playmates, and she sometimes gives out free financial advice to the bunnies. As for why you're here, Ibby and your mother both agreed you needed to get out of the house, and Ibby really didn't want to leave you alone there, but she didn't want to miss the party.”
I glared at Ibby and she shrugged, she wasn't sorry about that at all.
Hugh continued: “And lastly, you're here because of opportunity. What type and how you can take advantage of it will have to wait until your Mom gets here, however. My lawyer.' he pointed out Marsha with his head, 'insists. That will be sometime after lunch, so relax and enjoy!”
I had a sneaking suspicion I knew what the opportunity he was speaking of was. He pioneered the rabbit eared look, after all.
“Thanks, um, Hugh. I'll do that.”
The women (Bunnies? Playmates?) wouldn't leave me alone. Anywhere I went, one would be, and they are always polite and friendly, but present and insistent I join into whatever was going on. I played two games of chess (lost both), one of twister, of all things (Ibby joined in and cheated by flying, but no one cared other than to laugh and throw stuff at her) and went on a hike with Marsha the lawyer, who had better stamina than I did. And throughout it all, the women talked.
Lyndsey, the chess player, complimented my play with a smile even as she destroyed me. Betty and Sandra, our audience, did too. They said only a few people could beat her, and I showed promise.
Nicole, out early in the game of twister, complimented my flexibility, which felt odd since I'd done nothing to earn it. I told her so and she sighed, pouted, and promised to show me some yoga exercises to keep it. Andre, also watching the game on the sidelines, kept telling me where the nearest colors I needed were behind me, prompting some cheating catcalls. Well, before Ibby spun around in the air and the focus turned to her.
Marsha talked about the trees and the birds in the area, even pointing out the more rare species flying around.
In short, they were all so nice. It was insane, in a way; I was even pretty sure their choices in clothes had been because they knew I was coming. As soon as we got back from the hike, lunch was served and I ate at a table with Hugh, Marsha, Lyndsey, and Jennifer, eating tofu and fries.
The fries had been properly fried, and Jennifer had told Hugh no when he went to grab some... So he stole one of hers with a smile. She was not amused – I got the feeling she was his nurse or something – and neither was the rest of the table. No one said anything, but the mood of the table went gloomy until Hugh held up his hands in mock surrender.
“Alright, alright, no more. So, how about a story, Tia?”
The table tensed again for a moment, before Hugh launched into an improbable tale of an expedition to Africa which sounded like something out of a movie, and probably didn't happen. Or not happen that way, in any rate. It was interesting though, and by the time he was done with it Mom was there, eating right next to me, having somehow switched with Lindsey without me noticing in all the noise and confusion of scents.
“Mom! How long have you been there?!?”
She swallowed a bite with a grin. “About since the intrepid party reached the Congo. You having fun?”
I half wanted to hear the end of the story, if only to get a good idea on how far Hugh would go to finish it. The real story had probably ended up with them in a hotel/resort somewhere, sipping mixed drinks and laughing about the lies they'd tell people later. He was good at it, though, it was a shame to stop him.
“Yes, it's been fun, and everyone's been really nice. But now that you're here, we can get on to why I'm here. Something was mentioned earlier about an opportunity?”
Hugh actually pouted for a second; it was a little weird. Marsha however, got serious, and though Jennifer was still smiling, she tensed. I really hoped they weren't going to suggest what I thought they would – I liked them so far, but I would walk right home if they did.
Mom smiled. “Right to it, huh?”
She took a last bite, downed her drink, and turned serious herself. Hugh spoke first, however.
“My company, my brand, is in trouble. To be blunt, it's as old as I am. Ibby, the bunnies, the playmates, it's from a time that no longer exists, and it's dated.”
I couldn't argue that. How could Playboy compete with the internet?
“We are in the process of rebranding' Hugh continued, 'but it's rough going. The response to new investments in clothing, fashion, and other areas has been underwhelming, at least in the U.S. There have been some inroads in Japan and Asian countries, but that's neither here nor there.”
He pointed to Ibby. “Ibby did the same thing when she was a little older than you are now; she was a spokeswoman of her generation. A few of the other girls here did too. Now you may not like them, but those ears of yours, and that tail, present you with a unique opportunity; I'd like you to be that spokesperson I need for this generation. The one to help me connect with the youth of today, and help my company. In return, I'll help you.”
I had to just throw it out there. “I'm not going to pose for your magazine, Mr. Hefner.”
Just the very thought gave me the chills, and it would invite attention I didn't want. Even if I was comfy in my own new skin I don't think I wanted to give people more cause to burn me at the stake, either figuratively or literally.
But Hugh agreed immediately. “Of course you won't; that wouldn't send the right message at all. And please, call me uncle Hugh. What I want, is for you to ask around, get to know the girls, have fun and be happy… and ask them about me. I'll treat you as I do any employee of mine. And then what I want, is for you to sign a contract to me, stating that any modeling work you do I get first crack at. I'll pay you well for that.
Then what I want, is when you're ready, you model for me; clothes modeling, mostly. Just selling the brand to the young crowd. You'll get free clothes, and it's good quality stuff, travel expenses to locations, the works. And you won't even have to wear a bikini if you don't want to. But that's all at your call, and subject to things like school or a day job or whatever else you want to do.”
Jennifer weighed in: “He means it. I'm a certified nurse with eight years of school behind me, and he paid for it all.”
“He paid for my stint in law school. Whatever you want to do, he will back you in it.” Marsha added.
Hugh leaned back, looking pleased while I thought. “Thanks, girls, it's kind of you to say.”
Marsha snorted loudly. I turned to Mom. “Can I talk it over with Mom?' and afterthought and I added 'and Ibby?”
Ibby looked genuinely surprised, but Hugh just nodded. “Sure, but if you don't mind, you'll have to be the ones to move.”
I could deal with that. I led the two people here I knew off onto one of the hiking trails.
“So, what do you think, Mom?”
She searched my eyes a moment. “The deal he's offering is an exclusivity arrangement. You don't have to model at all, even if you sign it, but if you do, you model for him first. He owns some rights to your image in conjunction with you until the contract expires. Even if you never have a single photo taken, he pays you for the privilege. The only downside I see in this is if word of the contract gets out; it could sway public opinion against you. However, a non-disclosure agreement on all parties would probably stop that from happening.”
Ibby rolled her eyes. “Spoken like a true PR agent.” She turned to me. “Look, kiddo, Hugh is trying to be nice to you here, as nice as a guy who owns a business can. He wants to throw money at you, something I can agree with because you're a good kid. This contract? It doesn't really have a downside to you. If it had, I'd have told him to stuff it before today.
If he thinks you can help out in return, I can sort of see it, but it's up to you. If we make sure the proper clauses are in your contract before we sign, he can't force you to do anything you don't want to, even if he would, which he won't. All of us?
We're here because we want to be, and even if you don't sign anything, you'll be leaving here today with enough digits to make Saudi princes jealous. You'll be one of the sisterhood, like it or not, and you'll be able to call on any of us, any hour. You need legal advice at 3am? You call Marsha. You need gardening advice? You call Nicole. Need to know what to do in case of carpenter ants? Well, you'll call Marsha again, because she knows bugs.
And us? When we need to know how the younger generation thinks, or stuff about computers, well, we might call you. That's a given whatever you decide.”
I was touched. These women didn't really know me… but it sounded like they wanted to. A few of them were even minor celebrities in their own right (I knew from Mom it wasn't polite to point that out) and they must know a little of what I'm going through; just venting to them might be nice.
“And, if you do decide to model later… most of that will be hitting foreign shores, like Japan and Germany. You'd be modeling jeans and hoodies and shirts and stuff like that. Swimsuits, possibly, but one pieces are possible. Activewear, like track suits and sweats, hats, sunglasses, that kind of thing.”
It seemed to me that I wasn't as perfect for the job as everyone seemed to think, really. “but what about my tail?” I wiggled it. “It's not a puffball like yours, or like the bunnies wear.”
Ibby nodded. “We think that's a plus, actually, as well as your more unique appearance. Gives a further level of separation to the new brand. Focus groups agree.”
Focus groups? They had put together focus groups for this? And this fast?
Ibby read my look. “No, not focus groups just for you, focus groups on what we should look for in new models. Those were conducted a year ago, it's just happy coincidence that you seem to fit.”
This was all pretty fast. I didn't think I was model material at all, and it would probably only add to the numbers of squicky mail I'd gotten since IT happened, not to mention further the stereotype many people were already sure I'd be living up to. If I did it, it would link me to everything Hugh, for better or worse.
In short, it would have to be a lot of money on that table. I doubted I'd be offered enough.
I decided to at least ask. “How much is he planning on offering?”
Ibby fired back immediately. “A hundred thousand, for starters, plus whatever perks we can get him to agree to.”
That… was a lot of money to do nothing for someone on, even with the baggage. I looked at Mom, and she didn't seem surprised.
She stayed silent, letting me work it out. “What sort of perks are you talking about?”
Ibby got less exuberant… nervous? “Well, it's something your Mom and I have been discussing. How would you like to finish school somewhere else? Somewhere secret, where reporters aren't allowed, and the medical experts are top notch? If you should… destabilize, they have the best chance to fix you. One of the doctors there, Quintan, is one of the foremost experts on mutation in the world.”
Something was fishy here. “Sounds expensive, and what would a doctor be doing at a school?”
“Well, it is expensive, but I've offered to split the cost with Hugh. And the doc does research of course.”
Research, from the foremost expert on mutation, at a school, could only mean one thing.
“You mean to send me to a mutant school? Xaviers home for powered psychos?” I was a little proud at how even my voice sounded.
That and a little worried about it.
Ibby winced. “We aren't all bad, you know. And the school cracks down on troublemakers very hard; I have the old detention slips to prove it. You'd be safe there. But most importantly, only a few people know it exists, and even fewer know where it is. They get famous or infamous kids there often, so they know how to deal with it.”
Mom was still silent. I looked to her. “Do you think I should go?”
She nodded immediately. “Yes. They are best equipped to handle the problems you have, and can find and deal with any more we've missed; like the memory issues you have.”
Mom had a point. If something else popped up, could I really expect the tiny MCO office that only had a receptionist on permanent staff to help me? The hospital, whose experts had been flown in? My new doctor, who was lacking in experience with cases like mine? Mom didn't want to take the risk.
But it was a mutant school; filled with mutant devisors.
“Can I think on it? Can we just add that as a possibility, and let me think it over?”
Mom smiled. “Of course we can.”
She'd likely be yelling at me later.
Ibby grinned instead. “That sounds like a yes to me. That your answer, kiddo?”
I thought about it, one last time. “Yes, it's a yes. Negotiations I'll leave to Mom, but I'll sign.”
I knew I was out of my depth, but I was sure Mom had done this sort of thing before.
Ibby corrected me. “Hey, your Mom AND me, Tia. I'm actually on your side on this one.”
We went back, and what followed was probably the most boring hour of my life. Between Mom, Marsha, Ibby, and Hugh, they managed to use enough words I didn't know and doublespeak to completely lose me. I understood enough to know the contract didn't change much from how it was outlined to me earlier, but there were additions of the school tuition and incidentals being covered and gifts… and a mail service? A doctor on call?
Ibby explained. “We all get mail, internet or snail. The service culls through it first and removes undesirable mail so we don't have to see it. Strella told me about some of the stuff you've been getting.”
“But what about the doctor?”
“Well, he's a doctor, but he's more of a pharmacist. He only became a doctor so he could write his own prescriptions; we aren't sure if you'll need his expertise, but it never hurts to put it in the contract. After all, paying him out of pocket is… expensive, and he's busy often. Putting him on retainer means he drops everything if you need him. He made your clips too, and if they break it sucks."
That sounded more than a little weird; a retainer for a doctor? “Is he okay with this?”
Ibby shrugged and flashed me an irreverent grin. “I don't know, why don't you ask him? He's in the living room, on the couch, watching a movie.”
So she was volunteering the guy without checking with him first? Wow. “Think I will. Be right back.”
There was only one person on the living room couch, though one of the women was also watching the movie; Felicity was her name. Like everyone else around, he was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, and he looked bored. Felicity, on the other hand, was surfing the web on her phone, playing some kind of game that was a little annoying to hear. I was beginning to understand why everyone had dressed in shorts; the cabin was getting pretty hot and the air conditioning was off.
The movie was one I hadn't seen before; I sat down on the other side of the couch and studied him. He was a handsome guy, not stacked the way the guys outside were, but built and with refined features. He was just beginning to go gray, but he didn't look distinguished at all. He looked more like a hippy dressing up than a doctor dressing down, for all that he was clean shaven and had short hair.
“Ibby's out there right now, volunteering your services on retainer on total strangers.”
He turned and gave me a once over. “Not total strangers, to you. You're her sister.”
He held up a hand before I could let him have it. “Not by blood, but she's… adopted you, kinda, I guess. And that's good enough for me. If you have special problems with biology and need meds, I'm your guy. Working name's Bolus, by the way.”
He offered his hand and we shook. “Special problems?”
“Ibby's a regenerator, kid. Most medications just won't work on her, and those that do don't work as well. I can make medications that work with unique biology.”
That made sense. Ibby had already told me what medicine she took, and what she took it for. So this was the guy that made it, huh?
He continued. “The way I understand it, bringing me in is simply a 'just in case' thing. I'm also good at making complex stuff that has few to no side effects, so you don't need to watch 25 seconds of a 30 second commercial hearing all the ways in which your eyeballs can explode from taking meds you may need.”
He laughed along with me. Those commercials were funny, but I'd never take the medications pharmacy companies showed on them for that very reason; it seemed counter-intuitive to advertising to me.
Still, I pressed on. “So you're fine with it?”
He shrugged, turning back to the movie. “Sure, I wouldn't have told her to do it if I wasn't. Seriously, you should hear how she talks about you when you aren't around; it's always 'Tia this' and 'my little sis' that. She thinks the world of you, somehow. It's actually kinda disturbing, but that's Ibby for you.”
I could see it.
Meh, screw going back out there, I was a little tired and wanted to see the movie. I stretched out on the remaining space of the couch and settled in.
Then I crept up until I was comfortable. When Bolus started stroking my ears, running his fingers gently through the fur, I realized I was leaning against him, but it felt so nice I didn't want to move or tell him to stop. It didn't make sense anyway since I was already touching him.
It was some time later when we were both lost in the plot of spaceship battles and explosions, and the mighty Xen'xe empire's conquering of the peace loving Dilosites (and I was just beginning to nod off) that the door opened and Bolus spoke.
“Ibby, could you get my bag, please? The one in the corner?”
“Sure, what's going… oh.”
I looked up to see Ibby towering over both of us; her face looked sad. Had negotiations broke down while I was gone or something? I didn't care, I could always fix it later when I wasn't this content or sleepy. I stretched and draped myself over Bolus a little more. He absently switched hands until he was stroking my ears again.
“Come on, Tia, up you go.” Ibby grabbed my hand and pulled me up, even when I slumped as dead weight.
Mom entered the room: “Tia, time to... what's going on here?”
Oh, that tone of voice. She was not happy with someone. “Nothing Mom, just got a little tired is all. Is it time to sign my life away?”
Okay, I know the joke was a bad one, but did everyone have to look at me like that?
Ibby pulled me the rest of the way up and Mom turned to her. Ibby wouldn't meet her eyes. Mom turned to Bolus who had both hands up in surrender. I was beginning to think I was the one in trouble, somehow. Ibby kept me close as she passed the bag over.
“What's wrong? Did I do something wrong somehow?”
Mom crossed the distance and hugged me close, whispering in my ear. “No Tia, you haven't. But you're not going to like what I have to say. You were sitting on the couch, right?”
I thought about it. “Well, I was more lying on it, because I was tired....”
Mom nodded; she was crying. I'd made her cry somehow. “Across a man you never met before today. Was he doing anything to you?”
“No, he was just stroking my ears.” Oh wait. Oh, God. A person I never met before today, a man no less, and I was laying across him and letting him touch me because it felt good. Even now I couldn't see the harm, but that only meant one thing: I was like Ibby.
No wonder people were freaking out; I was stupid and disgusting. I was everything Jamie had called me and more. I had even thought that he wouldn't do anything to me because I wasn't as pretty as everyone else here. I'd actually thought that!
Mom sat me on the couch, sandwiching me between Ibby and herself. “Tia, I'm not mad at you. We planned for this, remember? We had a plan in case this happened.”
Bolus spoke, earning a hard stare from my Mom that I saw through my veil of tears. “I was that plan. Medicine is in the bag, calibrated to her weight and biology.”
Mom's tone was frosty. “And just what do you think you were doing, a grown man, touching a young girl like that?”
Bolus passed a medicine bottle to Ibby, then raised his hands again. “Trying to keep the situation under control and wait for the cavalry. I couldn't very well hold her down, or I'd look like the worst kind of guy, I couldn't explain the situation to her,” I heard the implicated 'cause I didn't want her flying apart on me' there.' “And I didn't want her getting any bright ideas. Luckily she didn't, so I was keeping her there and calm until you arrived.”
Mom gave him the fish-eye while Ibby opened the bottle and slapped a pill into my palm. It was innocent enough, pure white with the number 11 stamped on it. It was small enough, so I swallowed it dry.
Felicity spoke, reminding us all she was there. “It happened exactly as Bolus said; he was a perfect gentleman.”
Mom nodded and let it go while Ibby snuggled up to the man. Had I looked like that, not five minutes ago?
“Alright, you're off the hook, for now.”
Ibby grinned at Mom and patted Bolus on the cheek. “Don't worry Strella, he's mine and he knows it.”
Just more evidence that Ibby was off, really. She hadn't read the mood right at all. And I was joining her there, if I hadn't already. Maybe my pills would be more effective than hers?
Bolus snagged Ibby's hand and turned to me. “Once a day, every day. It doesn't matter when you take them, but try to make sure no more than 24 hours pass. There shouldn't be any side effects, if there are, call me. Alright?”
I nodded. “I'm sorry, sir, for what I did.”
He shrugged. “I've been placed in worse spots, kid. I've been Ibby's friend a long time.”
Ibby pouted; he didn't buy it. I didn't either. “Mom, I'd really like to go home now.”
Mom sighed. “We can't yet. Mr. Hefner is still looking for a signature, and you WILL read the contract first. We can go home after that.”
Well, the sooner we got it done, the sooner I could go home. I stood up. Mom shook her head, stood up, and led me into the bathroom. Having Mom in the bathroom with me felt all kinds of weird; just us girls, though, I guess.
“Wash those tears away.” She suited her own actions to her words.
I scrubbed and primped until she was satisfied, and we both went back out, appearing in control if not feeling it.
Hugh put a smile on as he saw us, it looked genuine, as had the look of concern he'd wore just before; he probably already knew what happened.
He didn't say anything about it. “Tia, Estrella. I was beginning to worry a bit, but no one was screaming.”
Mom gave a ghost of a smile. “No, nothing bad. We just had a minor problem, easily corrected.”
The pill bottle in my pants seemed to burn.
“Tia's here to read what we came up with.”
I knew a hint when I heard one. Pulled the tablet over and read the document.
It was almost exactly as explained; The contract stipulated that any modeling was optional. If I did model in the next 2 years, any form of it, Playboy got first crack at any images or film. Only after the company said no would anyone else be allowed to pick it up. If another company wanted me to model for them, they had to work through Playboy.
Mom had managed to talk Hugh up to 250k though. A year. That was nice. On top of all the perks mentioned before of course.
It was stipulated several times that I had the right to refuse any modeling work I wasn't comfortable with. It all looked in order, so I printed it out on the mobile printer and signed both copies.
“I'm sorry, sir... er, Hugh. I'm not feeling well. I'd like to go home.”
Hugh looked up from where he was carefully adding his own signature. Yeah, he knew. “That's quite alright, Tia. Feel better, and feel free to call, for any reason.”
“Thank you.” I waved and said goodbyes to everyone close enough while we headed around the side to where the cars were parked. Mom carefully put the contract away in a file folder she got from somewhere.
Ibby was leaning against her car with Bolus, waiting for us. “I'll take her back, Strella. You take Bolus for me, okay?”
I shuffled from foot to foot while Mom stared at Ibby. “Fine. See you at home, honey.”
she pulled me into a quick hug and got in our car, Bolus gulped and followed... though he got in the back, out of reach. That was kind of amusing.
“Come on.” Ibby tossed me the keys. “You're driving.”
“You sure?” Pink or not, her car was a classic, and therefore expensive.
I shrugged, adjusted everything and set off, following Mom home. After a few minutes of silence, Ibby had had enough.
“It isn't that bad, you know. Being like me that is.”
I gripped the wheel harder but stayed silent. What could I even say?
What she blurted out next was even worse. “I was lonely. I've spent a long time as a hero and ex-hero; my name and where I live is public record, my face is known, and it makes it hard to get close to people. I just wanted to be able to blend in for awhile, to really get to know people without holding them at arm's length.
Then you got zapped and it was my fault, at least in part. But I had someone I could truly be myself around, someone who understood what it was like to be me, at least a little. Hounded wherever you go by people who wanted something from you, or wanted to say they knew you never able to hide. And as guilty as I felt, I loved it, you know?
And you, you're a good kid. I can't have any, but if I could I'd have wanted them to be like you. I wanted to help you. I just can't leave you alone. And now you're more like me than ever, and I'm sorry for that. I'm sorry it distresses you. Fuck, I don't know how to say this, kid.”
Then she looked over. “Hey! Eyes on the road!”
I couldn't help it. I giggled... then laughed. She laughed along after a moment, and the mood was broken.
I couldn't blame her; it was Jamie's fault, not hers.
“So kid, your driver's test is coming up; given a thought about what kind of car you want?”
Ibby's attempts to change the subject sucked, but I let her. “I was thinking something like an old carrera or boxter. I really like porsches, but it's kind of up to Mom.”
Ibby grinned, lifting her eyebrows. “Really? Not something like mine? This car is pretty good, go ahead and open her up.”
She was trying to get us pulled over. “No thanks, and your car is a little too pink for me. Besides, something electric might be the way to go anyway, with the way things are going.”
Ibby muttered something I didn't catch over the wind about the color pink; she was probably agreeing with me. "By the way, remember what I said earlier about digits? She shoved her phone in my pocket. "Keep it, I got a new one, and that one is pretty secure and hard to find. When you pick up, you won't have to worry about someone you don't know saying hello."
“And that's basically it. I had to take my driver's test twice because people raised a stink about me having one when reports of my memory loss surfaced. I spent the rest of the summer getting checked periodically and relearning my languages. The final straw on where to go for school was when I found Rex outside my house in a bush with binoculars.”
The airplane was landing, tray tables and seat backs were up, all electronic devices were off, so I was trying to rush things a little. The stewardess had asked about my clips, but I knew they wouldn't cause interference and she didn't press.
“Let's see, what else. I never did get a car; I was always too busy to shop for one. Maybe next time I'm home. That's basically it.”
Paul smiled; it was a beautiful smile, really. “That's fine. Don't worry, your secrets are safe with me.”
We chatted about lighter subjects while the plane ambled down the tarmac to the gate.
He waited patiently with her while everyone else disembarked. He said all the right things, made all the right movements, at all the right times. She left trusting him. He hoped it helped her, to open up like that. It was said confession was good for the soul. she had been too close near the end, the rambling a clue to ease off, just a bit.
The airport closing hampered the plan somewhat; it irritated. He could get through it all, but it might leave a trail for those knowing what to look for. He found the old payphones and punched in the number. It was answered immediately.
“It's me. Your hunch was right; we can use her. Play it right and there could be repeats.”
He hung up and wished the bunny girl luck. She would need it, her school life was about to get very interesting.