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Aquerna - Straight from the Squirrel’s Mouth

By Diane Castle

Chapter 5

Friday, December 22
Whateley Academy

Friday morning, Anna slept in.  Ellen was done with her exams too, and so nobody was setting their alarm.  Anna didn’t care if she missed breakfast too, because she still had four pieces of the really good chocolate saved in her desk drawer in their little holders, which were way fancier than the crinkled dark-brown paper cups she was used to seeing in boxes of chocolates.  Plus, people were already rushing off on Christmas vacation, so the dorm was quieter than normal.

Anna woke up after ten, and helped Ellen finish packing before Ellen’s folks got there, so Anna had to rush through a shower so Ellen’s folks wouldn’t come in and find her in her teddy bear nightshirt and fuzzy socks.

Then Ellen’s mom and dad showed up, and Mrs. Nelson brought them up to Anna’s room.  They gave Ellen huge hugs, and Ellen’s mom pretended to check under Ellen’s fingernails to see if there was still axle grease under there, which made Ellen blush a whole lot and say, “Mo-ooom!”

Ellen’s dad was really nice, but he was weird about one thing.  He insisted on carrying Ellen’s two heavy suitcases out all by himself, even though Anna offered to help, and they could’ve got one of the bricks to carry ‘em down easy.  But Mr. Tremain kept saying, “No no no, I’ve got ‘em…  Oof…  No problem…  Ugh…  Really, I got ‘em!  Ouch, my knee!”

But eventually they got Ellen’s suitcases out the door and down to a little motorized cart, and the Tremains drove off in it down to the parking lot where their car was.  Anna waved until they were out of sight.  Well, out of normal people’s sight.  Then Anna slipped back up to her room to eat up her treats and go run her morning errands.

She had her laundry all done, because she didn’t want to be a huge mooch and do laundry as soon as they got to Ree’s family’s house.  And anyway, she knew Ree had like two whole weeks of laundry already crammed into one suitcase and her laundry bag to take home and wash, or maybe talk her mom into washing.  So she only had to pack her stuff up after lunch.  Ree’s folks weren’t supposed to get here until like two or three in the afternoon, because Ree said they were driving up.

But Anna wanted to check her course grades.  Most of the grades would be posted outside teachers’ offices, and she wanted to see how she did.  She was sure she hadn’t done bad in anything, so this was going to be kind of fun.

She grabbed her coat and skittered off to main campus.  She already knew she had an A- in Basic Martial Arts, which was so amazing she could hardly believe it, so she didn’t go over to the Eastman Annex to check her grade over there.  She went straight over to her biology lab, to see the grades outside her teacher’s door.  She just about screeched for joy when she saw she had an A- in bio!  That was so awesome!  Even if she was never going to take another biology course in her life as long as they had those awful dissection deals in the labs, this was still totally great!

After that, she was really, really psyched, and she scampered right over to find out what her math grade was, even if she still didn’t get some of the probability stuff.  But she got a B+ in math, which was way better than someone like her was supposed to do in math, so she was really happy about that.  And maybe she did screech a little too loud in the hall when she saw her grade, but she really didn’t mean to make that much noise.

Still, she hurried off down the hall before anyone came out and yelled at her or anything.  She got over to the English teachers’ offices, and found her grade there.  She had a B+ in English, which was really good, but she really wished she could write essays and papers well enough that she could get an A or A- in there.  Some of the kids always got an A on their paper, and she wished she knew how they did that.  Were they working extra hard for an extra long time?  Or did they know tricks that helped you do a really good paper?  Maybe it was just lots and lots of practice.  Ayla went to really fancy rich-kid prep schools before coming to Whateley, and Molly said Ayla was taking this super-hard special English class that only met on Saturday mornings and everyone else in there was a junior or a senior, and Ayla was like the best student in that class and had written some papers that Molly said Chou said Ayla was going to get published in real English Literature journals like a college professor!  She wished she knew Ayla well enough that she could talk to Ayla about how to write a good paper and not have Ayla think she was just being a ginormous mooch.

Her criminology grade wasn’t posted yet, but she had mostly A’s in there all term long, and she felt pretty good about her exam, and so she was sure she had at least a B or B+ in there, maybe better, so she was really happy about the grade she’d get.

She decided she’d go check on Jerry again.  Things had been going really good since their date.  Even if she’d stayed up until two in the morning gabbing with Ree about how her date went.  Which was okay, because she didn’t have to get up early Wednesday morning and she was really pretty much done with studying for her Criminology exam too.  Jerry was trying to finish up a complicated synthesis for an extra-credit project in one of his Workshop classes, so he was really busy down in his lab, but he still took time out to call her Wednesday afternoon and they just talked on the phone for a long time and it was great.  And he asked her out on a second date, once Winter Term started in January!

So Anna spent the time between then and Friday morning doing all the stuff she wanted to do.  She watched a bunch of combat finals, some of which were pretty awesome, and studied some more for her criminology exam, and caught up on episodes of all the teevee programs she’d missed over the last week or two.  She watched ‘American Idol’ and ‘Ugly Betty’ and ‘Veronica Mars’ and ‘The OC’ and ‘How I Met Your Mother’.  ‘Lost’ didn’t make any sense to her, so she wasn’t watching it.  The weird thing was all the girls in the dorm who didn’t get it either but still watched it because they were sure in a couple episodes it would all make perfect sense and then they’d be sorry if they missed it.  But she was starting to watch a bunch of the ‘CSI’ shows now too.  So she had lots of time to knit, and she got all the scarves for her friends done and handed out before everyone left for the holiday.

The teevees in the lounge downstairs and the sunroom on third floor didn’t have Tivo, which she didn’t even know how to work, but both had these fancy gadgeteer boxes which recorded dozens and dozens of channels at the same time on massive hard drives with special encoding, and had software that spotted commercials so you could skip right over them, and let you run the programs at 25% faster than normal when you wanted to so you could go over the boring parts without missing anything.  Some of the girls who watched soaps said that was the very best part of the machines because a lot of the time one episode was mostly rehash of the last couple episodes with hardly anything new to watch.  A lot of the girls watched ‘American Idol’ that way.

And Thursday night, everybody had to drop whatever they were doing and run to the nearest teevee to watch the news coverage of the superheroes fighting that snow monster in New York City.  A bunch of girls recognized Mega-Girl, which wasn’t all that hard since she wore that superhero costume all around campus all the time too, and then there was that amazing thing with the angel-girl that nobody knew.  So Anna guessed all that junk about the ‘angel of Hell’s Kitchen’ was real after all.  Not that she was all that surprised, when she went to school with Angel, who had real angel wings, and she’d seen pictures of Angelique, who was an old French superheroine, and she’d seen people on campus doing magic nearly that awesome.

Anna also dropped in on Hazmat a couple times during the week, which he really liked, even if his friends in the chem lab all teased him about it just a ton.  She even took him lunch on Thursday, which was a good thing, because it looked like he’d missed breakfast too.  She even remembered the extra french fries that he liked, and the ‘no lettuce’ deal with his burger.  He was really impressed that she remembered what he liked on his burger.  He had told her, “Thanks!  My mom always puts lettuce and tomato on my burgers and never remembers that I don’t like the lettuce, and I always sneak it out and put ketchup on it and let Charlie - that’s our golden retriever - eat it.”

She had told him, “Maybe your mom keeps putting the lettuce on it because it’s good for you, and she thinks you end up eating it anyway.”  He just grinned.

So after that, she figured it wouldn’t hurt to check up on him before Friday lunch.  And sure enough, he was buried in work.  He was nearly finished with his synthesis, and he was writing up notes like crazy in a notebook he said he had to turn in with the stuff, and it was so obvious he hadn’t eaten breakfast and probably hadn’t gotten enough sleep.  So, when she was done eating lunch with Ree and the other Underdogs who hadn’t already gone home for the holidays, she rushed over and got him a burger and extra fries just to make sure he got something to eat besides old coffee.

Jerry was so happy to see her and the food that he nearly knocked his flask of stuff off the table, which would’ve been a huge disaster.  Not even counting that she didn’t know if it would explode or eat through the floor or give off poison gas if it busted on the floor.  He was just lucky her reflexes were a bit better than baseline, and she managed to catch it before it got all the way off the counter.

“Holy shit!” he gasped in panic.  Then he realized she’d saved it.  “Oh man, what would I do without you?”

“You’re welcome,” she grinned.  She was just glad it wasn’t something that took real super-speed or super-quickness.

Jerry put his flask in his sink, where it couldn’t get knocked over, and he closed up his notebook, and then he scooted her back out of the lab and came with her.  He shut the door behind him, and looked around to make sure they were alone.  He grinned, “Thanks, Anna.  I mean, thanks for everything.  Thanks for the date, and for bringing me lunch when I forgot to eat, and being so nice when I haven’t had any time at all for you since Tuesday night.”

She smiled, “Thank you.  I may not be a super-genius chemist like you, but I can smell stuff.  That’s the stuff you stopped working on last week just for my little friends, isn’t it?  You lost like two or three days rescuing me, and all you wanted for it was to take me out on a date and be a really nice guy.  And if you hadn’t stopped working on your stuff last week, you’d already be done with this, right?”

“Umm, yeah.  But you’re worth it.  Tuesday night was great.  For me, anyway.”

She said, “I really had a good time too.”

He leaned in and kissed her.  Right on the mouth.  And it felt wonderful.  She sighed and kissed him back… until Erlenmeyer opened the lab door and yelled to everyone in the room, “HEY!  Haz is getting’ some right in the hallway!”

Jerry turned around and snapped, “Just shut the hell up, Erl!  Why can’t you leave everyone alone for a goddamn second!”

Anna slipped out of his arms and said, “It’s okay.  You gotta get that project done and over to your teacher, anyway.”

Jerry frowned, “Yeah…  But I’d rather be kissing you.”

She gave him a huge smile.  “Me too.  See you next year.”

As she walked off, Jerry called out, “Have a great Christmas!”  And she definitely heard him mutter really quietly to Erlenmeyer, “And I hope Santa brings you a burning paper bag full of dog shit, you fat asshole.”

So Erlenmeyer said some mean things about Jerry’s mother, and then Jerry said some just-as-bad things about Erlenmeyer and the dead animals the labs used for dissection.  Eww.  Sometimes, having really good hearing was just a pain.

Anna went back to the dorm.  She said ‘happy holidays’ to everyone bustling out the door, and to Mrs. Nelson too, and then she scurried up to her room to finish packing.  She wasn’t real sure when Ree’s folks would get there, even if Ree said it would be between two and three.  Anna got everything into her one big suitcase, except for all the little stuff.  Her jewelry she was bringing and a little makeup went into her purse with the stuff she didn’t want anyone to see, like the tampons and some lightweight feminine napkins.  She was knitting some special scarves for Ree’s family, and she already had Ree’s done and tucked in the bottom of the suitcase, and she had Ree’s dad’s cast on and started, with the yarn for it in her suitcase too.  She was working on Ree’s mom’s scarf, and had the yarn for Ree’s sister’s scarf, so she had all of that in her big knitting bag, along with all the knitting stuff you had to carry, like the scissors and the big sewing needle and the extra knitting needles in all the sizes you were using, and the patterns in case you needed to check on stuff, and the rubber caps for the ends of the knitting needles so all your hard work didn’t slide right off when you set stuff down, and on and on.  She also had her sleeping bag, and her backpack which was stuffed with all the things she wanted to take that were already dirty.  Plus her coat and scarf and knit hat and woolen gloves.

She figured she’d meet up with Ree at Whitman and take the tunnels to central campus.  And she was all ready to go, so she put on her coat and scarf and hat and gloves, slung her backpack over her coat, slung the strap of her knitting bag over one shoulder, picked up her sleeping bag in that arm, hefted her suitcase in the other hand, and headed out of Dickinson.  It was funny.  She’d been so nervous when she first got to Whateley, and now Dickinson felt more like home than, well, home.  If she could’ve gone home for Christmas, she was sure she wouldn’t be feeling that way.  She just really missed her family and all the great Christmas stuff they used to do.  That they didn’t want to do with her anymore.  Like her turning into a mutant had made her go crazy and evil or something, like Deicide or Dr. Diabolik.  Or some of the kids at school.  Even if she figured people like Buster and Hekate and Strongarm must’ve been mean bullies way before they got mutant powers.

“Big squirrel!  Big squirrel!  What are you doing?”  Three fluffy squirrels stopped their search for food to talk to her.

“I’m gonna be gone for… a while,” she told them.  They wouldn’t understand if she told ‘em she’d be gone until a week after New Year’s Day.

“Have a safe sleep!” they chittered.

“You guys be safe too,” she told them.

“Bye big squirrel!”

She walked off to Whitman, worrying about her little friends.  They ought to be okay while she was gone, but you never knew with Whateley.  And what was gonna happen at Ree’s house?  Was she gonna have to deal with the squirrels around there?  Would Ree’s family get all weird if they caught her talking to the neighborhood squirrels?

She kept telling herself everything would be okay, but she was still telling herself that stuff when she got to the front door to Whitman, and she still hadn’t talked herself into it.

Rhiannon was waiting for her with some other Whitman girls, who were chatting about what everyone was doing over the holidays.  It sounded like the big news was Diamondback was going with her buddy Jericho and Razorback to Australia for Christmas, which apparently was where Razorback was from, so Anna figured Outcast Corner was going to have a fun Christmas, at least.  She was still worrying about a lot of people she knew.  After all, what was Nate going to do if he had another big gas attack?  Blow up his stepdad’s house by accident?  That would be bad.  And what about people like Phobos and Gila?  Or the kids who couldn’t go home because their families hated mutants?

Well, the other kids who couldn’t go home because their families hated mutants.  Anna told herself she wasn’t gonna think about that even once while she was at Ree’s house, but she was already thinking about it again.

Psydoe was with Ree’s group, so Anna said hi.  She didn’t know Psydoe well, but she knew her from aikido class.  Psydoe did this psychic blast thing that if it hit you, it pretty much knocked you across the room.  But she couldn’t do it instantly.  She had to concentrate first.  Anna had sparred with her a couple times.  One time she got blasted so bad Prism had to come over and give her some healing.  The other two times, she moved fast enough that Psydoe couldn’t manage to blast her, and Anna managed to throw Psydoe out of the sparring ring and win.  Even if one of those times she got a mule kick from Psydoe that gave her a really bad bruise on her right thigh.  That girl could kick like a mule.  Literally.  She had legs like a deer, so she kicked behind her better than she kicked in front of her.

Psydoe walked down to the tunnel with everyone else, toting two huge duffel bags.  She was saying to another girl, “So mom and dad can’t have me back home, and mom said the H-1 guys were sniffing around, so we’re all getting together at Uncle Chuck’s hunting lodge up in the Rockies, and Uncle Chuck’s going to come with his girlfriend.  I was really hoping my cousins could come too, but Kelly and Christy are with their mom this Christmas.”

Someone asked, “How’re you gonna get there?  I’m guessing not Delta Airlines.”

Psydoe didn’t quite smile.  “You’re never going to believe this, but the MCO.  Mrs. Carson pulled a bunch of us who can’t travel on regular airlines into a meeting last month, and she said as part of the MID thing with the MCO and the DPA, the MCO helps us out with plane travel on special jets and stuff.”

“Aren’t you worried the MCO’s gonna make you disappear?” someone asked.

Psydoe laughed.  “Yeah, Mrs. Carson said if any of us had any trouble with any of the MCO people, she’d track ‘em down and take care of ‘em herself.  And it’s not like the MCO can kidnap me and then claim they don’t know what happened.  A Whateley person’s riding down on the shuttle with us, and making sure we’re all set.  It ought to be pretty good.  No in-flight meals or stuff, but still pretty good.”

“In-flight meals?  Are you kidding?”

“Oh, I heard some of the Europeans are flying back first class on Air France and they get really cushy seats and gourmet meals and everything.”

“Yeah, the Beret Mafia wouldn’t be flying back home on an American airplane.”

Anna said, “Charmer’s nice.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed that.”

Psydoe said, “She’s even nice in Basic Martial Arts.  Even when she loses.  Which isn’t all that often, unless sensei throws Phase or Golden Girl or Adamantine or one of them at her.”

“Huh.  Well, that Dynamaxx is just a horndog.”

“He’s a guy.  Whadda you expect?”

Down in the tunnel to main campus there was a Whateley worker sitting in a motorized trolley that looked like a miniature flatbed truck.  Everyone piled their suitcases and stuff on the back, and he drove it on down to main campus, while the girls walked behind him.  He stopped when they got to the junction to go off to Schuster, because most of the girls were going into Dunwich to catch the train, or all the way to Berlin to catch a Greyhound bus or a plane home.  Ree and Anna hauled their stuff off the trolley and went off to the Schuster elevator and waited in the lobby there.

There were half a dozen other kids already hanging around in the Schuster entryway, keeping an eye on their luggage while they waited for their families to come get ‘em.  Ree and Anna put their stuff over by the front doors, and then flopped down on a couch to wait.

Mrs. Grimes, the teacher who looked like Morticia from the Addams Family movies, was busy over by the staircase, doing this magic spell so badguys couldn’t track any of the families when they drove up to get their kids.  Whatever the spell was, Anna’s spirit noticed it, but wasn’t bothered by it, so Anna just ignored it.  Even if it would be really cool to know how to do magic.  But Anna wasn’t one of the Wizard kids, so she wasn’t going to get to take stuff like that, even if there was an “Introduction to Magical Concepts” class you didn’t have to be a Wizard to take, and Anna was thinking it might be fun to take it some term when she wasn’t bogged down with required courses.  Her counselor told her she needed to take “Powers Theory” and the two basic Avatar classes before she should even think about other stuff like that, and Anna was good with that, because the counselors knew way more about classes at Whateley than she did.  And anyway, she was going to get to pick what she wanted for Winter Term.  She’d already decided to take “Special Topics - Theory and Practice of the Escape,” which sounded really fun.  And she’d signed up for Civics, just so she could get it out of the way, because that didn’t sound like it was going to be a ton of fun.  Her counselor said she could wait until she came back from break before she decided whether she was going to take sensei Ito’s martial arts course.

“Ree, this is just so great of you, I can’t thank you enough…”

Ree just shook her head.  “Anna, you’ve got to stop thanking me over and over!  Once was plenty!”

But it didn’t feel like enough times to Anna.  Knowing her parents didn’t want her just made it all harder.  Knowing Ree’s parents were okay with Ree and some freaky mutant they’d never even met made it all seem almost like a Christmas fairy tale for her.  Like the ones where the girl gets her magical wish right on Christmas day just when it matters the most.  Boy, she sure hoped Ree’s family liked watching all the Christmas specials.  She never got to do that at home, because they only had one teevee, and her dad always needed to watch the sports stuff, like all the football bowls and all the pregame specials and all the ESPN news.  Anna didn’t care about that, except when Big 10 teams were playing, because you always needed to root for the Big 10.  Except Michigan.  You had to root against Michigan.  Unless they were playing Notre Dame, which was her dad’s least favorite team in the whole world, because it was her grandad’s least favorite team in the whole world.  Michigan was only their second least favorite team.

A little before three, Mrs. Grimes came over to them.  For someone who looked like Morticia Addams or something, Mrs. Grimes sure dressed, well, normal.  Just like what you’d think a regular high school teacher would wear.  Mrs. Grimes said, “Kamuro?  Your family will be pulling up in the parking lot in a couple minutes.  Please be ready.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Ree said.

Anna whispered, “Won’t they need to go to the bathroom or stretch their legs or get something to eat?”

Ree shrugged.  “Prob’ly not.  They probably drove the RV.  It’s got a bathroom in it, and a mini-kitchen, and a teevee with a DVD player.  And really comfy reclining chairs so you can sleep if you want.  And a fold-out bed, but you can’t do that while they’re driving, it’s not safe.”

Anna got up and made a quick potty stop, just so she wouldn’t be a problem for anyone while they were driving to Ree’s house.  By the time she got back, Ree was already gathering up her stuff.  Anna got her backpack and knitting bag, then took Ree’s suitcases, which were heavier than hers.  Ree grabbed Anna’s suitcase and sleeping bag, plus her stuff, and followed Anna out to the parking lot.

A medium-sized RV pulled up right beside them, and the side door popped open before the driver even got the motor turned off.  Two women who looked a lot like Ree - one just a little older and one middle-aged - ran right over to them and hugged Ree like they hadn’t seen her in years.  Anna stepped away a little to give them some space.  And because she wasn’t really sure she wasn’t going to burst into tears.  She was so happy for Ree, and so sad for herself.  It was so great that Ree’s family still loved her and missed her so much.  It was so awful that Anna’s family…

She wasn’t gonna go there.  She’d told herself maybe a hundred times this week she wasn’t gonna think about it.  And she wasn’t gonna be ‘the death of the party’ when Ree and her family were being so darn nice to her.  She sniffed a little, blinked a couple times, and made herself smile.

“And this is my friend Anna!” Ree said as she dragged her mom and big sister over.

Ree grabbed her mom’s arm and said, “Mom, this is Anna Parsons, I told you about her.  Anna, this is my mom, and this is my big sister Megan.”

“Call me Meg,” the girl smiled.

She looked like she had to be Ree’s big sister.  The three of them looked even more alike than Anna and her mom.  They all had Ree’s straight, dark-brown hair and medium brown eyes, they all had Ree’s rounded face, and they all looked like they were from an English movie where they were playing the maids in an English country mansion.  They weren’t all wearing the same heel shoes, but Anna guessed that if they were barefoot they’d all be within an inch on their height, too.  Ree and Meg even had nearly the same hairstyle, with their straight hair cut at medium length so it trailed onto their shoulders, and a part.  Ree had her hair with a part that was slightly off-center, and that looked better on her than Meg’s center part looked on her.  Their mom had the same hair, and had it in a bob with a side part.

“Sure,” Anna said.  “Please to meet you.  And you too, Mrs. Davies.”

By then, a smiling dad-aged guy had climbed out of the RV and come over to give Ree a huge hug.  Anna added, “And you too, Mr. Davies.”

Mr. Davies put out a hand and shook her smaller hand.  Then he looked all around.  “Mr. Davies?  Is my dad here?”  He grinned to show he was teasing.  “Anna, you’re going to be with us for a couple weeks.  Don’t you think you could call us John and Marya instead?”

Anna said, “I…  Umm, yeah, I can sure try.”

He grinned, “Say it, please.  Just once.”

Anna blushed a little at the teasing and said, “Yes sir… John.”

“There ya go!  That was easy,” he smiled.

“It’s easy to remember…” he started to say.

“It means toilet!” Meg interrupted.  She burst into laughter, and Mr. And Mrs. Davies laughed too.

Ree turned bright red and whined, “MEG!”

Mrs. Davies gave Ree a one-armed hug and said, “Oh come on, honey.  Everyone knows it’s the job of your family to embarrass you in front of your friends.”

Anna didn’t know what was going on, but she recognized a family joke when she heard one.  Her dad and his brother had plenty.

Mrs. Davies smiled, “When Rhiannon was about three, she and Megan were still young enough to go down to the front of the church for the children’s sermon every Sunday, and one Sunday the new pastor was giving a talk about the names of the Apostles.  And he asked if people knew what their names meant.”  Anna gasped as she figured out where this was going.  Ree was red as a beet, but looked like she’d had to put up with her family telling this story plenty of times before.  “Yes, after several people in the congregation had said their first name or a relative’s first name and what it meant, Rhiannon piped up in the cutest little voice and said loud enough for the whole church to hear, ‘my daddy’s name is John.  It means toilet.’  I thought the poor pastor was going to have a coronary from trying not to laugh out loud in front of everyone.”

Ree looked like she couldn’t get any redder.  Anna patted her on the shoulder and said, “It’s okay.  My folks have way worse stories about me.  My dad even has a photo he calls the ‘cheesecake picture’ that he showed to just about every friend I ever brought over to the house.  When I was a baby, mom gave me little baths in the kitchen sink, and so there I am, on a towel on the kitchen counter, lying on my tummy looking at the camera.  Stark naked.  With a big ol’ drool coming out of my mouth.  He always threatened he’d show it to my boyfriends, and…”  She trailed off because she didn’t want to think about things not being the way they used to be.

Ree knew right away what was wrong, and she gave Anna a hug.  “That’s even worse!  What is it with dads?”

Mr. Davies pretended to think hard while he looked up into the sky.  “Baby pictures…  Baby pictures…  Marya, don’t we have some pictures of Ree using her training potty?”

“Oh God no!” Ree squeaked.

But Mrs. Davies pretended to ignore her and said, “Hmm…  I think so.  Maybe the ones where she got out of the tub dripping wet and used her ‘special potty’.”

“Mom!  You don’t have pictures of that!” Ree choked.

Meg said, “No, they don’t.  When I helped mom sort all our old pictures and stuff for her scrapbooks, I made her throw away all the pictures like that.  I can’t believe they even took some of those pictures!”

Mrs. Davies smiled naughtily at Meg.  “But I kept the picture of you covered head to toe in mud in your nice dress.”

Meg insisted, “I swear!  Billy Edwards pushed me in!  It wasn’t my fault!”

Mr. Davies said, “Okay Ree, I’m guessing these three humongous suitcases and this laundry bag of stinky stuff are all your stuff?  And this nice, well-packed backpack is Anna’s?”

Anna said, “I can get ‘em.”

Mr. Davies started to object, but Ree put a hand on his arm and he stopped to look at her.  Ree quietly said, “Anna’s stronger than she looks.”

Mr. Davies raised his eyebrows and asked, “How much stronger?”

Anna ducked her head and said, “I’m one of the campus jokes, Mr. Davies.  I’m not that strong.”

Ree said to her dad, “She can sling you over her shoulder and climb up a tree.”

Anna blushed some and said, “I can pick up the suitcases easy.  But I’m not anywhere as strong as a lot of people around here.”

Ree said to her folks, “Anna’s maybe as strong as the strongest woman in the Olympics.”

Anna said, “That’s baseline strong.  But we have classes with kids who can bench press an SUV and take an anti-tank rocket off their face.  Around here, I’m nothing.  They tease me and call me ‘squirrel girl’ and stuff.”

Mr. Davies said, “Okay, but don’t ask me to arm wrestle.  Okay?”  He grinned to show he was teasing.

Anna picked up Ree’s two suitcases and said, “How about I put these wherever you want, and we don’t worry about it?”

Mr. Davies smiled and grabbed Anna’s suitcase.  Then he showed her where to shove the suitcases and stuff inside.  It was really pretty nice.  Anna could tell by the closed door on the little closet-like part that it was the bathroom of the RV, and the kitchenette was next to the side door.  Behind that was a place to sit at a table to eat, which looked like it converted into bunk beds, with the upper bed folding down from the wall.  In front of the kitchenette and bathroom was a row of three fold-down seats, with one of them set up to sit in.  Ree’s mom pulled the other two up into chairs, while Anna and Ree’s dad stuffed the luggage under the table, and Meg adjusted the driver’s seat for herself.

“Honey?  You sure you want to do the next stretch?” Ree’s mom checked.

Meg nodded.  “Sure.  Besides, I’m the one with the restricted license, y’know.”

“Right,” Ree’s mom nodded.

“Restricted license?” Anna whispered to Ree.

Ree said, “Yeah.  Meg’s seventeen.  New York has graduated licenses.  She can’t drive this at night, but at least she can drive with people other than parents in the car with her.  When I get my license, I’ll be stuck with that restriction for months.”

Meg said, “All aboard!  Let’s get as far as we can before we have to turn the car over to the old blind people.”

Mr. Davies squinted his eyes and turned his head back and forth like he didn’t know where she was.  “I heard that!  As soon as I figure out where you are, you’re in for it!”

Anna and Ree took two of the back seats, along with Ree’s mom.  Mr. Davies took the shotgun seat and tilted it back.  Then he handed a couple maps back to Mrs. Davies.  “Here ya go, honey.  I’m gonna take a nap while Evel Knievel drives.”

Meg just did a Rain Man imitation.  “I’m a very good driver.”

Mr. Davies slapped his hands to his face like “Home Alone” and let out a fake “Aauugh!” noise while Ree giggled and Mrs. Davies pretended she wasn’t snickering.

Anna whispered to Ree, “Your family’s really funny.”

Ree grinned and whispered back, “Let’s see how you feel about that once they find a bunch of stuff to tease you about.”

Anna thought she was probably looking forward to that.  She turned to her other side and said, “Thanks so much for letting me come for Christmas, Mrs. D-”

“Uhh!” said Mrs. Davies.

“-I mean Marya.”

Mrs. Davies smiled gently, “You’re welcome, Anna.  Ree said you couldn’t join your own family this year, and I can’t imagine how awful that would be.  I’m guessing you wouldn’t be the only student who had to stay here for Christmas?”

Anna sighed, “No ma’am.  There must be dozens of kids who have to stay here.  Some of ‘em can’t even leave their rooms without special stuff.”

“Like wheelchairs?” Meg asked.

“Worse,” Anna said.

“A couple of ‘em,” Ree said.  “But Juryrig’s going home for Christmas.  She said Kludge might not be.”

“Juryrig?  Kludge?  Are these superheroes?” Mrs. Davies - Marya - wondered out loud.

Ree sighed, “Mom, I explained this already.  We all have codenames, no matter what.  Even me.  And for lots of stuff, we use our codenames instead of our names.  We just get into the habit.  Some kids, like Greta, use their codenames all the time instead of their real name.”

“Or Stormwolf,” Anna said.  “His real name is Adam Ironknife, and he’s gonna be a superhero.  No doubt about it.”

“So what’s your codename?” asked Meg.  “Sergeant Sparkles?”

“Kamuro,” Ree said.

“Ka-whatzit?” Mrs. Davies tried.

“Ka-mu-ro,” Ree said patiently.  “It’s a kind of fancy Japanese firework.”

“What?  Is there a Codename Consultant at your school?” asked Meg.

Ree and Anna grinned at each other.  Anna said, “My codename is Aquerna.  It’s Middle English for ‘squirrel’.”

Mrs. Davies just stared.  “Squirrel?”

Anna asked, “Did Ree or Mrs. Carson or somebody ever tell you about mutant powers?"

Mrs. Davies nodded, “That nice Mrs. Carson told us all about Rhiannon being an Energizer, and she gave us some pamphlets about mutants and powers and all…”

Anna asked, “Did you learn about Avatars?”

Meg asked, “Like the cartoon?”

Anna said, “No.  It’s a power…”  So Anna explained to them about Avatars and her spirit, and how she was sort of a joke because other people had really powerful spirits.

Ree said, “At least you’re not like Hoarder.”  She turned to her mom and said, “Tira’s from Syria.  She’s in my dorm because she looks like she’s only half-human.  She’s got the spirit of the hamster, which means people make fun of her about that, but it made her look kind of hamster-ish.  She’s got really short fur all over her, and really big front teeth, and cheek pouches that bulge out to the sides.  She’s not happy about it.”

Mrs. Davies paused for a moment and said, “I can see why.  So being an Avatar has downsides too, right?”

Anna nodded and explained about Avatars who had problems, and kids who couldn’t go home because they were in Hawthorne and weren’t safe, and kids who couldn’t go home because they had horrid GSD, and kids who just couldn’t go home because of people who hated mutants.

Everything was going great, until Phase’s name came up, and Ree told her mom that Phase sent Anna a super-expensive box of chocolates because of that combat final.

Combat final?” Mrs. Davies gasped.  It looked like a vein was starting to pulse next to Mrs. Davies’ right eye.

“Umm, Ree, maybe you should’ve saved that part for later,” Anna said with a wince.

Meg asked, “You guys have combat finals?  At a super-mutant school?  So you like fight Dr. Diabolik or something?”

“Sort of,” admitted Ree, who was having a hard time meeting her mom’s eyes.  Anna figured Ree had sort of forgotten to tell her family about this part of Whateley.  Ree started explaining how Whateley did combat finals at the end of every fall and spring term, and how the rules changed every time, but Mrs. Davies didn’t calm down.  That vein just pulsed a little harder.

Finally, Mrs. Davies sort of glared as she asked, “And who did you face?”

Ree hadn’t had a real dangerous combat final, so she got out of that one without her mom’s vein exploding right out of her head.  But then she just had to start telling her mom and Meg about Anna’s final against Buster, and Mrs. Davies’ vein went right back to pulsing.  And when Ree told how the squirrels chewed Buster’s clothes and hair off and bit him all over, Mrs. Davies’ vein looked like it was gonna explode.

“Wasn’t he hurt?” Mrs. Davies asked.

Anna said, “Some.  He had a bunch of bites all over, but he’s an Exemplar and he heals up faster than normal, so he was fine in a day or two.  But yeah, I wouldn’t have done it if he wasn’t trying to hurt me real bad just to be a jerk.  I mean, all he had to do to win was ignore me and go sit at the computer and type in his answers.  But he had to track me down and hurt me, just to be mean.”

“These finals sound really dangerous,” fumed Mrs. Davies.  Anna peeked at that vein again.  She wasn’t calming down.

Ree said, “Look mom, some of ‘em are.  But the really dangerous ones have kids who can handle it.  Like Tennyo.  Or Lancer and Eldritch and Hippolyta.  And the whole point is so we’re ready to survive when we graduate, because there are kids who got out of Whateley and got killed because they didn’t know how to defend themselves or how to get away from attackers.”

“I still don’t like the sound of it,” muttered Mrs. Davies, who was only a little less worried.

“It sounds like the coolest thing ever,” said Meg.

“MEGAN!” snapped Mrs. Davies unhappily.  Uh-oh, there went that vein again.

Meg asked, “Ree, did you get hurt?”

“No,” Rhiannon said.  “But some other kids did.”

Anna said, “Mrs. Davies?”

“Marya.”

“Sorry.  Marya?  People get hurt in schools every day.  Accidents, bullies, crazy people…  Well, at Whateley, the scale is just… bigger.  Back earlier in the term, some freshmen were mad at one of the Alphas - the school big shots, who are mostly juniors and seniors, and really powerful - and it turned into a fight.  At normal schools, you get some punching and kicking and stuff.  At bad schools, someone pulls a knife, or someone tries to smuggle in a gun.  At Whateley, we had an Energizer who can fly and hurl lightning bolts attacking a mage who can change gravity and make force fields like that.”  She snapped her fingers to make her point.  “And that was just one of the things going on.  It looked like one of those huge battles like in ‘X-Men’, only real.  Everyone came running to watch it, like it was a big show.”

Ree said, “And stuff like that happens plenty of times.  And then there’s sparring in aikido class.  The teachers want us to learn how to use our powers together with martial arts.  One day the teacher brought in Lancer to spar with Phase, who’s in our class.  Okay, Lancer is like Superboy without the heat vision and super-breath.  Phase says Lancer can lift five tons with his pinkie finger.  Phase is the girl who came up with our codenames.  She’s five foot nothing, but she can change her density so she’s either so light she can walk through walls, or so heavy she’s harder than diamond, and when she’s heavy she can lift a couple tons.  AND she wears a real Batman-style utility belt full of weapons.  Watching them fight was like… like… like watching Champion fight The Green Ghost or something.  It was awesome.  That’s what Whateley is.”

Anna didn’t say anything about Ree’s choice of subject, but that vein was not going down.

Mrs. Davies frowned, “Honey, we only sent you there because you couldn’t control your spark power, and we were afraid Humanity First! or someone would come after you and all you could do was those sparks, and you wouldn’t be able to defend yourself, and…  But now you’ve got control, right?”  Ree nodded.  “So maybe it would be safer if you transferred back home?  You could go to high school with Meggie, and everything would be like it was…”

Ree stared down at the floor.  “Mom, I miss you guys, but I don’t wanna leave Whateley.  Sure, there are times we get picked on.  But that would happen anywhere.  And what would happen if someone picked on my friends now?  I know stuff.  I know enough aikido to take someone down, unless they know more martial arts than me.  And if they do, I learned how to use my sparks to defend myself, and that would out me.  Plus, Whateley has the coolest curriculum in the world!  They’ve got advanced courses way past what normal schools can offer.  Heck, there’s a guy who’s a high schooler and he’s working on a Ph. D. already!  And this Winter Term, you know what Anna and I are taking?  ‘Theory and Practice of the Escape’.  Anna, tell her what else you’re taking.”

Anna said, “Well, I’m thinking about taking a special topics course in martial arts.  It’s on classical martial arts weaponry.”

“What the things are?” Meg wondered.

“No.  How to fight with ‘em, and how to defend against ‘em.  There are kids at school who are like a sword master.  Phase?  Her roommate Bladedancer has an ancient Chinese sword that’s magic or something, and she’s pretty much Super Sword Girl.”

“Whoa.  That sounds dangerous.”

Anna nodded a little, and then remembered Meg couldn’t see her.  “Yeah.  It could be.  It could also be the coolest thing ever.  And sensei Ito invited me to take it.  So he doesn’t think I’m in over my head.”

Ree said, “See mom?  There’s stuff I can learn at Whateley that I’ll never be able to learn anywhere else in the world.  I want to stay there.”

Mrs. Davies just sighed and nodded.  But not happily.  Anna checked, and that vein hadn’t gone away, but it was better.

“So tell me some more about these combat finals!” Meg said.

“Okay, there’s this girl named Chaka…”

 

Meg drove all the way from Whateley Academy down toward Berlin, and onward.  Anna spotted the signs saying they were driving down NH-110, but she didn’t know the area anyway, so lots of times she just didn’t know what road they were on.  She could pretty much always tell what direction they were going.

They stopped around dusk to get gas and let everyone make a potty stop.  Which was when Meg had to stop driving, anyway.  But she’d been driving for hours, and Mr. Davies had slept most of the time, so he said he was ready to do a whole bunch of night-time driving.  Anna was glad for the stop, because she’d been holding her bladder for a while, and she didn’t want to ask if she could use the RV’s toilet.  It probably wasn’t a good idea when the RV was moving, anyway, and she didn’t want to be the one who made everybody stop.

After Anna came out of the bathroom - which wasn’t the worst gas station bathroom she’d ever seen, but it was still awfully stinky, and she’d decided not to sit on the toilet seat but do the squat-thing a couple inches above it – she saw Mr. Davies paying the clerk for the gasoline.  She skittered on over to him.  “Hi Mr. Davies.”

“Weren’t you going to call me John?” he smiled.

“Umm, yeah, I’m still workin’ on that.  But I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ again, this is so nice of you guys,” she finished.

He grinned, “Anna, you don’t have to keep thanking us.  You said ‘thank you’ back at the school.  That’s good enough.  We’re happy to have one of Rhiannon’s friends.”

Mrs. Davies came up and teased, “She’s not thanking you again, is she?”  Anna blushed a bright red.

“Yup, she sure is,” Mr. Davies rubbed it in.

Mrs. Davies said, “She thanked me about three times while you were asleep, too.”  Anna blushed some more.

Mr. Davies gently said, “It’s okay, Anna.  Just relax, call us John and Marya, and have a nice time.”

Mrs. Davies put a gentle hand on Anna’s shoulder and said, “Ree sort of… explained about your family.  So we’re glad to have you at our house.”

Anna was really embarrassed when she had to stop talking and try really hard not to start crying.  It wasn’t fair.  She was really missing her family, and they didn’t even want her to be in the same state.  But she didn’t want to cry about it in front of Ree’s family.

Mrs. Davies softly said, “It’s okay, Anna.”

Anna nodded, and managed to croak, “Yes ma’am.”  She was going to thank them again, but she couldn’t manage to make her throat work.

She trotted on back to the RV to meet up with Ree.  Still, she overheard Mrs. Davies whisper to her husband, “Poor little thing.  How could her own family do such a thing?”

Anna tried not to sob out loud.  Stupid super-hearing.

She got in the RV and buckled herself into her seat.  Ree said, “Is something wrong?”

Anna just shook her head no.  She was afraid if she tried to tell Ree how lucky she was to have such great parents, she’d burst into tears and not be able to stop crying.  She knew she wasn’t welcome at her own family’s Christmas get-together, and she sure didn’t have enough money to try getting to grandma’s house on her own, even if grandma would’ve let Anna in now that she knew Anna was a mutant.  Even if Anna used to be her favorite grandchild.  Not anymore, though.

But Ree had a pretty good idea that Anna was upset, and why.  She leaned over and gave Anna a hug and said, “It’s not fair.  But you’ll have a great time at our house, and they can… they can stick it up their jumper.”

Anna half-sobbed and half-giggled.  “You got that from Harry Potter, didn’t you?”

“Maybe…”

“You’re a really good friend, you know that?” Anna whispered.

Ree said, “You’ve been a great friend to me, so you deserve it.”  And they hugged each other until everyone else got back in the RV.

Mrs. Davies took one look at Anna and then said really cheerfully, “Is everybody ready for some dinner?  I’ve got roast beef sandwiches in the fridge!”  She turned to Anna and checked, “Do you eat roast beef?”

Anna nodded, “Oh sure.  I eat everything.”

Mrs. Davies said, “Okay, I just figured with that ‘squirrel spirit’ thing…”

Anna smiled a little.  “Squirrels eat meat too.  I love roast beef.”

Ree asked hopefully, “Are these the ones with the special dressing?”

“Well, now that you mention it…” her mom teased her.

“Ooh!  I love them!” Ree said.  She turned to Anna and said, “Mom makes this special sauce that’s really good cold, so you can eat ‘em right out of the fridge, and…  Ooh, I’ve sure missed them.”

Meg said, “I think mom’s missed you, because she’s been planning to fix all your favorites.”  She stuck out her lower lip and pouted, “Mom always liked you best.”

Ree laughed, and did the same voice.  “No, mom always liked you best.”

Everyone except Anna laughed, so Mr. Davies explained, “It’s an old Smothers Brothers routine.”

Meg gasped in horror, “And he made us watch it!  Run for your life before he makes you watch it too!”

Ree began singing, “As I walked out on the streets of Laredo…”  And Anna watched as the whole family joined in.

“…As I walked out on Laredo one day,

I spied a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen,

Wrapped in white linen, and cold as the clay…

I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy,

I see by your outfit you are a cowboy too,

We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys,

If you get an outfit you can be a cowboy too!

Anna couldn’t help laughing along with everyone else.  She sat there and laughed as Mr. Davies drove, and Ree and her family did one silly Smothers Brothers routine after another.  They even taught Anna the words to “I Fell in a Vat of Chocolate” so she could sing with them.

When they got onto I-91 and they ran out of Smothers Brothers routines to do for Anna, Meg said, “Oh!  Ree, you have to tell dad about the combat finals!”

“The what-y whatzits?” Mr. Davies asked.  At least he didn’t sound like he was gonna explode or anything.

So Ree started talking about school, and the combat finals, and how amazingly cool some of the kids were.  Anna pulled out her knitting bag while Ree started talking about the kids in Team Kimba and Outcast Corner, and how they got extra-special, extra-hard combat finals, and how amazingly cool those matches were.

Ever since Ree told her she could come home for Xmas with her, Anna had been knitting scarves for Ree’s parents and big sister.  She still had a long way to go, but she figured she’d be done before Christmas.  She had Ree’s already done and wrapped up, and she was making a similar one for Meg.  Then she’d start on one like that for Mrs. Davies.  She was nearly done with the knitting part on Meg’s, which was going to be the same style but in different colors.  Anna found this really cool pattern for this a scarf that was easy to turn into a scarf-plus-headcover.  And all you had to do was knit a long rectangle of scarf, then sew the ends together.  But you put a twist in, so it wasn’t a cylinder when you were done, but instead it was a mobius strip thing which let you put it around your neck and give it a little twist and so it was also a scarf over your head.  And it looked gorgeous in the pictures that came with the pattern.  Ree’s was blue and green, which were Ree’s favorite colors.  And Ree told Anna what her mom and sister’s favorite colors were too, and Anna had yarn in the right colors, so she was good.  The trick was that if you had big needles, and a heavy weight yarn, you could knit a huge long stretch of material pretty quick.  Which was why she was probably going to finish knitting on Meg’s scarf and get a long ways on Mrs. Davies’ scarf before they got to Ree’s house.  The hard one was the scarf for Mr. Davies, because guys didn’t go for the soft, snuggly knits.  So she had a straight, narrower pattern that was just a plain scarf with some tassels at each end, and it was all one color, on much smaller needles.  That was good and bad.  With only one color and no fancy stitching, she could knit a lot faster.  But with smaller needles and a finer yarn, it would take a lot more stitches to make a square foot of fabric.  But she already had the yarn set on the needles and maybe a foot of the scarf knitted, with the tassels already tied on the starting end.

Anna chipped in a few times about some of the really awesome combat finals, like Tennyo’s, which was just plain terrifying.  Or Jimmy T’s, which Anna still didn’t think she wanted to see.  And then Anna couldn’t stop blushing while Ree told about her combat final against Buster.

The Davies lived in Binghamton, New York.  They said it was just easier to drive up and get Ree.  The whole trip took like 8 or 9 hours each way, but they had three drivers so everyone could switch off whenever they got tired, and Meg was still at the ‘I got a license so I just wanna drive forever’ stage and she drove most of the day, right up until they had to stop near Berlin for some special anti-surveillance stuff.  Meg thought that was the coolest thing ever.  “My little sister’s school has stuff to catch international spies!  Wicked!”  Anna figured it would have taken more than nine hours just to get a shuttle to the Berlin airport, wait there for a couple hours, catch a flight into somewhere like New York City, wait there for a connecting flight, then take the flight to near Binghamton, then get picked up and driven to Ree’s house.

Anna could tell what direction they were driving, but she couldn’t keep track of all the different roads they took.  Especially after she fell asleep.  When Ree’s dad got tired, he pulled over for a second and Ree’s mom took over for a couple hours while Mr. Davies napped in the shotgun seat.  So everybody was safe for driving, and they pulled into Ree’s driveway around about midnight.

Anna just sort of gaped as she looked out the window.  She was used to living in the rented half of a duplex.  Ree’s house was a great big two-story house with an attached garage, and on the other side of the garage was a big RV shelter.  Mr. Davies waited until they got all their stuff out of the RV before he squeezed the RV into the shelter.  He left himself enough room to get out on his side of the RV, but not enough to open the doors on the right-hand side of the thing.

Mrs. Davies said, “Let’s get you two settled, and we’ll all get to bed.  Ree can give you the big tour tomorrow, okay?”  Anna nodded yes.  Mrs. Davies turned to Ree.  “Is Anna going to take the guest room?”

Anna piped up, “I don’t need to.  I brought a sleeping bag.”

“Honey, we’re not gonna make you sleep in a sleeping bag the whole vacation!” Mrs. Davies insisted.  “We have a perfectly good queen-sized bed in the guest room.  Or you can sleep on the full-sized rollout in Ree’s room.  You two decide.”

Anna looked at Ree and said, “Whatever you want.  It’s your house.”

Ree asked, “Would you like the guest room?”

Anna shrugged.  “I’d rather take that roll-out.  It sounds more fun.”

Mrs. Davies smiled, “Okay, but I don’t want you two staying up all night chatting.”  But she said it with a big smile, like she expected them to do it and she didn’t really mind that much.

Anna carried in the two big suitcases and let Ree get her sleeping bag and knitting bag.  Meg and Mrs. Davies got the rest, while Mr. Davies got the other stuff they’d already taken out of the RV.

There was a scrambling of paws, and a big black labrador retriever came running down the stairs.  Ree squealed, “Peanut!” and dropped the bags to give the dog a huge hug.  Peanut licked her face and did everything except jump on her.

Ree patted the big furry head and pointed, “Peanut, this is my friend Anna.  Be nice.”

Anna smiled, “Hi there, Peanut.”  But Peanut didn’t know what to make of her.  He sniffed at her, and jumped back and forth, and finally made a big ‘woof’ noise and stared at her like he wanted to chase her.

“Peanut!” snapped Ree.

“I’m sorry, Anna,” said Mrs. Davies.  “Peanut never does that to guests.”

Meg said, “Just the Jessups’ cats.”

Anna ducked her head, “Oh.  It’s probably just me.  You know, the squirrel thing.  Peanut probably thinks I’m just a giant squirrel.”

Meg said, “Well, he’ll get over it, or he’ll spend all Christmas outside.”

Mrs. Davies said, “Meg, take him out and let him do his business, then just keep him in your room tonight.”

Mr. Davies came in with the last stuff, and said, “Okay, everybody hit the hay.  We’ve got a ton of stuff to do tomorrow, like putting up the lights.”

Ree squealed, “You waited to put up lights?  For me?”

Meg said, “Well, we did about half already.  The bushes out front, and the lights over the garage doors and around the front windows.  But we haven’t done the roof yet.”

Anna grinned, “Ooh!  I can help with that.  I’m really good with heights and stuff.”

Ree said, “And if you got anything to go up in the big fir tree, Anna is SO good at that kind of stuff!”

Mr. Davies thought for a second and said, “Well, we do have that big star we used to put on top of the short fir, back before its top got broken.  But it’s probably thirty pounds, and that big fir must be fifty feet high.”

Anna grinned, “Easy peasy.”

Ree said, “Squirrel powers.  Remember?”

Mr. Davies said, “I was thinking about skipping the rooftop decorations this year, but maybe we’ll see how they go tomorrow.  Okay?”

“Okay!” Ree said happily.

Ree led Anna through the house.  They went up a flight of stairs in the middle of the house, and came out in the middle of a long hallway.  Ree pointed off to the left and said, “Mom and dad’s bedroom’s that way.”  She pointed the other way and said, “Meg and I have the rooms down there, and this is a rec room across the hall, and that’s the bathroom for us.  Mom and dad have their own bathroom.”

Anna just nodded.  She was from a one-bathroom duplex so she had to share with her parents all the time, and no teenaged girl on earth wanted to share her bathroom with her mom and dad.  Especially her dad, who left gross hairs in the shower, and razor stubble in the sink, and stuff like that.  And now she was living in a dorm where everyone on the floor shared one huge shower room.  This was like… like staying in a nice hotel or something.  She said, “That sounds great, Ree.”

Ree’s room was huge.  It was a lot bigger than the dorm rooms in Dickinson, and those were set up for two people.  So it was easy to roll out the ‘rollout’ from under Ree’s bed and lift it up into a normal height bed.  They set it up about five feet from Ree’s bed so they could talk, and Ree got some sheets and a couple blankets from a hall closet.  Anna washed up and brushed her teeth, and slipped into a nightie.  She wanted to talk with Ree and tell her how great this was to have her stay for a couple weeks, but Ree made this huge yawn, and the next thing Anna knew, she was yawning too, and she fell asleep before she could even thank Ree again.

 

Saturday, December 23
The Davies house
Binghamton, New York

Anna woke up with a huge yawn when she heard Ree’s door slam.

“Oh shit!” Ree whispered.  “I’m really sorry!  I was gonna let you sleep a little longer.  Mom doesn’t have the waffles ready yet.”

“Waffles?”  Anna sat up and sniffed a couple times.  She could smell toasty breakfast goodness wafting up the stairs.  “They smell great!”  She sniffed again.  “Ooh!  That coffee smells good too.”

Ree grinned, “Yeah, I kinda figured you’d smell it when it was ready.”

Ree was in her bathrobe, and her hair was up in a towel, so Anna figured Ree had already showered and everything.  Anna asked, “Do I have time to shower too?”

Ree nodded, “Oh sure.  There’s already soap and shampoo in the shower, and you can use my hair dryer.  Meg’s sorta fussy about hers.  Not that it’s anything fancy, but dad borrowed it one time to get some glue or epoxy or something to dry extra fast, and he managed to ruin it, so she has a new one and she doesn’t let anyone use it.  But dad’ll ask now and then just to gig her.  Oh, and the blue towel and blue washcloth are for you.”

Anna grabbed her bathrobe and her shower bag, and hurried off to clean up.

She almost stopped just to admire the bathroom.  It was a galley bathroom, with a long formica counter on one side that had two sinks and a long mirror that was wider than both sink areas.  Past that was a toilet with a tile half-wall giving it some privacy from the rest of the bathroom.  On the other side of the room was a big medicine cabinet over a big dirty clothes bin, then a big closet full of towels and all, and then a tile shower-bathtub with glass doors.  On the back wall between the bath and the toilet was a big towel rack with three bars, so there was enough room for maybe six towels.

Anna hopped in the bathtub and hurried through a nice hot shower with nobody yelling at her to get out so someone else could shower.  Then she dried off and did her hair really quick so she wouldn’t miss out on those waffles.

Ree was dressed and waiting for Anna when she got back in the room.  Ree said, “I figured you’d wanna know where the kitchen was, and all that.”

Anna figured she could’ve found it just by following her nose.  She said, “Thanks.  It’s a big house.”

Ree shrugged, “Most of the houses right around here are nearly this big, or bigger.”

Anna said, “I wouldn’t know.”  She’d told Ree about her duplex before, so Ree knew Anna lived in a way smaller house in a not-as-nice part of her town.

“Come on,” Ree said, just ignoring the part about their houses.  “I bet mom’s got some real maple syrup warmed up for the waffles.”

Anna had only had stuff like Mrs. Butterworth’s before, so she didn’t know if she’d like real maple syrup, but she figured it had to be good if everyone else was making fake maple syrup.  But the waffles smelled great, so she figured she could eat ‘em with no syrup at all if she didn’t like their syrup.  And if not liking their syrup was the worst thing that happened, it would be a pretty great Christmas season.

Ree led her back down the hall past the bathroom and a big rec room, down the stairs, through the big entryway, down a short hall that had doors off to the sides that looked like a den and a fancy dining room, and into the kitchen.  Anna could see another door on the other side of the kitchen.

Ree saw where she was looking and said, “Yeah, there’s a laundry room and pantry area back there, and past that is the guest room.  It’s behind the garage.”

“Wow,” said Anna.  “You have a cool house.”

Meg was already eating a waffle with what looked like red jelly smeared over it.  There was an open jar of cherry jelly by her plate.  She said, “It’s not so great when we have to clean all of it.”

Ree looked at Meg’s plate and said, “Cherry jelly?  You are so gross.”  She turned to Anna and said, “She always does this.”

Meg looked at Anna and said, “At least I don’t put sliced hot dogs in my chili, like some really weird people.”

Ree complained, “Hey!  It’s not weird!”

Mrs. Davies put a plate in front of Anna.  It had a big square waffle that took up most of the plate.  She said, “Don’t worry, they’re both weird eaters.  They just have equal weirdness.”

“Mom!” two voices squawked.

Mrs. Davies checked, “Are waffles okay, Anna?  Most mornings we just have cold cereal.”

“Umm, sure, Mrs. Davies, waffles are great.  And cereal.  I eat pretty much everything.”

“You said you’d call me Marya.”

“Umm, I forgot… Marya.”

Mrs. Davies checked, “We have Honey Nut Goodios, and Special K, and at least one kind of granola cereal.”

Meg said, “Mom!  Most of those are Goodkind Mills cereals!  Ree and Anna aren’t going to want to eat Goodkind International products!  Those guys all hate mutants!”

Anna shrugged, “I’m fine with any of those.  And we know a Goodkind.”

Mrs. Davies just froze.  “You know a Goodkind?  A real, live Goodkind, not someone with the same name?”

Ree said, “Umm, yeah.  Sure.  Phase.  We told you about her.  She’s in our aikido class, and she’s really nice.  She’s the one who bought Anna that fancy box of chocolates.”

Meg said, “Wow.  You go to school with a real Goodkind.  Is that like one of the New York Goodkinds?”

Anna nodded yes.  Ree added, “Loophole says Phase is really a Goodkind and one of the really rich ones, but maybe not really rich anymore, ‘cause her family threw her out when she turned into a mutant.”

Anna said, “And there’s a Walcutt in my dorm.  She’s not so nice.  She’s a big snob, and really bossy.”

Ree said to her, “Tell ‘em about Charmer.”

“Oh, right,” Anna said.  “Vera’s on my floor.  She’s from Monaco, and she got a Christmas card from the royal family, and after she graduates from Whateley she’s supposed to become the mage for the royal court of Monaco.”

“Wow.”

Ree said “There’s enough rich kids at Whateley that they have their own club.  They’re called the Golden Kids.  I don’t what the official name is.  Traduce was running their monthly meeting one time last term, and she was offering fifty bucks an hour just to serve appetizers, so I did it.  That’s how I got enough money for your Christmas presents.”

“Traduce?” wondered Mrs. Davies.  “Someone has the codename ‘Traduce’?”

“Yeah,” Ree sighed.  “She’s a real crab too.  Everyone says she deserves the name.  The story is back when she was a freshman, one of the upperclass girls was so pissed off at her for being such a B-I-T-C-H, that she told her ‘Traduce’ was a good codename for her.  And it really is.  It means other stuff too, like being able to do mind-stuff on other people, which she can do some, and it means being able to translate languages, which she can do some too because she’s an Esper.  But she hasn’t been able to get her codename changed, because every time she’s tried to do it, she got into a big argument with someone in Admin and ended up not getting it changed.  She’s really not easy to live with.  Everyone says she’s hired and fired like five personal assistants just since she got started at Whateley, and the rumor is her mother’s even worse.”

Mrs. Davies just shook her head, “When we sent you to Whateley, we didn’t figure you’d be coming home with dirt on famous people.”

Meg said, “But it’s really cool.  So… about Phase?”

“Yeah,” Ree nodded.  “And she’s way nicer than you’d think.  Even if she does all the rich-girl stuff.  She pays someone to do her laundry and stock her private fridge and freezer and pantry, and clean, and all that stuff.”

Mrs. Davies asked, “And how would you know that?”

Anna said, “Molly is BFF’s with Bladedancer, who rooms with Phase.  And so she knows just what the room is like.  And Phase even got special stuff for Bladedancer because she’s Chinese or something, and she told Molly she would order special stuff for her too, if she wanted.”

Mrs. Davies said, “So she has some poor girl slaving away for her?”

Anna shook her head no.  “Molly says Phase has this thing about that.  She says you can’t have a good working relationship if you don’t have loyalty going both ways.  So she pays Plastic Girl – that’s who’s doing the stuff for her – like four or five times minimum wage, and she makes sure some of the stuff on the list for the fridge is stuff Plastic Girl likes, and stuff like that.”

Meg said, “Five times minimum wage?  Whew.  I’d go shopping and do laundry for somebody for that much money.”

Mrs. Davies thought for a minute and muttered, “Good Lord, five times minimum wage?  That’s nearly forty-five dollars an hour!  That’s almost what your father makes!”

Anna said, “Well, Phase is supposed to be super-rich.  I told you she’s got one of these superhero utility belts?  It’s a super-expensive deviser thing that’s bigger on the inside than the outside.  Steve – Mechano Man – he’s in our aikido class too, and he knows all about gadgets and devises.  He figures that her belt cost her ten thousand bucks, and the stuff she has hidden in it is maybe another thirty thousand on top of that.  And she wears it to class and stuff.”

Ree said, “Plus, sometimes in the cafeteria, the chefs have special food for her, so she must be payin’ them a lot for that.”

Anna said, “And the food in the cafeteria is really good, so it isn’t like she has to get special food.”

Meg said, “A cafeteria with really good food?  I’d switch schools for that.  Our school has pizza and burgers and a salad bar and stuff, but it’s really lame.  I’d die if I had to eat there three meals a day, every day.”

Anna said, “I like it.”

Ree said, “Except when they serve chili.”

Anna groaned.  “Oh yeah.  There’s that.”

Meg asked, “What about the chili?”

Ree snickered, “Nate.  His codename is Miasma.  He’s an Avatar too, and the spirit he picked up gives him…”  She peeked over at her mom.  “…super-powerful farts.  He can burn a hole through a couch.  And when he eats a bunch of the chili, he gets… really gassy.  Some days we have to make him go eat under the big vent fans, over with Killstench.”

Mrs. Davies gasped, “You have a classmate named Killstench?”  Anna was afraid for a second that the vein in Mrs. Davies’ forehead would start pulsing again.

Anna said, “Umm, he’s a little older than us.  But they said sometimes he gives off this stuff like tear gas.  Or something.  And he’s not a nice guy either.”

Meg said, “You know, the more you tell me about Whateley, the weirder it sounds.”

Ree said, “Then lemme tell you about Jobe.  One of the guys at school is Jobe Wilkins, the Crown Prince of Karedonia.  His dad is Gizmatic.”

Anna said, “He’s really, really smart, but he’s like the biggest jerk in the world.  He thinks everyone else is a moron – maybe compared to him most people are – and he’s really rude about it.”

Ree said, “And Doctor Diabolik’s kids go to Whateley too.  She-Beast and Techno-Devil.”

Meg whispered, “Wow.”  Mrs. Davies just slowly shook her head.

“And the next Champion is at Whateley, and guys like Stormwolf, and there’s a club called the Future Superheroes of America but there’s kids in it from all over the world,” added Ree.

Anna said, “And there’s people like Fey.  She’s like the most beautiful girl in the world, and she’s a freshman like us, and she’s part-Faerie, and she’s like the most powerful Wizard anywhere.”

Ree said, “Yeah.  And pretty much any power you ever heard of?  There’s some of ‘em at Whateley right now.

Meg asked, “What about people who can change their shape and look like anything?”

“Jimmy T!” Ree and Anna said together.  Anna added, “He came to the Halloween party as Elizabeth Hurley from that movie where she played the devil.”

Ree said, “Yeah, he’s the one I was telling you about who did the shapeshifting thing in his combat final.”

“Wow.”

The back door opened, and Mr. Davies came in, followed by Peanut.  The dog ran around the kitchen table twice, sniffing at Anna each time, and finally settling down behind Meg, on the opposite side of the table.

Anna said, “Poor puppy.  You’re all confused about me, aren’t you?”

Peanut made a part-whine part-bark noise and turned his head sideways.

Anna said, “Mrs. Da-”  She got a look.  “-umm, Marya, how about I help with the dishes?”

Meg said, “I’ll get ‘em.  I want to see what you can do with the outside lights.”

Mr. Davies said, “Yep, I got ‘em out of the garage along with the extension ladder, and we’re ready to go once you two get dressed for the outdoors.”

Anna said, “I just need my sturdy boots and my coat.”

Ree said, “Your coat’s in the coat closet, but your boots are up in my room.”

Ree gave Anna a quick tour of the house on their way to the bedroom.  “You already saw the laundry and pantry on the other side of the kitchen.  The guest room’s nothing special, even if it’s got its own little bathroom.  Here’s dad’s den and our dining room, which we never use except when we’ve got special company.  The big screen teevee’s in the den, but we’ve got another good one upstairs in the rec room.  On the other side of our foyer here we’ve got a living room.”  They went up the stairs, and Ree pointed out, “And here’s our rec room.  I guess it could’ve been another bedroom if mom and dad wanted.  But we’ve got a good teevee in here, so we can watch Christmas specials while dad’s watching football and stuff in the den.”

“What’s that?” Anna asked about a beige rectangle on the wall that was mostly speaker, with a couple black buttons on one side.

Ree said, “Oh.  That’s our intercom system.  There’s a speaker in every room, and the main speaker-part with the fancy controls is down in the kitchen.  It’s great when you want to call Meg to dinner and you don’t wanna hike all the way up to her room.  And it’s hooked up to the stereo system in the den.”

That was when Anna noticed the Christmas music she was hearing was actually coming out of the intercom speakers all over the house, and not from some radio or something somewhere else in the house that she might have just heard because her hearing was good.  She liked it.  It made everything feel cozy and Christmas-y.

After they got their boots on, they went downstairs for their coats, and then they trotted out the front door to see what Ree’s dad had for them.  Anna spotted the lights on the bushes in the front of the house.  They were those net things that you laid out over the top of the bush for an instant decoration.

Mr. Davies took them around to the side of the house, where he had a ladder that reached all the way up to the roof at the back corner.  He said, “You see those hooks along the edge of the roof here on the side, and the hooks just under the gutters in front?”

“Yes sir,” Anna said.

“Well, we usually string these lights,” he stopped and pointed at a big plastic roll that had lights rolled around it, “from the corner here, along the peak to the front corner, across the front of the house, and along the far side.  I’ve got this extension cord so we can plug it in at the corner up there, and we usually end up with about ten feet of extra lights that I hide in the gutter on the back side.  But it takes all day.  And that’s if we’re lucky and nothing goes wrong.  We set the ladder, get the lights on two or three hooks, move the ladder, and on and on.  Lather, rinse, repeat.”  He gave them a grin.

Anna said, “I think I can put ‘em up a bit faster than that.”

“How?” he asked.

“I’ll just walk the edge of the roof and kneel down and reach under the gutter and hang ‘em on the hooks without a ladder,” she told him.

“Anna!  You can’t!” he fussed.  “What if you slip and fall?”

She looked around to make sure they weren’t being overheard.  “I won’t fall.  I’m really good with heights.  And I can hang onto the bricks, if something happens.”

Ree said, “Go on, dad.  Give her a chance.”

Mr. Davies sighed, “Why do I think I’m going to regret this?”

“Because you’re an old poop?” Ree asked like he really wanted to hear an answer.

“You young whippersnappers…”

Ree and Anna giggled, and as soon as Ree turned her back, Mr. Davies hit her in the back with a snowball.

Anna took the roll of lights up the ladder and clambered onto the roof.  It looked really easy.  There was only a couple inches of snow on the roof, and it didn’t feel like there was any ice underneath it.  Maybe it would’ve looked scary before she got her squirrel spirit, but now it looked simple.  She took the extension cord that Mr. Davies had just hooked on the corner of the gutter and plugged in the end of the lights.  Then she just walked along the edge of the roof, unrolling the lights as she went.  It was pretty easy to just lean over the edge a little and wiggle the cord into the big metal hooks sticking out a good inch from the boards.  So it only took her a minute or so to get all the way to the front of the house.

“Now you be careful, Anna!” called up Mr. Davies.  Anna could tell that he was still pretty worried.  He and Ree were tromping through the snow, following Anna along as she worked her way around the house.

The front of the house was a little harder.  She had to kneel down at the edge of the roof and lean over a little to see the hooks under the gutter.  But it wasn’t hard.  She just kept her weight over the roof and reached under with one arm.  And she sort of had to crawl along the edge of the roof through the icy snow that was still up there, so her knees were getting pretty cold and wet.  But it didn’t take her more than five or ten minutes to do the whole front of the house.  Then the other side of the house was a snap.  She ended up with maybe fifteen feet of extra lights, which she just laid out in the gutter so they wouldn’t look weird or anything.  She took the empty roll and skittered across the roof to the ladder.  Then she scampered down the ladder as Mr. Davies and Ree came running across the back yard to meet her.

“Anna!” Mr. Davies winced.  “Don’t scare me like that!  Running across a snowy roof faster than I can run period?  You just about gave me a heart attack!”

“Sorry, Mr. Davies,” Anna said.

“Oh poo,” Ree said.  “Anna, you were great!  That usually takes a whole weekend for us.  You were up there maybe fifteen minutes, and you’re done!”

“John.  You’re supposed to call me John,” Mr. Davies finally remembered.

“Umm, sorry, John,” Anna said.  “But it really is easy for me.”

“Dad, if she took a running start, she could probably jump from our roof onto the Jessups’ roof,” Ree defended her friend.  “Walking around up there?  Not a problem.”

Mr. Davies just said, “Okay, I was going to say no on the big star, but that little performance convinced me.  We’ll run an extension cord out to the big fir, and let Anna climb up as far as she feels safe, and put the star up there.  But Anna?  Don’t go up too far, okay?”

She said, “Okay.  I can tell how far is too far, so it won’t be a problem.  Can we look at the tree first?”

Anna walked with Ree out to the street to see the front of the tree, while Mr. Davies dragged a ton of extension cord out to the base of the tree.

Anna walked back to the garage with Mr. Davies when he went to get the star.  It was a five-pointed star about three feet high, with lights all along its edges.  She said, “Do you have a pruning saw or a bow saw or something?  I think I’m gonna need to cut a couple limbs facing the street, so the star’ll show without a bunch of limbs blocking the view.”

“How about this?” Mr. Davies asked.  It was a folding handsaw that locked back for pruning and limb cutting, and when it was folded, she could shove it in her pants pocket.

“Ooh!  Perfect!” Anna said.

“And you know how to do this?” he checked.

“Oh sure!” she said.  “I use one like this but a lot bigger at school.  I’ve been taking lessons from the arborists.”  She dropped her voice to a whisper.  “And one of my powers is I can tell if a limb isn’t safe to climb on anymore.”

Mr. Davies moved the ladder over to the tree, so Anna could easily reach the first couple branches.  That made it super easy.  Anna slung the extension cord and star over one shoulder, and started climbing.  Once she got off the ladder and was hidden by the heavy branches, she started hopping from limb to limb, which was easier.  When she was about fifteen feet from the top of the trunk, she stopped.  She cut off one branch and left a six-inch stub that she set the star on before using the star’s straps to strap it around the tree trunk.  She made sure the electrical cord was all hooked up.  Then she trimmed off four more branches so there was a nice window in the greenery to show off the big star.  Then she clambered down and slid down the ladder to the ground.

Mr. Davies looked up, “What?  You’re done already?  I don’t even have all the electrical cords plugged into the junction box!”  He teased her, “You’re making me look bad.”

Ree gave her a high-five and said, “Awesome!  I can’t wait ‘til tonight so we can see how it looks.”

Anna and Ree tromped in through the back door, stomping the snow off their boots.  Mrs. Davies stuck her head out of the kitchen and asked, “What’s the matter?  Lighting not going to work out?”

Ree grinned, “Anna already got it all done.”

Mrs. Davies’ mouth dropped open.  “All of it?”

Ree nodded with a big smirk.  “Yep.  All of it.  Even the fir tree.”

Mrs. Davies said, “Okay, now I know you’re teasing me.”

Anna said, “No really, Mrs… umm, Marya.  It’s something I’m really good at.”

Meg came out of the kitchen holding a dishrag.  “Great!  Then you guys can help with cookie baking!”

“Sweet!” said Ree.

“Great,” agreed Anna.  She loved baking cookies at Christmas.  This was turning out to be so great!

Mrs. Davies asked, “So Anna, what’s your favorite kind of cookie?”

Ree said, “Mom makes the best fruitcake cookies in the world.  You’ll love ‘em.  They’re all fruits and nuts and stuff.”

Anna said, “I really like chocolate chip, and we always used to make thumbprint cookies for Christmas…”

Meg said, “Mmm, thumbprint cookies with jam in the centers!”

Ree said, “Or with those Hershey’s kisses.”

Meg added, “Or with a little Reese’s Cup in ‘em!”

Anna said, “Yeah, especially with the Hershey’s kisses.”

Mrs. Davies grinned, “Well, I guess we know what we need to get working on.”

They started on the dough for the thumbprint cookies, while they sent Mr. Davies off to the grocery store for Hershey’s kisses and Reese’s cups.  And, after a serious conversation about jam flavors, a couple jars of cherry preserves.  Then, once they got four batches of the dough mixed up, Mrs. Davies called him on his cell phone and had him pick up more eggs, flour, butter, sugar, and vanilla.  “And make sure you get real vanilla extract, not that awful fake stuff you got the last time!”  Anna couldn’t help hearing what Mr. Davies said back to Mrs. Davies, and it was so naughty Anna had a hard time not blushing.  She didn’t even know old people did stuff like that in the bedroom.

Their kitchen had two ovens, one over the other, so Anna and Meg had four baking pans covered in thumbprint cookies and in the two ovens before Mr. Davies was even back.  When the first two pans came out of the top oven, in went two more pans with cherry jam in the thumbprints.  Anna hardly had the Hershey’s kisses in the first two trays of cookies before the second two trays were coming out.  Those cookies got the little Reese’s cups set in the thumbprints before the cookies cooled.  Ree had the cooling racks set up on the kitchen table.  Mrs. Davies had these really cool racks that had little legs and stacked on top of one another, so the first four pans of cookies went on four cooling racks stacked together.

By the time Mrs. Davies had the chocolate chip cookie dough mixed up, with chopped walnuts in ‘em as a special treat, the thumbprint cookies were all out of the oven and cooling away.  And Meg had to keep shooing Mr. Davies out of the kitchen, because he kept following the delicious aromas and trying to snitch cookies.

Okay, everyone was snitching cookies.  They were really good.

Then Mrs. Davies showed Anna her secret fruitcake cookie recipe, while Meg and Ree loaded chocolate chip cookies into the ovens.  Everyone was so busy making cookies – and so stuffed from eating cookies off the cooling racks – that they just skipped lunch.  Although Mr. Davies did get one of those cold roast beef sandwiches from yesterday out of the fridge and wolfed it down with a couple glasses of milk.  And more cookies.  So they drafted him to clean baking pans.  He complained a lot about it too, and was really funny too.

“Ree!  Phone!  It’s Donna and Trish!”

Ree ran off to answer the phone.  Anna knew Ree still had all her old friends, because no one knew she was a mutant.  When Ree manifested back in the summer, she couldn’t keep from sending sparks out from her palms all the time, so her family just told everyone that Ree had mono and couldn’t go hang with anyone until the doctor said so.  Then they found someone in New York City to look at her, and those people got Ree into Whateley before anyone around Binghamton knew anything weird was going on.  Anna was really glad Ree still had her old friends, even if that meant Ree ended up leaving her at home a bunch over the holidays.

“Mom!  I’m taking Anna over to Donna’s house at two!” Ree called from down the hall.

Mrs. Davies just hollered back, “Okay, but you have to be back by five, because we’re having the Millers over for dinner tonight!”

“Okay!”

They had time to help Meg mix up a batch of lemon squares and a batch of Nanaimo bars, and even had time to try a couple of the lemon squares before they grabbed their coats and rushed off down the street.

Ree said, “Donna’s been one of my best friends since grade school.  She just lives down the street and around the corner.  I was more of a nerd-”

“You’re not a nerd,” said Anna.

Ree kept going, “-and she’s more a cheerleader type, but we’re still friends.  And Trish lives close by, so she might be there too.  She’s more of a nerd like me, I was on the school quiz bowl team and she was on the robotics team.  And let’s see…  Merri and Jeannie and Liz are cheerleader types, they might be there, and Cathleen and Hannah are kind of in the middle, and Barb or Randi might be there too.  But here’s the thing.  Mom and dad told everyone I had a scholarship to the Berlin School for Gifted Teens.”

Anna burst out laughing.  “A cover story!  That’s so cool.  It’s like being back in Criminology class!”

Ree said, “So you’re a scholarship student too.”

Anna frowned, “But I’m not a big genius type like you.”

Ree blushed some and said, “I’m not that smart…  And anyway, you can be on an athletic scholarship!  Maybe aikido!”

Anna said, “How about track and field?”

Ree said, “Both!  Oh man, you’d be so awesome in a real track and field competition.  You’d win all the sprints, and all the middle-distance races, and the hurdles, and the high jump and long jump, and the pentathlon, and I bet you could do the discus and javelin throw without even practicing!”

Anna said, “You can’t tell ‘em all that!  No one would believe it!”

Ree nodded, “Okay, so sprints and hurdles and jumps.  Real baselines do all that sometimes.”

“Okay.”

Ree added, “And martial arts!  You can already do stuff that looks like black belt things, plus stuff like running over the snow without sinking in.”

“No, that’s too much,” Anna said.

“Okay, then beginning martial arts,” Ree tried.

“Well, maybe.”

Anna was really nervous about meeting a huge bunch of Ree’s friends.  What if they didn’t like her?  What if she couldn’t keep their names straight?  What if…  Well, as long as Donna didn’t have a bunch of pet squirrels in the room, they probably weren’t going to find out that Ree was a freaky mutant with freaky mutant friends.

Donna’s house was maybe a little nicer than even Ree’s house.  Anna was feeling kind of intimidated before they even rang the doorbell.  And a maid in a gray dress answered the door!

Ree said, “Hi, Helen!”

The woman said, “Well hello there yourself, Rhiannon.  How’s that school of yours?”

Ree smiled, “Just great.  This is my friend Anna from school.  She’s stayin’ with me for the holidays.”

The woman smiled at Anna, “Nice to meet you.  You two come on in.  Donna’s up in her room with a bunch of you girls, and if I’m not mistaken, a pan of the brownies we made yesterday.”

They walked in and hung up their coats in a big closet, while the woman walked off.  Anna whispered, “Is that their maid?”

Ree snickered, “No, that’s Donna’s aunt Helen.  She just kind of dresses dumpy.”

Anna felt really stupid about that.  She wondered if people like Phase and Solange had maids and cooks and stuff all over their houses.  Not that someone like Anna was ever going to find out, unless someday there was a tour of the Walcutt mansion on a big teevee special.

Ree led Anna up the stairs and into a room that was almost as big as Ree’s bedroom.  Four girls were spread out over two twin beds and four big floor pillows, chatting away and listening to Britney Spears.

The pretty brunette on the first bed turned and smiled, “Rhiannon!  Hi!”

Ree said, “Hi, Donna.  Hey everyone, this is my friend Anna from school, she’s staying with me over the holidays.  Anna?  This is Donna, and Trish, and Cathleen, and Merri.”

Anna looked over the girls.  Trish would’ve been as pretty as Donna if she had a haircut as expensive and as much makeup, but she wasn’t making the effort.  Merri was a blonde with brunette roots who was wearing too much eye makeup.  And Cathleen was a smiling girl who looked like she didn’t care whether she was plain or not.  Once upon a time, like a year ago, Anna would’ve been totally intimidated by Donna and Merri.  Well, a year ago, Anna was still a tubby loser-girl with ugly glasses who got pushed around by the mean girls at her junior high school.  Now Anna wasn’t fat or wearing glasses, and she knew a hundred girls who were way prettier than anyone in the room.  She knew girls who were prettier and sexier than Britney Spears herself!  Plus, after getting bossed around by real experts like Solange and Flicker and Fade, Anna was finding out she was pretty well prepared to handle mere baseline high schoolers.

Anna smiled, “Hi.  It’s nice to meet you.  This is a nice house, Donna.”

Donna smiled, “Thanks.  So are you one of these scholarship geniuses like Rhiannon?”

Anna said, “I’m on an athletic scholarship.  I do track and field.”

Ree piped up, “And she’s really good in martial arts too!”

“Kewl,” said Merri.  “Can you do all that Jackie Chan stuff?”

Anna shrugged, “I can do some stuff, but nothing like sensei Ito.”

“Whoa, you have your own sensei, like in the ‘Karate Kid’?” asked Cathleen.

Anna nodded and said, “Well, he’s not mine, he’s the sensei for a bunch of kids at school.  And he can do really amazing things with his ki, just like some of the things you see in the movies.  But I’m not that good.”

Ree said, “Anna’s really athletic, so she’s really good at that stuff.  I’m just a newbie.”

Donna said, “Oh man, you gotta come here.”  She led all of them down to the basement, where a boy who looked like a normal high school senior was working out on a mat, kicking a canvas punching bag.  Donna called out, “Hey Doofus, got a minute?”

“Whatcha want, Dork-a?” the boy said without stopping.

Donna said, “Just spar for a minute with Rhiannon’s friend.  Okay?”

The boy turned around.  He scowled at the girls invading his territory.  Anna stepped forward and smiled, “Hi.  I’m Anna.  I go to school with Rhiannon.”  She put out her hand, and he shook it.  Not a hard handshake, or a super-soft one, but a nice handshake.  He was a little over six feet tall, and maybe a hundred eighty pounds.  Anna looked like she wasn’t much over a hundred pounds.  But she’d watched the boy doing those kicks, so she knew she was a lot quicker than he was, and she was pretty sure she was stronger than he was too.  So this was totally not fair.

He smiled down at her.  “I’m Dorka’s big brother Dooley.  Are you sure you want to spar with me?  I do Tae Kwan Do, and I’ve got a green belt.  How about you?”

Anna shrugged, “I know some aikido, some shin-shin toitsu, some judo, and some kendo.  Plus, my sensei has shown me a few moves from other disciplines.”  All of that was really true, too.  Sensei Ito had been insistent that they learn stuff that worked, not just the stuff from a single style of martial arts.

Dooley looked impressed, but he said, “Well, I think I’m about six weight classes above you.  That doesn’t seem fair.”

Anna nodded.  “But I’m really fast, and I’ve sparred against guys your size.”

Ree said, “Do that ‘oak tree’ move!”

Dooley looked really puzzled as he asked, “Oak tree?”

Anna said, “Sure.  I’ll show it to you.”  She kicked off her boots and shrugged out of her sweater so she faced him in a sleeveless shell and her jeans.  She moved onto the mat and faced him.  Then she carefully bowed, not taking her eyes off him.  He bowed back.  She said, “You make the first move.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah,” she told him.

He slide-stepped forward, faked a sidekick toward her head, and launched a sidekick at her stomach.  She slid to the side, ignored the feint, and brush-blocked his kick.  Then she did her ‘oak tree’ move, as Ree called it.  She ran up his front and slid down his back before he knew what was going on.  He whirled to the side, and she used his motion in a hip-throw that slammed him onto the mat.  The girls all applauded, probably because Dooley was getting clobbered by a girl.

He rolled to the side and kipped up to a fighting stance again.  She took a step back to give him some room.  He grinned, “Whoa.  I’ve never even seen a move like that.  Where’d you learn it?”

Anna fudged a little, “It’s called ‘Squirrel Scampers Over Tree Trunk’. A student of sensei Ito’s showed it to me.  She thought it would fit in well with my style.”  She explained, “But it really only works for you if you’re smaller and a lot quicker than your opponent.  The secret is if someone ever tries it on you, back up before they finish their climb, and they’ll end up falling down right in front of you, and you’ve got ‘em in close.  If they finish the climb and get behind you, do a forward roll or a slide-step forward so they can’t attack from behind.  Turning to catch ‘em is about the worst thing you can do, because then you’re open to a hip-throw and then maybe an armbar.”

“Cool,” he said.  “Let’s go again.”

She stepped forward and eased into a balanced stance.  She watched as Dooley unleashed a fast combination of a forward kick, a punch to the solar plexus, and a punch to the face.  She slid to the side to dodge the kick, blocked the first punch, and grabbed his arm when the second punch came her way.  She used his forward motion to throw him to the mat, and she hung onto his arm so she got him in an armbar.  He tried to use his strength to get free, but he couldn’t get loose.  He gave up and slapped the mat.

Anna let him go and stepped back.  He rolled his shoulder and said, “Man, that’s some good technique.  It felt like a gorilla had me in that armbar.”

Anna just smiled a little.  She wasn’t about to tell him that she was a lot stronger than she looked.

Ree finally said, “Anna’s on an athletic scholarship to Rhiannon’s school, and she does aikido, and track and field, and stuff.  She’s a way better athlete than you’d think.”

Dooley just frowned, “I figured Dorka had to be setting me up for something.”  He looked over at his sister and said, “You know what they say.  It’s a bitch.”

Donna and the other girls hurriedly ushered Anna back up to Donna’s bedroom.  “That was awesome!”

“Cool.”

“Totally kickass.”

“Yeah.”

Anna blushed, while Ree said, “And look, she’s not even sweating.  She took it easy on him.”

Anna blushed harder and said, “It wasn’t fair to spring that on him.  I’ve got training he doesn’t have.”  And superpowers, so it really, really wasn’t fair.  But she couldn’t tell that part.  She just wished Ree and Donna hadn’t boxed her in like that.  Or she’d been smart enough to figure out how to get out of it without doing any sparring.

But after that, it was like Anna was one of the gang.  And Donna couldn’t wait to tell Dooley’s girlfriend Lainie about The Doofus getting his ass kicked by a little girl.  Ree just rolled her eyes at Anna, so Anna figured it was one of those brother-sister things, like Bob and Sarah Carroll back home, who were always acting like they really didn’t like each other.  Anna was an only child, but she kind of thought it would be really great to have a little brother or sister.  Even if most of the brothers and sisters she knew fought a lot.  So, after they listened to some Beyoncé and some Hannah Montana, Ree told everyone they had to get home for a dinner.

Donna said, “No prob.”

Trish said, “Hey!  A bunch of us are gonna be ice skating at the rink tonight.  After eight, until they close.  Come on by!  It’ll be fun.”

Merri said, “And cute boys!  So dress sexy!  I’ve got a little red skater skirt I’m dyin’ to try out on Brian Richardson!”

Ree and Anna walked back home, talking about stuff at Donna’s.  Anna asked, “Is Merri always like that?”

Ree nodded, “She always makes a big deal about boys and looking hot.  But she’s still a friend, even if she’s not just like me.”

Anna got that.  She had friends back in Zanesville who weren’t anything like her.  Well, she used to have friends back in Zanesville, before she turned into the local mutant menace.  Considering one of her best friends had a dad who was big in the local Humanity First! group, Anna worried she didn’t have any friends back home anymore.

“Are Donna and Dooley always like that?”

Ree pursed her lips and thought it over.  “Pretty much.  I guess the only time I ever saw ‘em doing stuff together was when their cousin Freddy would be over at their house, and they didn’t like him, but he was a lot bigger than either of ‘em when they were little, and a big jerk, so they’d team up against him.”

They talked about Donna and Merri and the junior varsity cheerleaders at the high school Ree would’ve gone to, and they talked about how Trish wasn’t a loser at the high school because the robotics team was way more successful than the big sports teams, and they talked about the stuff Ree would’ve been doing if she wasn’t at Whateley.

As soon as they got home and hung up their coats, Mrs. Davies had tasks for Ree.  “Okay honey, I need you to straighten up your dad’s mess in the den, and then vacuum in the dining room.  When Meggie’s done checking the silverware and polishing up anything that needs it, you two can set the table.  You’ll need to put the big leaf in it.”

Ree groaned, “Can’t dad do the table?  It sticks really bad!”

Anna said, “I’ll do it, right after I vacuum.”

“Oh Anna, you don’t have to do that,” Mrs. Davies said.  “You’re a guest!”

Anna ducked her head and said, “I’d really rather.  If you don’t mind.”

Ree said, “No problem.  I’ll show you where the vacuum is, and I’ll get the den done while you do that.”

Mrs. Davies gave Ree a glare, but Ree did this tilting thing with her head, and Mrs. Davies let it drop.

Sort of.  As soon as Anna was vacuuming a little dog hair off the already-pretty-clean rug in the dining room, she heard Ree and her mom over the roar of the vacuum cleaner.  “Look mom, you have to let her do some of the chores!  She feels bad about dropping in for the whole break, and it makes her feel better.  Okay?”

Anna just blushed and kept cleaning.  That was the trouble with smart friends.  They knew you really well.  But Ree was right.  Anna really felt like an intruder or something, and she wanted to do something to make up for their amazing hospitality.  She was really worrying about what kids like Phobos and Gila and Razorback could do for the holidays.

She had the whole dining room vacuumed by the time Ree was done cleaning up in the den, so they did the dining room table.  Ree unlocked the halves of the table from underneath, and then Anna had her sit on the far end of the table.  Anna lifted up the other end and pulled.  Ree was right.  The table did stick.  Anna still managed to pull it out far enough for them to put an enormous leaf in the middle of the table and then close it back up so it fit tight.  Then they put table pads on top of the table, then a nice linen tablecloth over the pads.

Anna worried out loud, “What if I spill some food on the tablecloth?”

Ree waved her off.  “Mom’s gotten tons of stains out of it before.  And if you’re really worried, I’ll just make a bigger spill than you do.  Or I’ll bump Meg’s elbow so she spills stuff.”

Anna giggled.  But her family didn’t have anything that nice.  A real linen tablecloth and real linen napkins and real silver silverware?  Boy, if Ree’s family had that, what did Ayla’s family have?  She would’ve guessed platinum flatware, or solid gold, but the Goodkinds were some of the most famous American silversmiths back in the Paul Revere days, so she figured they’d have to use real Goodkind silverware.  But they probably had silverware that was made by the original Goodkinds in the 1700’s and was worth about a million dollars and regular people would be afraid to eat with it.  And probably a tablecloth with genuine needlepoint by Betsy Ross.

Anna helped Meg and Ree set the table for nine, since the Millers had two teenaged daughters too.  They were nearly done when Mr. Davies called everyone into the den.

One of the news channels had pulled together a news special about ‘the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen’ and the big thing last Thursday night in downtown New York.  Mr. Davies pointed at the superheroes fighting the big giant ice monster and asked, “You know any of these superheroes?”

And just as Anna was about to say no, Mega-Girl swooped in and attacked the thing.

Ree said, “Ooh!  We know her!  She goes to school with us.”

“She goes to school with you and she’s already with the Empire City Guard?” Mrs. Davies wondered.

Anna said, “We’re not allowed to do superheroing until we’re eighteen.  But Mega-Girl’s in the Future Superheroes of America, and she goes around in that uniform all the time, and people say she’s been trying to get into the Empire City Guard since she was fourteen.”

“Ouch!  That had to hurt,” winced Mr. Davies as Mega-Girl got swatted by the giant ice monster.

Ree said, “She’s super-tough.  She’ll probably be okay.”

Meg asked, “So she just goes to class with you dressed like that?”

Anna said, “She’s older than us.  We don’t have any classes with her.  But yeah, I think she goes to classes like that too.”

Ree said, “Yeah, she’s like a sophomore or junior, and she lives over in Poe, so she might be sort of… umm… weird.”

“Weird?” Ree’s mom looked worried again.

Ree admitted, “Umm, most of the people over in Poe have some mental problems.  Like Phase is over there because she’s trying to adjust to how her body went weird on her just before school started, at least that’s what she said, and she’s really nice.  But I haven’t heard anything bad about Mega-Girl, just she keeps trying to get into the Empire City Guard when she’s not supposed to.”

Then the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen swooped in and started fighting the ice giant.  There was even some news footage they hadn’t seen last week.  And that supervillainess in the black latex was like the skankiest thing ever.

Ree whispered, “Boy, I bet Cytherea wishes she had an outfit like that.”  Anna couldn’t help giggling.

Mrs. Davies pointed at the angel and asked, “Is this one of your school friends?”

Ree said, “No mom, I’ve never seen her before in my life!”

And then they watched the big finale of the huge battle against the giant frost monster on tv.  “Oooooohhh!  That is so cool!”

Mrs. Davies frowned, “It only looks cool.  A lot of people get hurt being superheroes.”

Anna knew who Mrs. Davies was worrying about, so she said, “Well, you don’t have to worry about us doing stuff like that.”

Ree said, “Yeah, but I bet most of Team Kimba’s doing it.”

Anna said, “Not Phase.  She’s probably renting a whole tropical island for her vacation.”

Ree said, “Tennyo’s probably hunting down bad guys and monsters and beating the snot out of ‘em.”

Anna said, “Fey’s off to a witch conference so she can learn how to turn Hekate into a toad.”

Ree laughed and said, “Nah, toads aren’t nasty enough.  She’ll turn Hekate into a worm.”

Anna pretended to be upset.  “That’s a horrible insult to worms everywhere!”

They burst into giggles and then they had to explain to everyone who Hekate was, and why they didn’t like her.  They were still complaining about Hekate when the front doorbell rang.

The Millers turned out to be a family pretty much like Ree’s family.  Mr. and Mrs. Miller were about Mr. Davies’ age, and their two daughters were pretty close to Ree and Meg’s ages.  Laila was eighteen and just done with her first term at University of Binghamton, and Marta was thirteen and really ready to be done with junior high school.

Anna helped Meg and Ree and Mrs. Davies get all the food out onto the table.  Anna took the ham, since it was the heaviest thing. 

Mrs. Davies whispered, “Anna?  Is ham okay?”

“Oh sure, I like ham,” she said.

Mrs. Davies looked reassured at that.  Anna figured she was still worrying that there would be all kind of stuff Anna wouldn’t eat.  But Ree’s mom was a really good cook, so it wasn’t a problem.  And the ham smelled really good.

Dinner was really fun.  Anna and Ree were still using their cover story that they went to the Berlin School for Gifted Teens, and were scholarship students there.  Ree was pretty smart, and had done real well in middle school and had been part of the school’s quiz bowl team even though she was a girl, so all of the Millers believed it.  Anna had a lot of fun playing along, especially when Laila was kind of snotty to her about having an athletic scholarship and being a ‘jock’.

Mrs. Miller said, “Well Anna, just as long as you realize that most girls can’t get athletic scholarships to colleges, much less make a living at pro sports.”

Anna smiled, “Well, I don’t want to do pro sports anyway.”  And, since she was a mutant, there was no way she’d ever be allowed to do college sports or pro sports, so there was no point in even thinking about it.  “I was thinking about horticultural studies or small animal biology.  But I hate the dissection stuff in science classes, so biology kinds of things are out now.  My scholarship work is working with the landscapers and arborists at the school, and I really like that, so I plan to get certified as an arborist before I graduate high school, and at worst I can put myself through college and grad school as an arborist.”

Mr. Miller said, “I thought that was dangerous work.”

Anna said, “No, it’s not really dangerous.  Unless you saw off the limb you’re sitting on.”  Which Marta thought was hilarious.

Anna ate everything Ree’s mom cooked.  Okay, she didn’t eat as much ham as she did the creamed potatoes and the tossed salad and the asparagus and the jello with cherries in it.  Ree’s mom was a good cook.  Anna really missed her mom’s Christmas turkey with the gravy and the chestnut stuffing, and the other Christmas specialties, like her mom’s special fruitcake which had so much whiskey in it that her dad always made jokes about “don’t eat and drive” and stuff.  Not that her family would be like that if she was around.  Not since she turned into a mutant.  They were probably a lot happier without her around.  She tried real hard not to even think about that.

After the dinner, Ree took Laila and Marta and Anna up to her room, and the grown-ups sat around the table and talked about whatever grown-ups talked about.  In Ree’s room, they talked about books and boys and music and boys and school.  And boys.  Okay, mainly the books they talked about were the ‘Twilight’ books, which Marta thought were the greatest books in the history of writing.  Anna liked them, but maybe not that much.  Still, Anna loved being able to talk about them when someone wasn’t going to lean in and make snotty comments about them.

When Laila started talking about dating a boy who was probably going to be pre-vet, Ree just had to one-up her.  “Well, Anna’s dating a guy who’s a chemistry super-genius and already has a couple patents, so he’s gonna be rich in a few years.”

Laila stared at Anna and said, “What?  Is he like thirty?  You’re only fourteen or fifteen, right?”

Anna said, “Jerry’s a sophomore.  In high school.  He’s only a year older than me.  He’s just really talented, and the school’s got some science teachers who’re really helpful on stuff like this.”

“So he’s like a really nerdy guy with zits and buck teeth and lots of fat?”

Anna said, “No!  He’s nice!  He’s not a movie star, but he’s pretty good looking.”

Ree added, “Way too good looking to be a chem nerd.”

Laila asked, “So why aren’t all the school hotties after him?”

Anna said, “Because there are some rich guys on campus, and some really, REALLY handsome guys.”

Marta asked, “How rich?  ‘Cause Laila’s in a class with Mark Prewitt, and his dad owns the First Binghamton Bank.”

Ree and Anna looked at each other and smiled.  Anna said, “One of the Walcutts lives in my dorm.”

Ree said, “We have a class with a Goodkind.  A real Goodkind.  The heir to Villabianca Imports lives down the hall from Anna.”

Anna said, “Vera got a Christmas card from the royal family of Monaco.  And she’s gorgeous.  I mean, movie star gorgeous.  She could end up marrying one of ‘em.”

“Her name is Vera?  That doesn’t sound European.”

Anna said, “Her name is Primavera Villabianca.  She just goes by Vera.”  There was no way Anna was going to admit that Vera was a powerful Wizard and really went by Charmer.

After Ree and Anna totally stunned the Millers, Laila and Marta got called by their folks.  They had to get home because Laila had a party to go to, and Mrs. Miller wanted to be shopping at eight a.m. the next morning for some last-minute Christmas presents.

By then it was almost eight thirty, so they hurried to get dishes washed and get Mr. Davies to drive them to the ice skating rink.  They managed to get there before nine, and there were still rental skates that fit both of ‘em.  Anna was in jeans and a sweater instead of something sexy, but she wasn’t interested in picking up boys.  She had a boy she’d decided she liked.  A lot.

She whispered, “Ree, I haven’t skated in a couple years, and I used to be pretty bad at it.”

Ree rolled her eyes.  “Anna, you can balance on your fingertips now.  You’re not the girl you used to be.  Just get out there and give it a try.  I bet you’ll be good.”

And when Anna stood up, she felt good.  She wasn’t wobbling on her skate blades, like she used to, years ago.  She had way better balance, and her ankles were way stronger than they used to be, and she wasn’t a clumsy tubbo with bad eyesight anymore either.  She stepped onto the ice and easily slid a dozen yards forward before stopping and turning to see how Ree was doing.

Ree was pretty good too.  Not ‘Olympic skater’ stuff, but pretty darn good.  Ree tilted her head, and they skated off to find Donna and Merri and their friends.  Ree kept skating faster and faster, and Anna just kept trying to keep up.  But Ree had figured out that Anna probably wouldn’t try anything super hard, so Ree was pushing her to do better.  And Anna could do it!

Ree whispered, “You’re an Avatar!  You can probably skate like Oksana Baiul!”

Anna was embarrassed, but it looked like Ree was right.  As usual.  Anna could balance on a skate blade as easily as she balanced on a tree branch or a length of pipe.  Her ankles were tons stronger than they used to be.  Her body was a powerful athlete’s body, not a chubby, out-of-shape loser’s body.  She tried a small jump and came down so she was skating backward.

“See?  I told you so!” whispered Ree.  Anna heard, even though she was fifteen feet away.  And Ree knew she would.  Stupid super-hearing.

They skated over to where Donna and Merri and several other girls were flirting with five or six high school boys.  Sure enough, Merri was wearing even more makeup than before, and a skater skirt so tiny it was more like a really large ruffle.  Donna was wearing a red minidress and matching tights.

Ree said, “Hi!  Sorry we’re late!  And everybody, this is my friend Anna.”

Anna said hi to everyone and shook some hands too.  A couple of the guys held her hand a little too much, and seemed really interested in her.  That kind of caught her by surprise.  Brian Richardson was one of ‘em, and Merri really glared at her for it, like it was her fault or something.

They skated around the rink, talking and pairing up or going into groups.  Ree’s friend Tim wanted to skate with her, and Anna made sure to move away so Ree had some private time.  Anna tried a couple of the things her mom had taught her when she was little that she’d never been real good at, like skating backward and skating on one leg with her body stretched out like she was flying.  She even tried a single axel when she didn’t think anyone was watching her.  She was so much better at it than she used to be that her mom would have jumped up and down in happiness… if only it wasn’t because she was a mutant freak.

Brian skated over to her and grinned, “Wow, you’re really great!  Do you skate in competitions?”

Merri and Donna joined her, which was okay with her, because Ree had told her Laila said Brian was a real sleaze and had boinked more girls than Captain Courage.  She had to lie.  “No, but I’ve always been good at it.”  She knew it was really her powers.  She was just a lot more graceful and balanced and athletic than she used to be.

Donna said, “That’s why Anna’s on an athletic scholarship at her school.”

“What’s she do?” Brian asked.

Anna said, “Track and field.”  She was glad Ree wasn’t around to add in ‘aikido’.  Anna added, “But there’re plenty of girls around here who can skate.  Why don’t you skate with Merri and see?”  And she did a little trick where she braked without warning anyone, so it seemed like they all shot past her and she joined the gang of kids a little ways behind them.  Cathleen was back there with a couple guys who were some of the other school brains.

One of the guys, whose name was Eddie and couldn’t take his eyes off Anna, said, “Sure looks like Timmy and Rhiannon are getting it going.”

Anna agreed, since he was right.  Tim had taken Ree’s arm, and they were skating real close together, and Ree was smiling up into Tim’s face.  Anna just hoped they didn’t crash into someone, because it didn’t look like they were really watching where they were going.

Cathleen said, “Nice ditch on Tryin’ Brian.”  When Anna just looked at her, she said, “Because he’s tryin’ every hot girl in the school.  He already did Merri when he took her out a couple weeks ago, so she thinks he’s hers, and he’s trying to dump her and land his next conquest.”

Anna just said, “Ewww.”

Eddie looked at Anna again and said, “Hot girls like you don’t usually come back here.”

Anna said, “Well, I have a boyfriend.  And Ree already told me what Laila Miller said about Brian.”

Cathleen said, “Well I think Tim and Ree are a cute couple.”

Anna said, “Me too.  If Tim’s serious, our school has a winter break and a spring break, before we get out for the summer.  He oughta know when they are.”

Bob said, “I bet Rhiannon’s already told him.  Or she’s got his email addy so she can send him the whole school schedule.”

“So how come you’ve got a winter break too?”

Anna grinned, “Oh, we’ve got this really cool seven-week winter term for special courses.  I like martial arts, so I’m gonna take a ‘special topics’ course on classical martial arts weapons.”

Eddie got really interested.  “Like nunchaku and manriki-gusari and kama?”

Anna didn’t want to look stupid, so she nodded.  “Yeah.”

Bob asked, “So it’s on how they were used and what they look like?”

Anna smiled naughtily, “No, it’s on how to fight with ‘em and how to defend against other people using ‘em.”

Eddie looked like he was about to explode.  “That’s the most awesome thing I ever heard of!”

Bob teased him, “Yeah, but you’re such a klutz you’d cut yourself into little pieces the first day.”

“Oh shut up.”

Cathleen said, “Anna’s like Jet Li.  I’m not kidding.  Donna dragged her over to where Dooley was practicing, and she made him look like a total tool.  He didn’t lay a single punch on her.  She’s that fast.”

Anna lied, “It’s just practice and training.  And good reflexes.  Plus, I got to see him practice for a minute, so I had a pretty good idea what he was going to try.  He had no idea what I was going to do.”

Cathleen laughed, “She’s even got moves with names, like kung fu fighters in anime!  What’d you call that thing you did to him?”

“Squirrel Scampers Over Tree Trunk,” said Anna with a blush.

Cathleen said, “Oh my God, it was the coolest thing I ever saw!”

Anna helped Eddie and Cathleen skate better, while Bob skated along and heckled Eddie.  Then she had a couple of the better skaters come along and sweep her up.  Two of the guys, Lance and Cliff, took turns pairing up with her and a girl whose name was Moira, and they did some fancy pairs maneuvers Anna had a little trouble keeping up with.  But Anna could skate backwards really easily, so she switched to that anytime she wasn’t sure what her partner wanted her to do, and that was good enough.

But Brian Richardson wasn’t done hitting on Anna, and when the pairs skaters took a break, Brian skated over and told her how sexy she looked out there.

So Merri skated right over.  She was pissed at Anna about it.  Not at Brian, but at Anna.

Anna said, “Merri, it’s not my fault!  I already have a boyfriend!”

But Merri just growled, “So stop stealing everyone else’s boyfriends, you bitch!”

Anna glared at her, “I’m not stealing any boyfriends, and I’m not flirting with Brian!  And you’re not nice!”

Ree came right over, dragging Tim with her, and said, “Merri!  Stop it!  You’re being really mean, and Anna’s my friend too!”

Tim’s big brother Gary was at the rink, so Tim got Gary to drive all three of them home.  While Anna thanked Gary for giving them a ride, Ree got in some serious smooches with Tim in the back seat.

When they went into Ree’s house, Ree started apologizing for Merri being so bitchy.  Anna could sort of understand it.  She knew exactly how she felt when she saw Cytherea kiss Prism.  But that didn’t mean Merri had to be so mean.  But what if Cytherea wasn’t being skanky to Prism and Anna was doing the exact same thing Merri just did?  Ugh, if she found out she had to go apologize to Cytherea…

They got ready for bed and turned out the light and just chatted for a while.  Ree talked about how smart Tim was, and how nice he was, until she pretty much fell asleep in mid-gossip.

After Ree fell asleep, Anna lay there staring at the dark ceiling for a while.  She didn’t want to admit it, but she was having a hard time, some of the time.  It was so great being in Ree’s house and doing sleepover stuff with Ree in her room.  Anna’s room back in Zanesville would be really cold, which wouldn’t be fun even with Anna’s squirrel spirit to help her resist the cold.  It was an attic room, the only attic room besides the storage room, and it was always really cold in the winter and really hot in the summer.  Ree’s parents and family were happy to see her, even if they were worried about Ree outing herself and getting set on by H-1 crazies.  But Ree’s control was so much better now, she never slipped up like that anymore.  And their big dog had a hard time figuring Anna out, probably because her squirrel spirit was really confusing the poor guy.  Anna didn’t want to think about her parents and her uncle and aunt and cousins being off to her dad’s mother’s house in Cleveland and doing Christmas stuff, when she wasn’t invited.

And she still hadn’t finished those scarves!  Darn it!

Sunday, December 24
The Davies house
Binghamton, New York

Anna woke up when she smelled the coffee bubbling away and the cinnamon coffee cake baking.  She scrambled up and rushed through a shower so she could get to work on her knitting.  She’d finished Meg’s in the RV and gotten most of the way on Mrs. Davies’, but she still need to finish that one, and sew the two up, and then get Mr. Davies’ done.  So she sat and knitted until Ree was ready for breakfast.  Then she brought her knitting down to breakfast and ate fast and washed her hands so she could go back to knitting while everybody else was sitting around the table.  Ree made her sit and knit while Ree and Meg did the dishes, so Anna made a ton of progress on Mrs. Davies’ scarf.

After breakfast, they went to church services.  Anna went too, and knitted all the way there and back.  It was really nice.  Lots of Christmas carols, and Anna always loved hearing the Christmas story.  It was so cute watching the little kids coming down the aisle playing the parts.  She remembered being a shepherd for a couple years in a row, because she wasn’t one of the ‘pretty’ girls from one of the rich families in the congregation.

They went home, and Anna and Ree and Meg gathered in the rec room upstairs and watched Christmas specials, since Mr. Davies was down in the den watching sports stuff on the big teevee.  Anna managed to finish the knitting on Mrs. Davies’ scarf and bind off, so it only needed the sewing bit.  So she got a lot done on Mr. Davies’ scarf too.

But she was still knitting away when Mrs. Davies called everybody to lunch.  She checked, “Anna?  I made lamb stew.  Do you eat lamb?”

Anna nodded, “Oh sure!  I like lamb.  It’s way better than mutton.”  She wondered if Mrs. Davies was gonna worry about what Anna wouldn’t eat for the rest of the holidays.  She decided she was going to eat everything, even if it was Brussels sprouts or lima beans.  Okay, she had no idea what Brussels sprouts tasted like, but everyone said they were yucky.  She already knew she didn’t like lima beans, even mixed up with corn.

After lunch, Meg and Ree wanted to go downtown and do some last-minute shopping.  Anna was going to stay at the house to work on the scarves, but they dragged her along.  Meg insisted, “Honest to God, Anna!  If you don’t finish by tonight, you still have over a week to get it done!”

Anna said, “But I need to finish by tonight!  It won’t be Christmas without the presents all done!”

Ree said, “Oh come on, Anna.  You can knit in the car.  Okay?”

“Well, okay…”

So Anna went along.  She just threw one of Ree’s sweater dresses on over her tights, and slipped into Mindy’s boots she’d borrowed for the Christmas holiday, and she was ready without hardly putting the knitting needles down.  Okay, the sweater dress was way too short so she wasn’t gonna take her coat off, but it wasn’t like her butt was sticking out or anything.  It wasn’t nearly as short as Merri’s skater skirt, even if was maybe a tiny bit shorter than Donna’s minidress.  And the trip was really fun, even if she was nervous about maybe not getting Mr. Davies’ scarf done in time.  They went to a clothing store first.  Meg and Ree tried on some sweaters and a dress or two, but Anna knew she couldn’t afford to buy anything, so she sat and knitted, and was their audience when they showed how they looked.  And Meg really did look good in that red-and-white angora Christmas dress.  It fit her really well.  Anna just didn’t look at the price tag when Meg bought it.

Since Anna was knitting really hard in the next shop they went into, she wasn’t paying enough attention, and she said ‘yes’ to Meg and the clerk.  So she ended up accidentally agreeing to wearing a pair of elf ears, along with Meg and Ree.  They were just tips that fit over the top half of each of her ears and stuck on, but Ree said she was gonna have to wear them all day so they didn’t get ruined before they all showed ‘em off to Mr. and Mrs. Davies.  Anna sighed but said yes.  At least, when she had her coat on with the hood up, people didn’t know she and Ree and Meg all had elf ears.  She just felt silly.

But she got Mr. Davies’ scarf down all the way to the binding off, so all she had to do was lay out the tassels and tie the knots!  She was so happy she didn’t bother to take her knitting when they went to the fancy foods shop.  She did keep her hood up, because she really did feel silly about the elf ears.  And they really were kind of sticky-feeling.  The stuff in the fancy foods shop looked really cool, but it was all way too expensive.  Nine bucks for a little thing of chocolate-covered dried cherries?  But Ree bought that and the chocolate-covered blueberries as stocking stuffers for her folks, and she didn’t even blink at the price.  Anna wondered what people like Ayla bought for Christmas presents.  Cars?  Boats?  Houses?  She couldn’t imagine.

After that, they went to another store, just down the street and around the corner.  Ree said they had all kinds of neat housewares.  Anna wondered if they all cost an arm and a leg.  But she wasn’t buying anything, so she figured it was fine.  And it was fun just hanging with Ree and Meg.  It was almost like being home with her family before she turned into a mutant.  So maybe it wasn’t the best Christmas ever.  It was still turning out to be a good Christmas.

They were walking along, talking about shopping, when Anna heard the argument going on up ahead.  A mom carrying a baby in one arm and a big shopping bag in the other was having trouble with a cranky girl who was maybe five or six.

“No!  Daddy said there was no Santa Claus and you’re jus’ lyin’ to me!”

“Honey, please.  Don’t wake up the baby.  Sure there’s a Santa.  We saw him in the mall!”

“Daddy said there’s no presents this year ‘cuz he doesn’t have a job anymore, and he said you just lied about Santa so I’d live with you instead of him!”

“Oh honey, please, you’re so loud, couldn’t we wait ‘til we get home…”

“No!  No no no!  I hate you!  You lied about Santa!”

And the mom dragged the little girl off into the alley instead of going on around the block like Anna was doing.  Anna just cringed.  But Ree and Meg didn’t seem to notice.  Stupid super-hearing.

They walked around the corner, and around the department store, to get to the housewares store Meg wanted to go to.  As they got near the alley separating the department store from the next group of stores, Anna heard that same voice again.  Only it wasn’t frustrated.  It was scared.

Anna heard a desperate voice, softly pleading.  “P-please don’t hurt us.”

“Just shut the fuck up and gimme yer bag, lady!”

“My presents!” yelled the little girl.

“Hush, honey.  Please mister, we can’t afford new presents, this is all we got until next month, and that’s if Millie’s daddy sends child support on time.”

“Oh God,” Anna gasped.  She grabbed Ree by the arm.  Before Ree could say a thing, Anna yanked off her coat and boots.  She dumped them into Ree’s arms, and she moved.

She ran into the alley so no one would see her do anything freaky, and then she went right up the brick wall until she was maybe fifteen feet up and no one was gonna think about looking up there.

She could see the whole thing now.  A big mean guy with a huge knife had trapped the lady with the little girl and baby and that big shopping bag, when the lady was just trying to cut through the alleys with a cranky kid.  Anna just knew she couldn’t let that creep steal those presents and stuff when that family didn’t have anything else!

Anna jumped.  She came down right next to the crook and moved before he even realized she was beside him.  She grabbed his forearm in a judo hold.  She twisted hard, and the guy yelled in pain as he dropped his knife.  He still hadn’t figured out what was going on, so Anna threw him over her shoulder and scrambled up the wall.

She could still hear the little girl.  “Mommy!  You said Santa was real and I said Daddy said no, but Santa’s elf just saved us!”

“Huh?”

“Santa’s real!  And I was so mean about him, but his elf saved us!”

Anna dropped the badguy on the roof and jumped twenty feet into a big shadow before the guy knew what was going on.  She hissed from the shadow, trying to sound really scary, “You’re gonna go turn yourself in to the police and confess.”

The guy looked around frantically, trying to figure out where she was.  “I don’t know what the hell you are, but you’re crazy if you think I’m gonna do that!”

Anna did her best to growl.  “Then you’ll be stuck here on this roof.  For days.  No food.  No water.  Freezing cold.  You won’t last ‘til morning.”

The guy yelled at her to go do something really rude to herself that baselines couldn’t possibly do, but Jimmy T could probably manage.  And he called her a couple names that would’ve gotten her mouth washed out with soap if she’d ever said ‘em anywhere near her mom.  Anyways, she was sure there was no way she was ever gonna put a guy’s thing in her mouth, and that other thing was just a horrible thing to say about somebody’s mom.

Anna gave up on that.  She figured she’d just tell a clerk she saw someone acting crazy up on the roof, and let them call the police.  She clambered down the concrete blocks of the back side of the building, hurried around the front the other way, and walked up to Ree and Meg, who were still standing there looking worried.  She slipped her shoes and coat back on and smiled, “Sorry.  I got distracted.”

But Ree had already spotted Anna’s scratched-up fingernail polish and dirty hands, and the ripped toes in her tights, and her wet feet, and just glared.  Meg didn’t know what to think.  Ree whispered in Meg’s ear, “I’ll tell you later.  Don’t ask questions now.”  They moved on into the department store right in front of them.  Anna ducked into the ladies’ restroom and cleaned up, washing her hands and wiping off the bottoms of her feet, and wadding up her ruined tights and shoving them into a coat pocket.  Ree came in a couple minutes later with a new pair of tights for her, and Anna changed into them before she came out.

Ree whispered, “Wait and tell us when we get to the car.”

Anna just nodded and said, “Sorry.  I had to.”

Ree nodded, “I get it.”

They walked on to the housewares store and let Meg shop for some stuff Anna’s mom would never use in a million years, but maybe Mrs. Davies would really like.  Anna still heard when the police came zooming up, and she managed not to wince.  Much.  Ree made sure they took a different way back to the car, so they didn’t have to go anywhere near the police cars and the family.

In the car on the way home, Anna just said, “I heard some people in trouble, and I couldn’t just ignore ‘em.”

Meg just said, “Okay.  But at least you still have your elf ears on, so we can show mom and dad.”  Anna blushed at that, because she’d completely forgotten about those stupid ears.  Between the pointy ears and Ree’s short sweater dress and her tights, no wonder the little girl thought she looked like one of Santa’s elves.

So they trooped inside Ree’s house, carrying five shopping bags and showing off their elf ears.  Meg called out, “Look mom!  Santa’s elves are here!”

“Oh, those are the cutest things ever!” Mrs. Davies grinned.

Mr. Davies came out of the den and laughed, “Changelings!  Elves have stolen our daughters and left us with changelings!”

Mrs. Davies laughed, “Well, if they cook and clean better then the old ones, we’ll keep ‘em.”

“Mo-om!” complained Ree.

Anna said, “I still need to fix the scarves and get ‘em wrapped.  Can I go upstairs and work on ‘em for maybe half an hour or so?”

Mrs. Davies smiled, “Sure you can.”  Then she teased, “We’ve got elf slave labor now!  You can put your feet up and relax!”

Anna skittered up the stairs to Ree’s room and pulled out her knitting bag.  She managed to get both of the new scarves sewn up, and Mr. Davies’ scarf all finished up with four really nice tassels on the far end, before Ree came up to check on her.  Ree pulled out some wrapping paper and her mom’s ‘wrapping box’, which had everything Anna needed: a good pair of scissors, regular tape and double-sided tape, a bunch of different ribbons, gift tags, and several nice ink pens.  Anna had the packages tucked under the Christmas tree in the living room, well before it was time to start on the potatoes and carrots for the beef stew.  Whew.  What a relief.

But Anna really winced while she was working on dinner with Ree and Mrs. Davies, and the kitchen teevee was on, and the news started up.

“And tonight, Santa’s helpers: they fight crime!  Here with the story is our own Jeanni Roberts.”

Ree looked at Anna and dropped the carrot peeler.  Anna started blushing and couldn’t stop.

“Yes Bob, today a downtown mugging was interrupted, apparently by one of Santa’s helpers.”

Ree gasped, “Anna!  You didn’t say you stopped a mugging!”

Mrs. Davies whirled around.  “You’re the Santa’s helper?”

Anna ducked her head and blushed harder.  It got worse when the newslady was interviewing the mom and little girl.  The little girl insisted, “It was a real elf from Santa’s workshop!  She had pointy ears an’ a elf dress and EVERYTHING!  An’ she magic’ly ‘ppeared right next to the bad man, an’ made him drop the knife, an’ flew the bad man away right out the alley!”

Jeanni Roberts was talking again.  “The police found the knife at the scene, and have already matched it with the suspect’s fingerprints.  Tentative forensics indicate that there’s human blood on the knife, and police spokespeople indicated that this might be connected with at least two previous robbery/assaults in the same area in recent weeks.  The criminal didn’t get away, either.  He was found just minutes later, stuck up on a roof yelling for help, claiming some supervillain attacked him.”

Anna couldn’t stop blushing.  The newslady ended her story with more footage of the little girl, staring into the camera and ferociously insisting, “It really was one of Santa’s elves!  She had pointy ears and everything!  I’m gonna believe in Christmas FOREVER!”

Meg and Mrs. Davies were staring at Anna with big eyes.  Anna admitted, “I heard it.  It was awful.  I couldn’t let him steal their Christmas presents or stab ‘em.  They don’t have any money.  And the mom was so scared.”

Anna heard the anchorwoman announcing, “This isn’t the first time one of the Big Apple superheroes has swept into town and pulled off a big rescue, but they usually leave their calling card and make sure to take the credit.”

The anchorman next to her grinned, “Well Helaine, maybe it really was one of Santa’s elves.”

The anchorwoman said, “One little girl sure thinks so, Ed.  Folks, this family is nearly broke, and dependent on alimony from a recent divorce.  The mom has no job, and has two young kids to care for.  So if you’d like to help this family out, you can assist them by sending your gifts or donations to the station, care of ‘I’m Going To Believe In Christmas Forever’.  And isn’t that the true meaning of Christmas?”

Anna got all teary and had to go blow her nose.  Ree just gave her a huge hug and said, “That new pair of tights was totally worth it.”

Meg hugged Anna too, and said, “Yeah.”

Anna looked at the picture of the little girl on the teevee and decided.  Maybe it was the best Christmas after all.