“IT’S THE MONSTER!” Shade Darby cried out, speaking to no one in particular.
The monster was a girl who appeared to be in her teens but was in reality mere days old. She was known the world over from her first recorded appearance, during which she had torn off a man’s arm and eaten it. While the man watched in shock and agony.
The girl, the creature, the monster, now covered from head to toe in blood, stood in the middle of the highway.
There was no traffic on the highway. There hadn’t been in a year. That was how long the dome had sat astride the 101 at Perdido Beach, creating the world’s longest detour.
One day the dome had simply appeared, a perfect sphere twenty miles in diameter that extended down beneath the ground as far as it rose into the sky. That dome was centered on a nuclear power plant but encompassed vast tracts of forest, hills, farmland, and ocean and almost all the town of Perdido Beach, California, which lay at the extreme southern end.
The instant the dome appeared (impenetrable, opaque, and utterly impervious to drills, lasers, and shaped explosive charges), every single person fifteen years of age and older had been ejected.
They had popped up on the beach, in the road, on lawns, in homes, in people’s swimming pools. Some had been injured or killed, suddenly materializing in front of speeding trucks. Some had drowned, finding themselves without warning a mile out to sea. A few had materialized in solid objects, with one man skewered by a lamppost, like a human shish kebab. And some had been turned inside out, for reasons that no one had understood then or later.
One of the first scientists to be called to the scene to explain this incredible, impossible, and yet terrifyingly real phenomenon was Dr. Heather Darby of Northwestern University, in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. She had soon realized that this would be no overnight jaunt and that the study of the dome would take months, if not years.
So Dr. Heather Darby had flown her daughter out to stay with her in the temporary housing complex hastily erected by the military.
For Shade Darby, thirteen years old, it had been wonderful. First and foremost, there was the beach. Evanston had a beach but it did not compare to the long stretches of golden sand south of Perdido Beach. Then there was the excitement of being in a sprawling, makeshift compound teeming with soldiers and police and scientists and media and, of course, the Families of the captives in the dome.
The Families. People capitalized it, because everyone knew what that meant. They’d been all over TV, the Families. Hysterical at first, then angry, and finally depressed and resigned and hopeless.
But most of all for Shade, there was the awe-inspiring, overwhelming presence of the dome itself. It was a mystery so profound that no human had yet come close to understanding it, not even her mother.
Finally, after many months, a decision had been reached in secret to explode a small nuclear device—that was the official term; normal people called it a bomb—at the desert-fronting eastern edge of the dome. It was the very first thing to have any impact whatsoever on the dome. And the effect it had was . . . well, the greatest show the world had ever seen, because suddenly the dome had gone . . . transparent.
When the dome first appeared and ejected everyone fifteen and over, it was speculated that all those under that age were still inside the dome, but no one knew for sure. Many thought the dome might be a solid, a massive ball, like the world’s biggest ball bearing, just sitting there. But most believed that approximately 332 children, aged fourteen down to newborn, were trapped inside.
Oh, the theories!
The theory Shade Darby liked best was that they were all inside, all those children. She wanted to believe that some benign power had taken care of them. Shade, like most people, hoped that they were all somehow okay.
Then the dome had become transparent, and the world seemed to freeze in place as every television and news website on earth stared through cameras mounted on TV trucks, drones, helicopters, and satellites—not to mention millions of individual smartphones—at what lay revealed.
The children definitely were inside. They were not okay. They were not at all okay. They were filthy, starved, scarred in body and mind, armed with everything from spiked baseball bats, lead pipes, and kitchen knives to homemade flamethrowers, shotguns, and automatic weapons.
And there were far fewer than 332 still alive.
They stared out through the dome, those wild children, and the world had stared back.
A savage, descent-of-man, dystopian madness.
And of course an instantly trending Twitter and Instagram meme. #Dome #PerdidoBeach #LOTF #BubbleKids. And then, when those inside had managed to communicate through scribbled notes held up for the cameras, the world learned what those on the inside called it, and a new hashtag was born: #FAYZ.
The mordant acronym FAYZ: Fallout Alley Youth Zone.
But the dome was not the only warping of reality, for it soon became clear that some of those inside, not all, but some, had acquired fantastic powers. Supernatural powers. Comic book powers. Powers they did not always use for good.
Shade had been there every day since the dome had gone transparent, watching rapt and often appalled. Her mother had standing orders for Shade to stay away from the dome, but Shade was the daughter of two scientists, and curiosity ran very deep in her genetic makeup. So each day, as soon as she was sure her mother was occupied, Shade would wrap her too-noticeable auburn hair into a bun and cover it with a cap, then sneak from the grim barracks down to the dome, joining the throng of families.
It was the Families who kept it all from being mere spectacle. The Families would hold up signs. Do you know Monica Cowell? Is James Tipton safe? Please tell me if my son, my daughter, my sister, my grandchild is alive and safe.
Many of the parents and grandparents learned that the one they had been praying for had been dead for months. Dead from starvation. Dead from animal attack. Dead from suicide.
Dead from murder.
A girl who called herself the Breeze, a skinny, puckish girl who could move at impossible speeds, wrote signs and held them up to be seen and photographed.
Sorry, your son Hunter is dead.
Sorry, your daughter Carla died eight months ago.
Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.
Life had not been peaceful inside what the media and the authorities and even the president of the United States called the Perdido Beach Anomaly. PBA. PBA lacked the bitterly dry humor of FAYZ, which solemn adults thought too glib.
Anomaly: something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected. Synonyms: oddity, peculiarity, abnormality, irregularity, inconsistency, incongruity, aberration, quirk, rarity. “PBA” was safe and bloodless and sounded scientific, but Shade knew that all it signified was “We don’t know.”
Theories? Lots of theories. But understanding? There was none of that.
Shade had watched it all, heard the cries of grief, seen the tear-streaked faces. It was sickening but fascinating, and impossible to look away from.
Inside the dome, frightened children huddled close to their side of the transparent force field. Two very different worlds stared at each other, like monkeys in a cage, though which side were the monkeys was not at all clear.
Outside the dome, parents held up signs to be read by six-year-olds armed with butcher’s cleavers and gnawing on raw fish. Ten-year-olds sat sullen and listless, drinking from whiskey bottles. And nothing could be done. The atmosphere outside was thick with sadness and despair. But beneath all that sadness and despair, at a discreet distance where it could be hypocritically denied, were excitement and anticipation.
It was the greatest show on earth.
Shade sat cross-legged on the folded blanket she’d brought, arm’s length from the dome wall. Just beyond, right where she could have shook their hands if the barrier were gone, sat half a dozen kids, ranging from toddler to teen. More behind them, and more still, stretching north and south. Refugees unable to cross the invisible border. Dying while the world watched with morbid fascination.
It was strange and disturbing, being so near, seeing everything yet hearing nothing. A few days earlier, Shade had been in this same spot eating a cereal bar, and the kids on the other side had watched her every bite with a predatory intensity. They had salivated like dogs. Shade had not made that mistake again.
Then had come rumors of a terror to dwarf all others in the dome. A terror called Gaia, though the signs held up inside the dome used half a dozen different spellings. Guyuh. Gayu.
Dozens of fake Gaia Twitter and Facebook and Instagram accounts under that name, all finding the notion terribly amusing. Until the tape.
Not long after the moment the nuke had detonated, the dome’s force field had failed for just a split second; for reasons no one understood then or later, a young man named Alex, an adult of sorts, had been attempting to climb the dome. The dome had flickered for just a split second and he had fallen through, becoming the only adult inside. His bad luck.
It had been his arm that Gaia had torn from his body. She had then cooked the flesh with a blast of searing light from her hands and ripped the medium-rare flesh, chewing and swallowing as the man named Alex lay traumatized and weeping at her feet. This event had been caught on video. The video practically burned down the internet, as everyone on planet Earth not living in a cave or a coma watched it in appalled fascination.
That had taken a lot of the fun out of #GaiaForPresident.
It was that girl, that monster Gaia, who now appeared at the south end of the dome, covered in blood and burns, her clothing rags.
Shade Darby’s phone rang, making her jump. Her mother, of course. She knew why her mother was calling. Dr. Heather Darby was making sure her daughter was safe in the barracks, because Heather Darby, at that moment just a hundred feet away in a tent crammed with scientific equipment, knew her daughter did not always listen to her.
Shade let the call go to voice mail. No way was she leaving. No way was she going to miss this. The show was approaching its climax; Shade could sense it. Something big was coming.
There came the chime of a text. Shade did not even look at it.
And then, as Gaia stared balefully down at the huddled mass of frightened children pressed against the dome wall, she raised her bloody hands.
“Shade! Shade Darby!” Her mother’s voice was barely audible above the rising swell of voices as people cried out and pointed.
Gaia raised her hands, and beams of light so bright that Shade could scarcely look at them stabbed from Gaia’s upraised palms into the crowd of children pressed desperately, hopelessly inside the dome.
For what felt like slow-ticking minutes, Shade stared in disbelief. Children were sliced through by the beam of light. Children burned. A boy no more than seven years old melted like a candle in a microwave, burned and melted, and from Shade’s throat came a rising wail, a scream, and all around her screams and bellows of horror, and then it had all risen in pitch, because sound did not escape the dome . . . but light did!
Gaia’s killing beams scythed through the children in the dome but stabbed as well through the transparent barrier. Laser light burned cops, tourists, and media. It burned the Families. It burned the tacky souvenir stands with their plastic dome key chains.
People became herd animals, a mass of wildebeest spotting a lioness springing from the tall grass. People recoiled, backed away, saw the person standing beside them decapitated, and ran in sheer panic, all reason gone, shoving and climbing over one another as those deadly beams swept left and right, and people were cut down as they ran. Arms and heads dropped away like macabre litter, torsos ran two steps before toppling over. Seared human meat smoked and sent up a nauseating barbecue smell.
Shade felt her body tingling, felt her heart seem to stop then speed up, felt the echo of her own screams inside her head as she lay facedown, hugging the ground, but never looking away. She never once looked away as trapped children, their mouths open in unheard cries of despair, died before her eyes, died so close she would have felt their last breath.
Then behind Gaia came a creature that seemed almost to be made of gravel. It barreled down the hill, heavy and awkward, a boulder with thick legs and windmilling arms. It slammed into Gaia and sent the blood-drenched monster-child flying. There came a ragged cheer from the onlookers crawling on the ground like Shade, or cowering at what they hoped was a safe distance behind emergency vehicles and National Guard Humvees.
Inside the dome a handsome boy with dark hair and a commanding air appeared. He was improbably armed with a shoulder-held missile, like something from a news report of distant war. He leveled the missile and fired it at Gaia. The missile flew leaving a trail of smoke and sparks, traveling a short distance, and missing its intended target. It exploded silently against the inside of the barrier, a dozen feet above Shade’s head. She recoiled in reaction, pressing her face into the dirt, hands over her ears though there was no shock wave.
The explosion inside the dome shattered the stone creature, stripped the outer covering away, leaving, for just a moment, an almost-human shape. A boy. But a dead boy. He fell alongside dozens of others, and bloody Gaia howled silent rage and brutish laughter.
She was, Shade thought, the most amazing creature she had ever seen or imagined: fearless, insane, evil, and powerful. A demented young goddess. Fascinating.
Beyond Gaia, the boy who fired the missile seemed to shrug. They were speaking, Gaia and the dark-haired boy, an almost normal-seeming conversation. Others on the inside looked on, tense, but keeping their distance. The boy was a teenager not that much older than Shade herself, but he did not have youthful eyes.
Then came a blast of light so intense it burned Shade’s retinas, blinding her temporarily. She rubbed her eyes and blinked, and when she could see again, both the dark-haired boy and bloody Gaia were ashes.
And suddenly Shade heard new sounds, from a new direction, from inside! Screams. Cries. Moans of pain and the gibbering of pure terror. She smelled the smoke of the burning forest at the far end of the FAYZ. She smelled the final, sickening excretions of the dead so near at hand. She smelled the brackish odor of freshly spilled blood.
A dead child sagged forward and lay across the line of the dome wall, hand outstretched, almost touching Shade.
The dome was . . . gone!
A panicked mob of the starved, filthy, ragged, scabbed, heavily armed inhabitants of the Perdido Beach Anomaly rushed heedlessly out into the world. Dozens of them clambered madly over their own dead and wounded friends. One, in her panic, kicked Shade’s head, stunning her. Shade tried to rise to avoid being trampled, and a girl, no more than ten or eleven years old, raced screaming by, swinging a machete at imaginary pursuers. The blade caught the side of Shade’s throat.
No pain, not at first, just shock as Shade pressed her hand to the wound and gaped as it came away red to the wrist.
She sank back onto the ground, wanting to cry for help, wanting to call to her mother now, her mother who no longer cried her name.
Shade felt suddenly dizzy, woozy, feet and hands not working quite . . . She rolled onto her back and looked up at the cloudless sky. Strange. The sky. Blue. She felt the rhythmic pulsing of her lifeblood escaping the confines of her arteries.
She blinked. She thought the word “Mom,” and fell swirling down into unconsciousness.
Ten minutes later, Shade woke to find herself lying on a gurney, flashing lights everywhere, her vision blurred, head pounding, needles in her elbow, a blood pressure cuff around her wrist, thick bandages around her throat. An EMT squeezed a bag of plasma to force the lifesaving fluid into Shade’s collapsing arteries. Shade, barely clinging to paralyzed, nightmarish consciousness, blinked furiously to clear her vision, and focused at last on a black plastic body bag. And on the gloved hand of the fireman pulling the zipper up.
Up and over her mother’s face.
“THE FIRST SUPERHERO was not Superman,” Malik Tenerife said to Shade Darby. “It was Gilgamesh. Like, four thousand years ago. Superstrong, supersmart, unstoppable in battle.” He raised a finger for each point.
“First name Gil, last name Gamesh?”
“That’s very cute, Shade. Pretty sure they were making that same joke four thousand years ago. Gilgamesh, baby: the first superhero.”
“Not going with Jehovah?”
“I don’t think gods count as superheroes,” Malik said.
“Mmmm. They do if they aren’t real gods,” Shade countered. “I mean, Wonder Woman is an Amazon, Thor is one of the gods of Asgard, and wasn’t Storm from X-Men some sort of African deity?”
Malik sat back, shaking his head. “You know, I kinda hate when you do that.”
“When you pretend not to know something and then kneecap me.” For a boy who supposedly hated it, he was smiling pretty broadly.
Shade laughed delightedly, something she rarely did. “But it’s so fun.”
His face grew serious and he leaned forward across the tiny table. “Are you really going to do this, Shade? You know it’s a felony, right? A federal crime? Worse, this is national security we’re talking about.”
Shade shrugged. They were at the Starbucks on Dempster Avenue, in Evanston, Illinois. It was busy, jammed with the usual early morning crowd—college kids, ponytail moms, two women in the fluorescent vests of road workers, high school kids like Shade, college kids like Malik, all breathing steam and tracking wet in on their shoes, all stoking the caffeine furnace.
It was noisy enough that they could talk without too much concern for being overheard, but Shade wished Malik had not used the word “felony,” because that was exactly the kind of word people had a tendency to overhear.
They sipped their drinks—Grande Latte for Malik, Tall Americano with a little half-and-half for Shade—checked the time, and left. Malik was a tall, lithe black boy, seventeen, with hair in loose ringlets that had a tendency to fall into his eyes, the endearing effect of which he was quite well aware. Those occasionally ringleted eyes were perpetually at half-mast as if to conceal the penetrating intelligence behind them. His expression at rest was benign skepticism, as if he was not likely to believe you but would keep an open mind.
Shade was a seventeen-year-old white girl with auburn hair cut to give her the look of someone who might be inclined to curse, smoke weed, and just generally be trouble. Only two of those things were true.
She had brown eyes that could range from amused and affectionate to chilly and unsettling—effects she deployed quite consciously. She was tall, five foot eight, and had the sort of bone structure that would have caused people to say, “Hey, you should be a model,” but for the impressive scar that ran just beneath her jaw on the right side and behind her ear and gave her a swashbuckling air. If there were ever a movie role for Blackbeard’s pirate niece, Shade would have been a natural for the part.
Shade was effortlessly charismatic, with a hint of something regal about her. But despite the charm and the cheekbones, Shade was not a popular kid at school. She was too bookish, too aware, too impatient, too ready to let people know she was smarter than they were. And beyond that, there was something about Shade that felt too old, too serious, too dark; maybe even something a bit dangerous.
Malik knew where that feeling of danger came from: Shade was obsessed. She was like some online game addict, but her obsession was with a very real event, with fear and death and guilt. And it was no game.
It was chilly out on the street, not real Chicago cold—that was coming—just chilly enough to turn exhalations to steam and make noses run. The little business section of Dempster—Starbucks, pizza restaurant, optometrist, seafood market, and the venerable Blind Faith Café—was just west of the corner at Hinman Avenue. Hinman—where Shade lived—was a street of well-tended Victorian homes behind deep, unfenced front lawns. Trees—mature elms and oaks—had already dropped many of their leaves, gold with green accents, on lawns, sidewalks, the street, and on parked cars, plastering windshields with nature’s art.
Shade and Malik walked together down to Hinman where the bus stop was. There were six kids already milling around.
“Well, I’ll see you, Shade,” Malik said. There was something off in the way he said it, a tension, a worry.
Shade heard that note and said, “Stop worrying about me, Malik. I can take care of myself.”
He laughed. He had an unusual laugh that sounded like the noise a hungry seal made. Shade had always liked that about him: the idiot laugh from such a smart person. Also, the smile.
And also the feel of his arms and his chest and his lips and . . . But that was all past tense now. That was all over and done with, though the friendship remained.
“It probably won’t work,” Malik said.
“Are you rooting against me?” Shade asked archly.
“Never.” The smile. And a sort of salute, fist over heart, like something he’d probably seen on Game of Thrones. But it worked. Whatever Malik did, it generally somehow worked.
“I’m going to do it, Malik. I have to.”
“I thought that was the name of a perfume,” she joked, not expecting a laugh and getting only a very serious look from Malik.
“You know you can always call me, right?”
Shade lifted her cup to tap his and they had a cardboard toast. “You should not be hitting on high school girls,” she said.
“What choice do I have? Northwestern girls aren’t dumb enough to buy my line of bullshit,” he said, and started to go, walking backward away from her, toward the Northwestern campus just a few blocks north. “Anyway, you’ll be a college girl next year.”
He was six months older than her, always a year ahead.
“Also, wasn’t the Sandman basically a god . . . ,” Shade called after him.
“I’m going to class now,” Malik said, and covered his ears. “I can’t hear you. Lalalalala.”
But Shade’s focus had already shifted to the new kid at the bus stop. A Latino boy, she guessed. Tall, six-two, quite a good-looking kid.
Wait. Nope. Maybe not a boy, exactly.
He or possibly she looked nervous, the new kid. His dark eyes were wary and alert. And made up, with just a little eyebrow pencil and a delicate touch of mascara.
The others at the stop were a pair of freshmen boys who looked like they should still be in middle school; a black kid named Charles or Chuck or something—she couldn’t recall—who had never yet been seen without earbuds; and two massive, muscular members of the football team, one white, one black, neither in possession of a definable neck.
“That is going to be trouble,” Shade muttered under her breath. Both of the Muscle Twins were eyeballing the new kid with a bored, predatory air.
No one spoke to Shade as she positioned herself a little apart, on the sidewalk, where she could watch. She sipped her coffee and waited, watching the football guys, noting the nudges and the winks. She could smell violence in the air, a whiff of testosterone, sweat, and pure animal aggression.
She noticed as well that the new kid was quite aware of potential trouble. His eyes darted to the football players, and when they moved behind him, Shade could practically see the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
Evanston had always been the very epitome of enlightened tolerance, but a perhaps gay, perhaps trans kid and bored football players with their systems pumped full of steroids did not always make for a good mix. And lately Evanston had begun to change, to fray somehow, to fade a little as if it were a movie being shown on a projector with a dimming bulb.
“Hey, answer a question for us,” the white player said to the new kid. Shade saw the newbie flinch, saw him withdraw fractionally, but then, with a will, recover his position and face up to the player who was an inch shorter but heavier by probably a hundred pounds of muscle.
“What are you?”
There was a split second when the new kid thought about evading. There was even a quick glance to plan an escape route. But he didn’t back down.
“My name is Cruz,” the kid said. He wore his black hair long and loose, almost to his shoulders, swept to one side. Shade shook her head imperceptibly, watching, analyzing.
“Didn’t ask your name, asked what you are.” This from the black player. “See, I heard you’re crazy. I heard you think you’re a girl.”
Shade nodded. Ah, so that was it. Shade was gratified to have an answer. She had never really talked to a trans person before, maybe she should make an effort to meet this new kid—assuming he survived the next few minutes.
Mental check: he or she? Shade made a note to ask Cruz which worked best for him. Or her. And decided in the meantime to insert female pronouns into her own internal monologue. Not that her internal monologue—or her pronoun choices—would matter to the kid who, from all indications, was seconds away from serious trouble.
Cruz licked her lips, glanced up the street, and sighed in obvious relief: the school bus was wheezing and rattling its way up the street. Thirty seconds, Shade figured. Cruz thought she was safe, but Shade was not so sure.
“I don’t think I’m a girl, and I don’t think I’m a boy, I just am what I am,” Cruz said. There was some defiance there. Some courage. Cruz wasn’t small or weak, but she was both when compared to the football players.
“You either got a dick or you don’t got a dick.” The white one again. Obviously a philosopher. Shade had the vague sense that his name might be Gary. Gary? Greg? Something with a “G.”
“You seem way too interested in what I have in my pants,” Cruz said.
Shade winced. “Mmmm, and there we go,” she said under her breath.
The bus rolled up, wheels sheeting standing water from the gutter. It was the black one (who Shade believed was named Griffin . . . or was she confusing her “G” names?) who shoved Cruz into the side of the still-moving bus.
Cruz lost her footing, staggered forward, and threw up her hands too late to entirely soften the impact of her face on yellow-painted aluminum. There was a definite thump of flesh-padded bone against aluminum, and the rolling bus spun Cruz violently, twisted her legs out from under her, and she fell to her knees in the gutter.
The bus stopped, the door opened, and the gnome of a driver, oblivious, said, “Let’s move it, people.”
Earbud boy and the two frightened freshmen, as well as the two lumbering thugs, all piled aboard.
“There’s a kid hurt out here,” Shade told the driver.
“Well, tell him to get on board, he can see the nurse when we get to school.”
“I don’t think she can do that,” Shade said.
Cruz sat on the curb. Blood poured from her nose, and hot tears cut channels in the red, all in all a rather gruesome sight.
Don’t think about a face covered in blood. Don’t go back to that place.
Shade made a quick decision, an instinctive decision. “Go ahead, I’m taking a sick day,” Shade told the driver. The bus pulled away, trailing vapor and fumes.
“Hey,” Shade said. “Kid. You need me to call 911?”
Cruz shook her head. Her breath came in gasps that threatened to become sobs.
“Come with me, I’ll get you a Band-Aid.”
Cruz stood and made it most of the way up before yelping in pain as she tried her left ankle. “Go ahead, I’ll be fine,” Cruz said. “Not my first beating.”
Shade made a soundless laugh. “Yeah, you look fine. Come on. Throw an arm over my shoulders, I’m stronger than I look.” For the first time the two of them made eye contact, Cruz’s tear-filled, furious, hurt, expressive brown eyes and Shade’s more curious look. “I live just down the block. You can’t walk and you’ve got blood all down your face. So either let me call 911, or come with me.”
It was all said in a friendly, easygoing tone of voice, but much of what Shade said tended to have a command in it, like she was talking to a child, or a dog. Lack of self-confidence had never been an issue for her.
They nearly tripped and fell a few times—Cruz had to lean heavily on Shade—but in the end they made their way down the sidewalk and turned left onto the walkway that led through a gate, beneath the tendrils of an overgrown and fading panicle hydrangea bush, to Shade’s back door.
They entered through a kitchen much like every other kitchen in this well-heeled neighborhood: granite counters, a restaurant-quality six-burner stove, and the inevitable double-wide Sub-Zero refrigerator. Shade fetched a baggie, filled it with ice, and handed it to Cruz.
“Come on.” They headed upstairs, Cruz holding the carved-wood railing and hopping, with Shade behind her ready to catch her if she fell backward.
Shade’s room was on the second floor, walls a cheerful yellow, a gray marble bathroom visible through a narrow door. There was a queen-size bed topped by a white comforter. A desk was against one wall. A dormer window framed a padded window seat.
And there were books. Books in neat shelves on both sides of the desk, between the dormer and the southwest corner, piled around the window seat, piled on an easy chair, piled on Shade’s bedside table.
Shade swept a pile of books from the easy chair and Cruz sat. Shade stepped into her bathroom and came back with a bottle of rubbing alcohol, tissues, a yellow tube of Neosporin, a box of bandages, and a glass of water.
“Put your leg up on the corner of the bed,” Shade instructed. Cruz complied and Shade laid the ice bag over the twisted ankle. “Take these. Ibuprofen; it will hold the swelling down and dull the pain.”
“Mmmm, yes, that’s what everyone says about me,” Shade said with a droll, self-aware smile. “That I’m just too darn nice.”
Cruz carefully wiped blood away, using her phone as a mirror. Then, suddenly remembering, she pulled a small, purple Moleskine notebook from her back pocket. It was swollen from curb water in one corner, but otherwise unharmed. Cruz stuck it into a dry jacket pocket with a sigh of relief as Shade fetched a trash can for the bloody Kleenex.
“Shade Darby, by the way. That’s my name.”
“It’s something to do with the moment of my conception. I gather there were trees. Not the kind of thing I ask too many questions about, if you know what I mean. And you’re Cruz.”
Cruz nodded. “In case you’re wondering, I have a dick.”
That earned a sudden, single bark of laughter from Shade, which in turn raised a disturbing red-and-white smile from Cruz.
“Is that a permanent condition?” Shade asked.
Cruz shrugged. “I don’t have a short answer.”
“Give me the long one. I’ll tell you if I get bored.” She flopped onto her bed.
“Okay. Well . . . you know it’s all on a spectrum, right? I mean, there are people—most people—who are born either M or F and are perfectly fine with that. And some people are born with one body but a completely different mind, you know? They know from, like, toddler age that they are in the wrong body. Me, I’m . . . more kind of neither. Or both. Or something.”
“You’re e), all of the above. You’re multiple choice, but on a true-false test.”
That earned another blood-smeared grin from Cruz. “Can I use that line?”
“I understand spectra, and I even get that sexuality and gender are different things,” Shade said, sitting up. “This is not Alabama, after all. Or it didn’t used to be. Our sex ed does not end with Adam and Eve.”
“You’re . . . unusual,” Cruz said.
“Mmmm,” Shade said.
“I like boys, mostly,” Cruz said with a shrug. “If that clears anything up.”
“Me too,” Shade said. Then, with a small skeptical sound, she added, “In theory. Not always in reality.”
Cruz gave her a sidelong glance. “I saw you with that boy, the tall, dark, and crazy-good-looking one?”
“Malik?” Shade was momentarily thrown off stride. She was not used to people as observant as herself.
“He likes you.”
“Liked, past tense. We’re just friends now.”
Cruz shook her head slowly, side to side. “He looked back at you, like, three times.”
“So, you’re a straight girl trapped in the body of a gay boy? Walk me through it.” Shade deliberately shifted the conversation back to Cruz, and she was amused and gratified to see that Cruz knew exactly what she was doing.
Smart, Shade thought. Too smart? Just smart enough?
“I am e), all of the above, trapped in a true-false quiz,” Cruz said. “You can quote me on that.”
Cruz shrugged. “More ‘she’ than ‘he.’ I don’t get bitchy about it, but, you know, if you can . . .” Now it was Cruz’s turn to shift the topic. “You read a lot.”
“Yes, but I only do it to make myself popular.” The line was delivered flat, and Shade could see that Cruz was momentarily at a loss, not sure if this was the truth, before realizing it was just a wry joke.
It took Cruz maybe a second, a second and a half, to process, Shade noted. Slower than Shade would have been, slower than Malik, but not stupid slow, not at all. Just not genius quick.
“I’ll call us in sick,” Shade said, and pressed her thumb to her phone.
“I don’t think you can do that.”
“Please.” Shade dialed, waited, said, “Hello, this is Shade Darby, senior. I’m feeling a little off today, and I’m also calling in sick for—” She covered the phone and asked, “What’s your legal name?”
“Hugo Cruz Martinez Rojas.”
“Hugo Rojas. Yeah, she’s hurt. A couple of our star football players roughed her up. Yes. No. Uh-huh.” Shade hung up. “See? No problem. The school is already dealing with the swastika incident. They don’t want any more bad publicity.”
“Spray paint on the side of the temporary building, the one they use for music. A swastika and the usual hate stuff, half of it misspelled. It’s two ‘g’s,’ not one. One ‘g’ and it’s a country in Africa. Sad times when someone does that, sadder still when they can’t even spell it.”
Cruz had removed most of the blood from her face and neck, but Shade went to her, took a tissue, and leaned in to wipe a fugitive blood smear from the corner of her mouth.
The gesture embarrassed Cruz, who turned her attention again to the bookshelf beside her. “Veronica Rossi. Andrew Smith. Lindsay Cummings. Dashner. Marie Lu. Daniel Kraus.” Reading the authors’ names from the spines. “And Dostoyevsky? Faulkner? Gertrude Stein? David Foster Wallace? Virginia Woolf?”
“I have eclectic tastes,” Shade said. She waited to see what Cruz made of the rest of her collection.
“The Science of the Perdido Beach Anomaly.” Cruz frowned. “Powers and Possibilities: The Meaning of the Perdido Beach Anomaly. That sounds dramatic. The Physics of the Perdido Beach Anomaly. Way too math-y for me. Our Story: Surviving the FAYZ. I read that one myself—I guess everyone did. I didn’t like the movie, though—they obviously toned it way down.”
“You’re very into the Perdido Beach thing.”
Shade nodded. “Some would say obsessed.”
Some. Like Malik.
“My father is a professor at Northwestern, head of astrophysics. It runs in the family.”
“And your mom?”
“She’s dead.” Shade cursed herself silently. Four years of saying those words and she still couldn’t get them out without a catch in her voice.
“I’m sorry,” Cruz said, her brow wrinkling in a frown.
“Thank you,” Shade said levelly. She had the ability to place a big, giant “full stop” on the end of subjects she did not want to pursue, and Cruz got the hint.
“My father is a plumbing contractor,” Cruz said. “We used to live in Skokie but, well, I had problems at the school. It was a Catholic school and I guess they like their students to be either male or female but not all-of-the-above, or neither, or, you know, multiple-choice. I started out wearing the boys’ uniform, and they didn’t like it when I switched to a skirt.”
“It was a bit short,” Cruz admitted slyly, “but they don’t make a lot of plaid skirts in my size.”
“What do you do when you’re not provoking violence at bus stops?”
Cruz had a silent laugh, an internal one that expressed itself in quiet snorts, wheezes, and wide grins, sort of the diametric opposite of Malik. “Are you asking what I want to be when I grow up? That’s my other secret. I’ve gotten to the point where I can mostly deal with the gender stuff, but writing . . . I mean, you tell people you want to write and they roll their eyes.”
“I’ll be sure to look away when I roll my eyes,” Shade promised.
“Yes, I want to be Veronica Roth when I grow up. You know she’s from here, right? She went to Northwestern.”
“What do you write about?”
Cruz shrugged uncomfortably. “I don’t know. It’s probably just therapy, you know? Working out my own issues, but using fictional characters.”
“Isn’t that what all fiction writers do?”
Cruz did a short version of her internalized laugh.
Shade nodded, head at a tilt, eyeing Cruz closely. “You . . . are interesting.” Something in the way she said it made it a benediction, a pronouncement, and a small, gratified smile momentarily appeared on Cruz’s lips.
After that they chatted about books, ate chips and salsa, and drank orange juice; they watched a little TV, with Shade leaving the choice of shows to Cruz because, of course, Shade was testing her, or at least studying her.
Cruz actually is interesting. And . . . useful?
The day wore on, and the swelling in Cruz’s ankle worsened until it was twice its normal size but then began slowly to deflate like a balloon with a slow leak. The pain receded as well, beaten back by ibuprofen, ice, and the recuperative powers of youth.
All the while Shade considered. She liked this odd person, this e) in a true-or-false world, this person who tried to wear a skirt to Catholic school, this smart but not too smart, funny, self-deprecating, seemingly aimless creature who wanted to be a writer.
Person, Shade chided herself. Not creature, person. She was aware that she had a tendency to analyze people with the intensity and the emotional distance of a scientist counting bacteria on a slide.
Shade needed help, backup, support, she knew that, and her only currently available choice was Malik, who would resist and delay and generally try to get in her way. Malik was a chronic rescuer, one of those boys—young men, actually, in Malik’s case—who thought it was their duty in life to get between every bully and their victim and every fool and their fate. Had he been at the bus stop, he would have launched himself in between the two football players and gotten a beat-down, and it would be his blood she was wiping away, and him she was making ice packs for, and him here in her bedroom . . .
And that is not a helpful place to go, Shade.
They had been drawn to each other from the start, four years ago when Shade had returned to live with her father after the life-changing disaster at Perdido Beach. At first they’d been friends. He had visited her in the hospital after her second surgery, the one to repair the nerves on the right side of her face—she had not been able to feel her cheek. In later years they had become a great deal more, each the other’s first.
The breakup had been Shade’s decision, not Malik’s. He had wanted more of her, more commitment, more openness. But Shade liked her secrets. She liked her privacy, her control over her life.
Now Shade reached a conclusion: time to pull the pin on the hand grenade, or light the fuse, or some such simile.
Fortune favors the bold, and all that.
“My father is actually doing some work for the government,” Shade said.
“Like for NASA?”
“Mmmm, well, not exactly. How are you at keeping secrets, Cruz?”
Cruz waved a languid hand down her body. “I’m a gender-fluid kid who had been passing as muy macho until, like, six months ago. I can keep a secret.”
“Yeah.” Shade nodded, tilted her head, considered, careful to keep a gently amused expression on her face to conceal the cold appraisal in her eyes.
She owes me. I rescued her. She has no friends.
She’ll do it.
“My dad’s, um, tracking the path of what they’re calling an ASO—Anomalous Space Object. Several, actually. Seven, to be precise, ASO-Two through ASO-Eight.”
Cruz lifted a plucked eyebrow. “What happened to ASO-One?”
“Oh, ASO-One already landed on Earth years ago. They think all eight ASOs are pieces from the same source, an asteroid or planetoid that blew up, sending some interstellar shrapnel our way. One of the pieces—ASO-One—managed to catch a ride on Jupiter’s gravity well and got here ahead of the rest. Just about nineteen years ahead. The other fragments took a longer route. But ASO-Two through -Eight are scheduled to intercept Earth over the next few weeks.”
Shade saw that Cruz had not made the connection, not figured it out, and that was a little disappointing. But then, a flicker and a frown, and Cruz made direct eye contact and asked, “Nineteen years ago? Wasn’t that . . .”
Shade nodded slowly. “Mmmm. Nineteen years ago ASO-One entered Earth’s orbit and slammed into a nuclear power plant just north of the town of Perdido Beach, California.”
That froze Cruz solid for a long minute. Her eyes searched Shade’s face, trying to see whether Shade was just kidding. Because this wasn’t some little secret, like “I’ve got a crush on . . .” This was a secret two high school kids who barely knew each other should not possess.
Cruz swallowed a lump. “You’re talking about the alien rock?”
“The rock that changed the world,” Shade confirmed. “The rock that rewrote the laws of physics. The rock that turned random teen sociopaths into superpowered killers. That rock.”
“And you’re . . . you’re saying there are more coming?”
“According to my father’s calculations, and he is very good at his job. He’s tracking the rocks. One lands today off the coast of Scotland. That’s ASO-Two. Another, ASO-Three, hits in just a few days.”
Cruz shifted uncomfortably, obviously realizing that Shade was no longer making idle chitchat. A message was being delivered. A question hung in the air.
“It’s supposed to land in Iowa. Or it was,” Shade said. “Now, with some updated numbers, they think it will land in Nebraska. There’ll be a whole government task force there to grab it: HSTF-Sixty-Six: Homeland Security Task Force Sixty-Six. Yes, they’ll be there with helicopters and police escort and various scientists. In Nebraska.”
The air between them seemed to vibrate.
“Nebraska,” Cruz said.
Shade nodded. “Uh-huh.” Time to go all-in, to trust her instincts. “But the truth is it will land in Iowa, as originally calculated.”
“So, um . . .”
“So . . . someone changed the inputs,” Shade said, her voice low and silky. “Someone with access to my father’s computer. My dad is a genius, but his memory for little things isn’t great, so he sticks a Post-it to the bottom of his keyboard. You know, for his password.”
The play of emotion across Cruz’s face was fascinating to Shade. First Cruz thought she was hearing wrong. Then she thought Shade was teasing. And then, finally, even before she asked, she knew Shade was telling the truth.
Cruz, Shade thought, should never play poker: her face revealed all. She could practically see the shiver go up Cruz’s spine.
Cruz said, “You.” It was not a question.
“I’m pretty good at math,” Shade said. “And Wolfram Alpha helps.”
Shade nodded and tilted her head to the “quizzical” position. “The question is, Cruz, why did I change the numbers?”
It was a clear test, a clear challenge, and Cruz passed, saying, “You’re going to try to take the rock.”
“No,” Shade said. “I won’t try. I’ll succeed.” Then, after a beat, added, “Especially if you help me.”