Most nights, and some mornings before sunrise, I sneak to the back of the shed, and I practice. I push myself off the ground, telling my body to go weightless, and hover. An inch, two, six, a foot. I stay there for seconds, then minutes.
I can’t generate enough tension between my body and the air to take a step — can’t even make myself drift. I’d give anything just to be able to float along like a freaking ghost.
I’m a One — a half-superpowered freak. It’s the same sad story for all of us. Every superpower is made up of at least two distinct abilities. A kid can only fly if she can make her body light and then somehow propel herself forward.
Two powers. Not one.
Every One puts up with getting teased at Superior High, waiting for their second ability to show up. While they do, that One power starts to fade. There are still shimmers of it, but after a while, the kid quits trying and the One fizzles into nothingness. Then their disappointed Super parents ship them off to Nelson “Normal” High, like mine did.
Here’s my secret – I never quit trying.
This morning, standing in our weedy backyard surrounded by a chorus of crickets, behind the ancient shed with chipping red paint, I go weightless. It happens so fast that I feel like I’m being pushed upward. My heart jumps.
I try to move, try to resist the air or push it away from me, and…nothing. I’ve been practicing so much that I’ve gotten fast at going light. So I’m a speedy floater. Great.
I could hover here forever, until my muscles strain, then burn, then ache, then tremble, weeping and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. I’d just end up collapsing on the grass.
Nevertheless, I smile when I have to will some weight into my body to keep from floating above the shed. I definitely cleared three feet this time. Four years of hard work, and I can float an extra two feet.
Maybe by the time I’m eighty, I can say “hi” to the folks taking hot air balloon rides at the Nebraska State Fair.
I’ve watched all the old-school cartoons about misfit superhero kids that just need to work on developing their powers in order to totally rule. But I’m not a freaking X-Man. I know I can’t work on my One power hard enough for it to become something better, something more. And it’s not like I can magically give myself a Second.
I know. I know.
But my body whispers to me. It tells me I can fly, if only I’m brave enough, strong enough, determined enough.
I sigh and trudge back to the house, being careful to dry the dew from my shoes before heading in to get ready for my first day at Normal.
Dad slows the car as Nelson High comes into view. It’s about a third of the size of Superior High, and the building’s face is shot through with mossy cracks, dull with years of dirt the groundskeepers didn’t bother to power wash before the first day. It’s a strange contrast to the slick solar panels that blanket the roof, glinting silver-blue and reflecting the sky full of white, fluffy clouds. Most people think these older-model panels are hideous, but I always love it when a building’s roof looks like an extension of the sky.
I can’t take my eyes off the school, but I can feel Dad looking at me from the driver’s seat.
“Dad.” I pat his knee, a little awkwardly. “I’m just going to school. A different one, but still just school. I’ll be fine. Maybe better. You know…than I was.”
Dad eyes me. He doesn’t believe me, but he’s going to pretend he does.
I clear my throat. “You could have let me drive myself.”
“What if you didn’t get a pass? Or couldn’t find a spot? Best to figure out the lay of the land…”
“The lay of the land” is one of the phrases Dad uses when he’s worried. To be honest, I’m worried myself.
It’s been ten years since my One power — going weightless — showed up. Seven years since Mom and Dad started to worry in whispered voices that I’d never get a Second, like the other kids. Only one year since I’d pretty masterfully failed at Superior High. One year since we all knew I would always float instead of fly — knew I would only ever be a One.
I was worried sophomore year at Superior would suck anyway, what with the fliers and the speeders and the teleporters rubbing their superpowers in my face just by being there. This way, maybe it doesn’t have to.
“Did your hair for the first day, Merry Berry?” Dad flips an end of my hair with his finger. He’s lucky I’m feeling slightly optimistic this morning, or I might mess his up right back. It looks flawless for work at the Hub, as usual.
I don’t answer.
“Well,” he says, “you look beautiful.”
I humor him with a shake of my head and a smile.
All my features are slight, like my stature: a pixie nose, near-translucent skin with not even a freckle to decorate my cheeks, sparse eyebrows.
But my hair is the worst. The longer I let it grow, the more it tapers from thick brunette into dull, baby-fine ends, so I keep it short, at my shoulders. At least it waves instead of lying stick-straight. It’s as wispy as the clouds on a clear day.
“I know Mom gave you a new lock. Did you clear out your smartcuff from last year?”
I roll my eyes and push up my sleeve to show him that, yes, the three-inch-wide, flexible tablet that holds all the information I need to get through the day (besides acting as a phone, GPS, and universal ID) has been wiped clean of all the stuff I needed at Superior. I don’t tell him that I spent days hacking it to change the ID status from “Merrin Grey: One” to “Merrin Grey: Normal.”
I pop the handle open and crack the door before we’re even fully stopped. The football field, which peeks out from behind the school, has a fresh frame of bright white lines and a state-of-the-art looking scoreboard. I imagine the classrooms and locker rooms feature an according disparity. Great.
“Three-thirty, Dad. Okay?” I scoot myself out of the seat and onto the sidewalk. I let the door fall shut before he can answer. Not because I’m trying to be rude, but because I think if I hear Dad’s voice now, I might cry and mess up the first mascara I’ve worn for about 10 months.
I’m not really upset about transferring from Superior High to Nelson.
I’m not. I’m not.
No one really says it out loud, but everyone knows Supers and Normals hate each other — too much decades-old bad blood. Supers say the Normals were jealous of them, and that’s what caused tensions in the first place. Normals say they didn’t know anything about Supers or whether they could be trusted.
I can see that. The way the Supers treated me — a sad, powerless kid — at SHS, I figure maybe the Supers scared the crap out of Normals sixty years ago. Super-strength or teleporting or being able to shoot fire could be terrifying if it was used as a threat.
Being a One is the worst — we’re caught exactly in between Super and Normal, between stuck-up and terrified. Supers assume we’re jealous, and Normals assume we’re full of ourselves.
But here, I’m the new kid. No one knows anything about me. And no one has to. I take a deep breath through my nose, trying to ease the pit in my stomach.
I’m feeling a little too light this morning.
The wind feels like it might blow me away today. My loose, tissue-thin shirt hangs off my bony shoulders, blows against the curve of my back, and I know that everyone can tell how thin I am in the tank top underneath. My cuffed denim shorts go down to my knees, and because Mom picked them up in the girl’s department, they fit snugly to my legs. That’s fine since I learned that baggy pants only made me look ridiculous and even tinier.
I look down at the ground and take a deep breath. Heavy. Be heavy. My eye catches the one thing that can make me smile: my blue plaid Chucks. My brothers, Michael and Max, gave them to me for my sixteenth birthday last month. They thought I would like them, and they were absolutely right. Awesome kids, no matter how jealous I am of their insanely rare water-walking skills.
With any luck, this year will just be the boring prelude to where I really belong: occupying one of the spots in the Biotech Hub’s summer internship program. I can do anything if it leads to that. I breathe deeply, hoping the air pressure in my lungs will make me heavier, and take my first steps toward a normal year at Nelson High.
I’m guessing there are 300 students in the whole school, which means everyone here knows everyone else. I let out a slow sigh of relief when I realize none of the students milling through the halls look at me. Either no one notices me, or no one cares. Or, since it’s the first day and I’m new, I’ll pass for a freshman.
I find the administrative office easily enough. I have to pound on the ancient touchscreen installed there to get my schedule, and when I finally manage to download it onto my cuff, it takes another torturous several minutes of waiting for the map of the school to appear. Through the thick, translucent office wall, something catches my eye. A tall, middle-aged man with glasses and black hair slicked back from his forehead pushes out the door. I swear the faint scent of licorice wafts out after him. He looks just like my organic chemistry professor from Superior High.
Maybe not everything about Normal High will be awful and unfamiliar after all.
I wave my wrist under the ID scanner in a variety of positions, but it just won’t register. It’s all I can do not to growl at it. Finally, it beeps its recognition, and I push out through the door as the stilted robotic voice croaks, “Good morning, sophomore Merrin Grey.”
The hallway teems with students, but I think I see him. Yes. The black hair and those thick-rimmed glasses. That’s got to be him. He’s talking to a petite woman in a navy suit at the end of the hallway, leaning close to her ear, his eyes darting around at the students. They both nod at each other and start to walk down the hall, away from me. She motions toward a door.
As I get closer, I see the placard next to it reads “Principal Lee.” I push through the crowd, but just as they reach the door, some clumsy kid rams into my shoulder, spinning me around. I don’t even care enough to be embarrassed or yell at the jerk because, when I look up, the door’s closing behind them.
I pinch my lips together, cursing under my breath. Mr. Hoffman is the one who came and dragged me out of the first horrific day of freshman biology, gave me a test, checked it over in about three minutes, and walked me to his class full of AP organic chemistry seniors without another word. While the other freshmen were trying to impress each other with their superpowers, I was staying behind in his classroom while he graded assignments, building models and generally kicking Orgo’s ass. By the end of the year, I was working from a college textbook.
Mr. Hoffman’s the one who made me think I could score a spot in the Biotech Hub’s summer internship. Only five kids get to go every year, and I don’t think a One has ever landed a chance.
I slump against one of the walls and check my schedule on my cuff. Nothing with Hoffman. I’m sure that, whatever he’s teaching, it’s so high level I’ll have to get notes from Mom and Dad and a meeting with the principal just to get me a seat in the class. That is, if I actually did see him. I can’t imagine why he would actually leave the state-of-the-art Superior classrooms to come teach at this dump.
I pass my locker, number 5637, noting its location. I have nothing to put in it yet and don’t feel like programming the new print-scanning lock Mom slipped in my bag, so I don’t even stop.
My first class is History: Modern American. I sigh with relief. At Superior High, freshmen take this class, so I should’ve already learned all this stuff. When I click through my reader to find the textbook, though, it’s not AMERICA: PATHWAYS TO PROGRESS, the one we used last year. Instead, it’s AMERICAN HERITAGE AND YOU.
There’s no teacher’s desk at the front of this classroom. When one of the few adults I’ve seen walks into the classroom, plugs a cartridge into a port on the back wall, and a 3-D projector displays a life-sized image of a teacher at the front of the room, I almost cry with disappointment.
This year, the weird projected holo-teacher says, we’ll be focusing on American history post-Uranium Wars, but that she wants to go through a brief summary of that thirty-year period before we begin.
“Seventy-five years ago, foreign missiles suddenly and deliberately attacked a transport of uranium cores being transported to safe storage in the American desert, triggering the Uranium World Wars. The leakage into Lake Michigan made thousands sick, killing some and fundamentally altering the genetic structures of thousands of others.
“Many of these individuals developed extraordinary powers: for example, super-speed or -strength, control of natural forces, teleportation, or telekinesis. Twenty years later, a diabolical group of five of these mutants, all leaders in their communities, formed a plan to assassinate the President of the United States and overthrow the government. Thankfully, it was stopped before damage was done.
“Never had our nation experienced such a threat from within our own borders.
“Most of the mutant population, some 30,000 strong, was concentrated around the Great Lakes. Even after the investigations and trials in the aftermath of said threat, we knew that some among them were potentially dangerous. Though most were loyal Americans, no one knew what would happen among this concentrated population if the new leaders’ efforts congealed into a full-fledged revolution.
“Military authorities therefore determined that all of them would have to move. Tens of thousands of men, women, and children, all affected by supernatural abilities caused by the uranium contamination decades earlier, were removed from their homes to communities in established, out-of-the-way places. Of course, the government helped in any cases of financial hardship and — once the families had reached their destinations — provided housing and plenty of healthful nourishment for all.
“The mutated citizens wanted to go to work developing their abilities for the betterment of society. Many were allowed to do so in areas away from our main government and weapons stores and under appropriate safeguards, with the condition that they would work together with the existing United States government for the welfare of all United States citizens.”
After every sentence this non-teacher speaks, my mouth drops open just a little farther. This is not the history they taught us at Superior.
Of course, they taught us about the Uranium Wars and the attempted government takeover. But the story of the camps sounded totally different at Superior.
Notices were posted. All mutated persons and their families were required to register. The evacuation was not cheerful. Stones were thrown, and jeers were screamed. It was out of fear, they taught us at Superior. Of course the Normals feared the Supers. But this twisting of history was inexcusable.
The lecture doesn’t include video footage of the internment camps’ shoddy housing or the mothers clutching their crying babies while they waited for the food trucks. It doesn’t show the Supers waiting in long lines to see doctors they didn’t trust or the makeshift schoolrooms full of dirty-looking kids in clothes that didn’t fit quite right.
The holo-teacher directs us to the touchscreens in our desktops to answer some multiple choice questions about the lecture. I force my brain to go numb as I answer them the way I know the textbook wants us to.
I don’t know exactly what this means for the next three years I’m supposed to spend here at Nelson High, but after hearing this lecture, I know I can’t spend my life among Normals. No way.
I’ve got to get that internship.
By the time I’ve sat through calculus, bio, and English, I’m feeling grateful for the remote-lecturing holo-teachers — it means there’s no one to ask me to stand at the front of the classroom and introduce myself. That is, until I realize that people are going to start asking me who I am to my face.
I have no idea what to expect from these Normal kids. Will they suspect that I’m not like them? Can they see that I can float if I want to?
I manage to keep my head down all the way to my locker. All I want is to get there to ditch my sweatshirt, retreat to the girl’s room — if I can figure out where it is — lock myself in a stall for a few minutes, and take a deep breath for the first time since I got here.
And maybe eat my lunch in there. Just for today.
I wiggle the handle of my locker, but it won’t open. I bend down to take a look at it. No jerk’s poured superglue in there or anything.
Before I know it, I’m shaking the stupid locker handle so hard that it’s making a racket, and a few people standing near me look over and cock their heads. When I almost whack my own face with my struggling hand, I give up, resting my head against the cool, solid metal for a second, breathing in through my nose.
I am seriously losing it. Over a locker.
Half a second later, a shoulder taller than my head pushes into the metal door, and a large hand with long, thin fingers jiggles the handle side-to-side a couple of times and wrenches it up, letting the locker pop open.
I feel the warmth of his nearness against my cheek, countering the chill of the locker, like a shock on my skin.
The guy clears his throat, and says quietly, “They’re tricky.”
I barely glance at him before I look down at the floor, but I do catch that he has blond hair and glasses.
“You new here?”
Before I can answer, some guy halfway down the hall hollers, “E! Coming?”
The guy at my locker — “E” — gives his head half a shake, smiles a little, then turns to walk away.
And now everyone’s staring at me. Great.
As soon as I find my way to the bathroom, I place both hands on the rim of one of the sinks, steadying myself there. After a few seconds, I splash my face with water and reach over to the soap dispenser. Everything about this place feels dirty.
As I’m lathering my hands, I notice the logo on the soap dispenser. Hub Technology — it appears on every product they make. It’s four arcs, one for each Hub, intersecting in the shape of a circle. Someone has crossed out the “Hub” in “Hub Technology” and written “Freak” next to it.
Suddenly I can’t get enough air into my lungs. I duck into a stall, sit on the toilet, bury my face in my hands, and take one, two deep breaths.
I hope with everything in me that all the other kids actually eat in the cafeteria.
I loathe the idea of art class. Something about the idea of ripping out part of my soul, translating it into colors and materials, and putting it on paper or canvas for everyone to gawk at and misinterpret is completely horrific to me. For self-expression, I’ve always loved my drums. Drumbeats dissolve on the air — they’re out in the world for a moment before they go away. No one knows whether there was anger or frustration or passion or excitement behind them. They don’t give anyone else the time to mess with them. Drumbeats are all mine — the only things I’ve ever had that are.
There are ten of us in the class: three jocks, a couple of girls in tight jeans and new shoes who reek of hairspray, a handful of others. There’s no orange-shirted adult coming in, though. When the bell rings, everyone scoots their seats to a place at one of the wide, black tables.
The sound of metal legs scraping against the floor makes me cringe. I whip my head around, and that blond boy from the hallway scoots his stool a little closer to my desk.
Well, “boy” isn’t an accurate term. It’s even clearer now — with him sitting right next to me outside of the hustle and confusion of the hallway — that he’s a giant. He’s easily six foot two, with a shadow of stubble running across his jaw. My feet barely reach the bottom rung of the art stool, while his slide comfortably on the floor.
“You’re a freshman?” he asks, and looks right into my eyes. For a second, I can’t look away.
He is 100 percent generic looking. He could be anyone. Except for those eyes. I see his irises right through the thick lenses of his glasses — light brown sparked with streaks of green and flecks of blue. I have never seen so many colors in someone’s eyes before.
Then I feel like an idiot because I have spent exactly two seconds too long thinking about the color of some guy’s eyes. I cast my gaze downward, trying to focus on anything but his face.
His jeans don’t have a single rip or fray, but they’re not pristine, either. His gray t-shirt hugs his waist, letting me see how thin he is. Even though he’s two heads taller than me at least, he probably doesn’t break 160 pounds.
“No. Sophomore. I transferred from Superior.” The words come out of my mouth almost before I can think them. “My parents — uh…I thought I’d try something new. They bought a house on the border when I was nine,” I explain, like he should care. Like he needs to know.
For an instant, he looks surprised, and then his eyes sparkle at me when he gives a little smile. “Well. For the electives — music, art, architecture, film, whatever — we just scan our cuffs into the tabletop and pick an assignment. Then it records whatever we do.” I raise an eyebrow. “It probably doesn’t teach us much, I know, but at least no one hassles us.”
“Yeah, okay.” I press my cuff into the input section of the tabletop and choose Option 1: Draw a picture of what you did this summer. Lame, but at least it’ll be over with soon. The blond guy chooses the same option on his half of the table.
“I didn’t get to introduce myself. I’m Elias — I’m a junior.” He sticks out his hand, and I stare at it. It’s so huge — strong but thin, tendons showing in the back of it. If I put my hand against his, palm to palm, my fingertips probably wouldn’t reach his first knuckle.
“I started out at Superior Public,” he says. “Parents took me out after first grade.”
My heart jumps. Is he another One? No, he can’t be. He wouldn’t have transferred away that early unless his parents were absolutely sure he wasn’t going to go Super, and six or seven years old is too young. He must be a Normal.
It would make sense for me to mumble some comment or even get up and walk away, but the space between us suddenly feels weird — charged or something. The fine hairs on my arm stand on end, and I can swear I feel my skin prick. It’s like a magnet, keeping me there, even though I know it’s probably not the best idea to keep talking to this guy because I will waste even more time thinking about his eyes.
I can’t speak to him, but I can’t make myself move away either.
He drops his hand, smiles that slight smile again, and looks down at the blank tabletop in front of him. He pulls a stylus out of his bag. In bold handwriting, all caps, he writes at the top of the screen: “What I Did Over Summer Vacation.” He draws a stick figure lying on a hill in the sunshine, staring up. Then he draws an arrow pointing at it and writes, “Bored,” beside it.
He draws a vertical line to make a new frame and then swipes the old one out of view. Next, he draws a stick figure with a backpack on and a massive building in the distance with a huge sign that says, “Normal High.” A dotted line with an arrow at the end shows him walking in. He motions for me to move my arms off the surface in front of me, and I lean back without thinking. In front of me, he draws a room with long rectangles for chairs and circles for stools and a handful of bodies filling them. He writes “Art Class” at the top, the quotation marks greatly exaggerated. I hold a giggle back in my throat.
I never giggle.
He sketches two stick figures sitting closer to each other than any of the other ones, one much smaller than the other. He labels one “Elias” and the other “Girl Who Won’t Tell Me Her Name.” Then he writes, “(Pretty blue eyes.)”
Well, that does it. This doesn’t feel like the only attention I got from a boy last year — the kind I definitely didn’t want — but I still can’t tell whether it’s good or bad. My stomach does flips, and I have to get out of there. Have to. I hoist my body off my perch on the stool with my left hand, hop down and grab my backpack with my right, and walk toward the door.
I scan my cuff at the door, mumbling, “Bathroom.” The door registers my exit, and I get the hell out of there as fast as I can, not even looking back at his — Elias’s — stupid lanky frame and ridiculous sparkling eyes.
I pace the hall. I tremble from my core and all the way out to my limbs.
In one short year there, I’d seen a few new girls come to Superior High, girls who got shipped in from across the country for the “community” and hadn’t been around those asshole boys for their whole lives, so they didn’t know any better. I heard the jeers of, “Hey, sweetie, you know I’ve got X-ray vision, right? Might as well take it all off right now.” I saw superhuman strength used in threats against girls, veiled or not-so-veiled.
In junior high, Patrick Ryan, who could make people do anything he wanted by talking to them, convinced a girl to drive away with him in his car. The next day, she came to school dressed in the same clothes as the day before, and everyone knew what had happened with her. Her brother kicked the shit out of Patrick, but still.
I was relatively normal when I got to Superior High. Even tried to dress cute for my first day. Sean Cooper, the quarterback, started watching me, and a few days later, he was talking to me kind of a lot. Everything was fine until I realized his Super was strength.
One afternoon in an emptying hallway, he stood so close he forced me back against my locker and put his hand on my shoulder, and I realized everyone else was gone. He leaned down to kiss me, and everything closed in on me, and I told him to stop, but…
His thumb pressed on my cheek, and his breath steamed in my face, suffocating me. I tried to struggle away from him, but I guess he was angry that I didn’t want to kiss him because rage flooded his face, and he glared straight into my eyes as he dug his thumbs into my shoulders. The only way I stood a chance against his iron grip was a swift knobby knee to the balls.
Sometimes I still feel the bruises he left there, like they’ve been pressed into my bones.
Michael and Max were only in the third grade and too young to kick his ass, though they would have loved the chance. I never told them about it. Never told Mom and Dad either. They only thought I was having some pretty serious popularity problems, which, if they noticed how I started dressing after that day, made perfect sense.
Ever since then, I’ve hated to look right into a guy’s eyes. No matter how beautiful they are.
When I hop back in the car with Dad after last bell, I finally feel like I can take a deep breath. Even though I’ve always hated having to remember to plug in the damn electric car, I do love that it lets us ride home in silence. I park myself at the kitchen counter while Dad starts dinner.
My eyes flash to the vintage Public Super Service poster on the kitchen wall. A little girl flies up to a tree branch to rescue a kitten. Below the pigtailed heroine and the unbearably cute kitten, the poster reads, “Supers: Making the World a Better Place.” I know that Mom and Dad bought that poster 10 years ago, when I first went light, and had it framed for our kitchen. Probably hung it with tears in their eyes. That girl was supposed to be me.
“Do you want to talk about it? Your first day?” Mom calls as she enters the house, carefully setting her briefcase on the big bench in the hall. The boys’ shouts fill the back of the house. Mom sighs and walks over the kitchen counter, looking as exhausted as I feel.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” I say, shoving a piece of licorice in my mouth and a pack of snack cakes in my bag for tomorrow. I don’t mention history class. As awful as that holo-lecture was, it wouldn’t be as bad as going back to Superior. And besides, I know how to think for myself. My grandparents met in one of those camps. I already know they were less than comfortable, less than humane. I don’t need to sit in a school where I really don’t belong so a teacher can tell me the same thing.
The boys tromp in, dropping their gear all over the floor, which Mom hates. But instead of yelling at them, she just watches them jostling through the front hallway, punching each other on the shoulders.
“Mom, you okay?”
My words break her gaze. She shakes her head and looks at me for a second before answering. “Oh, yeah. Yes. Just thinking about…just some things at work.” She reaches out to pat my hand, and my shoulders stiffen.
Max tumbles into the kitchen dribbling a basketball and punches me on the shoulder. “D’you have to redo freshman year, Merrin?”
I snort and cuff him on the head. “Yeah, just like you need to go back to kindergarten.” He laughs, grabs a bag of chips from the cabinet, and heads toward the stairs. Michael strolls in after him and leans in to smack a kiss on my cheek.
“Glad to see you made it through in one piece,” he says.
“Thanks,” I mutter, squeezing his shoulder and swallowing hard. Michael darts his hands out in front of him to catch the basketball, which Max has hurled at him so quickly I barely had time to notice.
“What have I said about no sports in the house?” Mom growls.
The boys stifle laughs and head up to their room.
Mom sighs and opens the newsfeed on the touchscreen countertop. Julian Fisk, the head of the Biotech Hub, wearing his trademark impeccable suit, waves from the picture, flashing a grin back at me. The headline reads: FISK ANNOUNCES RENEWAL OF YOUTH OUTREACH INTERNSHIP PROGRAM.
The subtitle should say, “For Super-Extra-Gifted Super Kids Only.” They’re the ones who have been enrolling in mainstream Normal colleges like Harvard and Stanford in increasing numbers over the past few decades. Because, Normal or Super, smart kids are smart kids, and they want prestigious degrees in addition to working for the greater good at one of the Hubs.
It’s not enough anymore for the United States government to pay us for using our Supers, Mom and Dad keep commenting over dinner — now people want to be more integrated into mainstream Normal society than they have been since before the Wars. So the Hub has to do “outreach” — wants to keep our most talented kids close.
The curve of Fisk’s smile challenges me. It’s like he’s daring me to try for that internship. But if I’m getting that internship, it’s not to impress anyone or meet anyone’s challenge. It’s to save myself.
I stare at the countertop feed. I think I catch the phrase, “uncovering decade-old research,” but it’s hard to read most of it upside down. I let my eyes glaze over until the letters blend together and run through the checklist of steps I have left before my application is complete. I already got my freshman year transcript, sat for hours completing the tests until it felt like my stylus would rub my finger raw, and typed the essay. Only two pieces left. Signatures from Mom and Dad — which I would fake if they weren’t fingerprint verified — and a recommendation from Mr. Hoffman.
I sit there, gnawing on the candy and pretending I don’t notice Mom raising her eyes from the feed. She looks sad.
“What?” I snap.
“I didn’t know that still happened, sweetie.”
I look down and groan. The stool is now about three inches below me, and I can see down into Mom’s lap over the screen. I make myself heavy again and plunk down, scowling.
It happens when I lose control. Emotional control, that is.
It started three years ago in junior high, when I used to get teased for being so tiny. Before I knew it, I’d be freaking floating six inches above my seat, and everyone would laugh at me even more.
That day, I got home and Mom had the talk with me. Because she works at the Biotech Hub, she knows all the science behind it, and she talked me through it like most other moms talk to their daughters about boyfriends and birth control.
I would have killed to have been talking about boyfriends and birth control at that moment.
What I got was this: Supers have a genetic mutation that makes them do one awesome thing — lift twelve times their weight, light on fire, create or control electricity, stuff like that. The rest of their genes have to adapt to compensate or allow for that — be indestructible, conduct the spark. It’s like in-person, real-time evolution. Normally, these adaptations show up by puberty.
In Ones, they don’t show up. Ever. So there’s basically a hole in our genetic code. That makes it — the One — kind of unstable. It could manifest any time we’re freaked out, scared or depressed.
That was when I first figured out that having one power was way worse than having none at all.
Mom closes the news feed and reaches out to touch me. Her fingers half-rest, half-hover over my wrist, feather-light. She’s always danced around me like this, like I’m a weak little baby bird that never quite got the guts to fly out of the nest.
Last spring, I saw one of those baby birds. It kind of flopped down from the tree, but it was really determined. It kept hopping from its safe little nest to the street. Then it hopped all the way across, and it didn’t get hit by a car. That bird couldn’t fly, but it ended up okay.
I don’t think that’s inspirational — in fact, I think it’s really sad. And I think that damn baby bird was really lucky. I wonder if it ever did learn to fly, there on the other side of the street, while its family sat around eating fat worms and trying to ignore it.
I’m not that determined. I don’t think.
The little girl on the poster grins at me, and I stare at her, too tired to glare. The slogan makes my heart burn. “Saving the world,” my ass. I hadn’t heard that language at Superior ever. More like, “Building a better world for the poor Normals,” even though no one would say as much. Not out loud, anyway.
Dad walks over from the stove where he’s getting dinner ready. “Want to tell us about your first day?” Dad’s smile is weird. Plastic and cautious. Like he doesn’t expect it to be good news.
I wouldn’t want to disappoint him, I guess. I launch into a diatribe about how ridiculous everything at Normal was, from the hologram teachers to the rusty lockers to the idiot calc students to the disgusting vomit-colored walls.
He’s quiet for a moment. Then he asks, “So what really happened?”
“Oh, come on. You don’t expect me to believe that for a second. Not with that look on your face.”
I go to my default — not saying anything.
“Were the other kids nice?” he asks gently.
I shrug. “They were just kids. I mean…there was this one guy in that sorry excuse for an art class. And…in the hallway.” I rush the next sentence. “But I wouldn’t say he was nice.”
Dad looks at me, crinkling his eyebrows into a questioning expression.
“I don’t know. Whenever he looked at me, all I wanted to do was leave the room. It’s nothing. I’m just moving seats next class.” Or skipping class. Or moving classes altogether.
“Doesn’t sound like ‘nothing’ to me.”
I grimace. “Yeah, well. That’s what it was. Nothing.”
He still watches me, but now he’s got this weird smile.
“What are you grinning at?” I say, and my cheeks feel hot.
I look down at my tablet where I’ve been doodling during our whole conversation. The whole stupid screen is covered with letter Es.
I glare down at it and swipe it blank. “One good thing, though. I think I saw Mr. Hoffman there. I think maybe he took a job at Nelson.” I clear my throat. “Um. Or something.”
“No. I know for a fact that he won’t be at Nelson High this year.” Dad’s voice is gentle but firm. Final.
I look up at him, raising my eyebrows. “I saw him. He was talking to the principal. At least, that’s who I think it was, and…”
“Merrin,” he says firmly. Dad never interrupts, not anyone. I narrow my eyes. “Merry Berry,” he corrects, immediately back to his old self. “I just know he won’t be there.”
“Well…okay.” That reaction from Dad was so weird, but it’s hard to keep the impatience out of my voice. “Do you think you could get him to tutor me or something? He was helping me with Orgo.”
Mom and Dad glance at each other, and my chest squeezes again.
“They don’t even have real teachers at Normal, Dad. They’re all remote, holograms, and their lectures were ridiculous. I did all that stuff in class last year.”
Dad squeezes Mom’s hand. “We’ll work something out.”
He sounds reluctant, and something seems off about the way he looks at Mom. My chest falls.
Science phenoms like me are usually headed for a career at the Biotech Center — if they’re Supers. That’s really all I want to do — experiment with chemicals and formulas I’ve never even dreamed of, help make the Supers’ lives better. Develop stuff to make the whole world better and maybe help myself while I’m at it. But Ones, and certainly not Normals, don’t work at any of the Hubs — security and all.
The horrible Nelson history class was really just the last straw. I’m applying for the internship because I can’t help but think that maybe I’ll be the One who changes things. A One who can actually change herself. But I can’t apply without Mr. Hoffman. He’s the only high school science teacher I’ve ever had.
I cast my eyes down at my hands, which I shift around on the counter, trying to find a position to fold them into that’ll keep me from punching something, or at least a comfortable place for them to rest. That place doesn’t exist.
I bang the rickety screened garage door open and take a deep breath when I see it. My dinky little drum kit. My promise of relief.
Playing the drums works when I’m angry, or when I’m desolate, which are pretty much my only two emotions, so that’s pretty much all the time. Which means — damn, I’m good.
I trip down the three concrete steps into the half of the garage reserved for me and my drums. Dad always parks his car out in the driveway, no questions asked.
I have an old twirly office chair to play on because that’s the only one we could find to adjust high enough for me to play. I check the feet — all the way down. I grin because it means my veiled threat to Michael and Max not to mess with my freaking drums didn’t go in one ear and out the other like it normally does.
I actually never mind when the twins mess with my drums since the set is so haphazard and cheap — $500 used and four years into my abuse to boot. Besides, at 10, the boys are still young enough to be cute when they know they’re in trouble.
Doesn’t excuse the fact that, at five foot three and growing like weeds, when they try to play my drums, they adjust them up. Then I usually stomp in the house, mess up their hair, and yell at them a little bit. Then I buy them cones from the Jet-Freeze down the road when they apologize.
I love those water-walking monsters.
I shake my shoulders, trying to loosen them, surprised at how creaky they feel. I’m sure it’s because I’ve got a ton going on inside me, and I honestly don’t know what to make of it. New school. New Merrin, maybe. One who’s not scared of everyone and hiding it by being pissed off and banging on the drums so loud that no one dares come near her.
When I feel that rumble down the back of my neck, skittering across my shoulders, my hands itch to play. I crank up the speaker, and it screams out something heavy metal, fast and angry. I let my right foot warm up to the rhythm of the bass for two bars, and then my arms pump furiously, beating the crap out of those poor tired snares and cymbals. I’m going to have to give them a damn retirement party if I ever get a new set.
After three furious songs, the tightness in my chest has loosened, and I finally feel like I can breathe again.
I listen for the giant cricket that’s made the back of the garage door track his home for the last few weeks. There he is. The sun must finally be setting. Time to practice again.