Spring 2007 Volume One Issue Two
Laura Anne Gilman
Jordan was a changeling, the other kids whispered in nursery school, at parties, when they got in their cars to go home. The fairies had come and taken the real Jordan, leaving him behind in the crib. He wasn't human. Wasn't real.
He heard them, of course. They meant him to. His mother held him when he cried. "You ignore them," she would say into his small, inverted -- mutant -- ears. "You ignore them, and know your momma and daddy love you."
But daddy had left when Jordan was five, after one too many doctor's appointments, one too many negative results. "Be thankful you have a healthy child," the last doctor said, out of patience with this man who wanted his son to act like all the other kids on the block. "Ten years ago, you would have lost him at birth."
"It's just you and me now, Jordy," his mother had said a week later, when the papers came from the lawyer. At five, even smarter than most kids his age, Jordan hadn't understood how a bunch of papers could say his parents hadn't ever been married, say that he couldn't -- didn't -- exist, and make it be true. By the time he was seven, he understood. His daddy could get an annulment -- say the marriage never happened -- because the Church didn't think he was human, either.
By the time Jordan was ten, he knew he wasn't human either. But that was okay. He knew by then that being human wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
They were playing freeball. Three teams of three players each, and all you had to do was keep the ball out of your zone, any way you could. Jordan, Marta, and Steve had come up with the basic idea during the last, endless days of school last year. The rules were fluid: three players, one for each layer: ground defense, air defense, and attack. A zone was one corner of the field, marked off by old soccer nets, one for each zone. Score any way you could. Keep the other two teams from scoring any way you could.
Jordan was an okay attack-player, and the way his arms and legs were jointed helped him make some catches nobody else could, but it was tough to lose with Marta on your side. She wasn't very tough, but the membrane between her shoulder blades made her the best air-defense player in school. She could jump like a frog, and hover like a kite just long enough to spike the ball away from their territory. Usually onto some grounder's head.
Max was their grounder. He wasn't afraid to dive for the ball, or take a few bonks on the head, either. He wasn't Changed, even though Marta was his twin. There wasn't much reason to how it happed, Jordan's mom said. It just happened.
"To you, Steve, to you, catch it catch it!"
"Ah, bite me, Carly."
Jordan winced when Steve said that. Carly was sensitive about her serpent's teeth; in first grade she had actually taken a chunk of skin from someone's arm when they were wrestling. Jordan couldn't remember whose arm it had been -- wasn't him, but it might have been Ollie, who moved away the next year. Teacher had freaked, town meetings that came to nothing 'cause it was illegal to not let them go to school with everyone else. People had yelled about it for almost a year, both sides. His mom had cried every night, when she thought he couldn't hear.
He never told her he could hear almost everything, long as the air was clear.
"Bag it!" Max yelled, and Jordan surged forward to snatch the ball from his hands, rolling forward to avoid the other team's grounders. Up on his knees, shoulders flexing to toss the heavy rubber ball at Green's goal. Green at random, because that's the way he rolled. Blue was a weaker team; Beth and Steve didn't have Changes, but they were fast and smart, and they had Carly. Blue team -- Ray, Sen, and Ian -- were new to the game, and hadn't really gotten good at it yet. They kept forgetting they didn't have to stay on the ground, or only use their arms and legs.
"Goal!" He pumped one arm into the air as Beth made a valiant leap but missed the defense, and the ball thunked home.
"Goal and game." She collapsed next to him on the ground. "Nice shot, earless wonder. How the hell do you throw so hard?"
"Ancient secret, never taught to icky girls."
She thwaped him on the shoulder, and he grinned, lying on his back and staring up at the blue sky. Beth wasn't bad, for a normal. Her brother Rob was a pain in the butt, one of the older kids who stared, and called them freaks. She'd told Rob off more than once, in front of his friends, even. Jordan knew that she took a lot of flack at home for hanging with them, but she didn't seem to care. And her dad stopped once to give him a ride home when it was raining. You couldn't help who your family was, he supposed.
"They're scared," his mother told him, not about Beth's family but people in general. "Scared because you're the first. People are always scared of what comes first."
Although they weren't the first, not really. The first ones died, mostly when they were babies, because of internal stuff not forming right. Even the second ones died, a lot of them who shouldn't have, medically, until the Alteration Protection Act which he wasn't supposed to know about but Carly found on the 'net and they all read way back in third grade.
"Come on, you stupid grounders." Ray's skin glinted pale green, and he scratched at one scale absently as he extended the other hand first to Beth, then to Jordan, pulling them to their feet without effort.
"I'd kill for a soda," Ian said. "Gonna ride by Dackey's. Anyone else?"
"Count me in." It was still early in the summer, not too hot yet and pretty dry, but Jordan's shirt was sticking to his back and his scalp was sweating. Freeball wasn't for wusses.
Beth and Steve had to get home, and Sen was broke, again. Ray wouldn't go -- he rarely went anywhere other than school and home. His mom worried a lot.
"Can someone give me a lift?" Marta's bike had been stolen last week, and Dackey's was too far to walk.
"You can ride with me," Ian offered, making a gallant bow that failed to look even remotely graceful. Jordan snorted -- Ian would do a lot better if he let that tail out of his pants all the time and used it for balance like it was meant, more than just when they were playing. But people that could overlook his ears, or Carly's teeth, or even Marta's winglets, so long as she kept them folded, just freaked over a tail. And Ray, well, Ray was screwed, even if his mom would yell at him for using that word. Even the social services women who kept trying to talk mom into taking their money for surgery for his ears looked the other way when Ray walked by. He was too Changed. He wouldn't even be in school if his dad wasn't the biggest hardass on the planet, and took it all the way to court.
There were seven of them in Applewood. Carly, Ray, Ian, Sen, Marta, and him -- and Leon, whose folks sent him to a special school. You couldn't really count Leon, though. He was a mess, closer to the old ones, the ones who hadn't lived, than them. He wasn't real Changed. For one thing, he was slow.
The Applewood Seven, the newspapers had called them, back when it was still a big deal.
As though reading his mind, Marta asked, "did anyone else get reporters hanging around their house last week after that guy, the scientist, was on the Tonight Show?"
Jordan had, until his mom took out a shotgun and told them to clear out or she'd show them what a southern girl could do with low-life possums. He'd laughed at that, until he'd seen how mad she was. He thought it would have been cool to be interviewed, but not if it made her that mad.
"My dad called the cops on 'em."
"Yeah, so did my dad. Said it 'wasn't conducive to me leading a normal life.'" Carly's folks were doctors, 'shrinks,' his mom said, and really big on stuff like that. Most of the words his mom approved of him knowing, he'd learned from Carly.
"Who wants a normal life?" Ian asked.
There was a pause as they came to where their bikes were stacked on the rack.
"I do," Marta said. Jordan wasn't surprised. Marta wanted to be invisible; she didn't want anyone looking at her, anyone watching her. To her, that was 'normal.' His mom always said that Marta was a good girl, if not as smart as Carly.
"Well, I don't." Ian pulled his bike out of the rack, got on it. "Last one to Pine Street's a wussy normal-boy!" And he took off, legs pumping madly. Max yelped in outrage, grabbing his bike and running with it, trying to catch up even as he get a leg over and started pedaling. Carly laughed and followed hard on their heels on her brand-new ten-speed.
"So much for me getting a ride with him or Max," Marta said in disgust. "Can I ride with you, Jor?"
"Yeah, sure." His bike was old, a second-hand dirt bike one of the ladies from the Outreach Group gave him last year, but it would take their weight. Wasn't like Marta weighed anything, really, with her bones so bird-light.
"Here, let me carry your bag," she said, slinging it over her shoulder with hers. They were identical backpacks, dark green army-navy surplus her mom had bought for all of them at the beginning of the school year, but Marta's had an owl appliquŽd on the back, while his was plain and more worn at the corners.
Jordan took the first corner at full speed, enjoying the feel of the warm air hitting his face. From the yelp from Marta, she liked it too.
"I wish they were real wings," she shouted in his ear. "I'd fly away and never come back down."
For her, for that, he took the next corner even faster, and grinned at the yelp of glee that came from behind him. Traffic was light, and only a few people were out, walking their dogs or going to a friends' house or something. He saw Mrs. Adelaide and waved. She had taught music in school before retiring last year, and told him he was her very best piano student. That was the thing about the Change. It wasn't just the way he looked, or the way he heard, it changed something inside his head, too. People just saw the outsides and thought that's all it was, something you could "fix" with lots of surgery. You'd only just be pretending, though.
Graceland Avenue turned into Apple, which became Oak, Ian and Max far ahead of them, pedaling madly, then the last corner and Pine Street up ahead. Carly was nowhere to be seen. She must have won already.
"Wussy normal-boy" he said to himself, then laughed, hearing Marta's giggle in his ear. If the guy on the Tonight Show last week, the one who'd caused all the mess with the reporters, was right, the Dragon virus that caused the Change was really just evolution leapfrogging, and some day he would be the normal one. Well, not him, but anyone Changed. And the normals would be the weirdos.
He stopped peddling, letting the bike coast around the last corner. Dackey's was right there, and with his luck he'd hit somebody hanging around outside the store and never hear the end of it. Not to mention his mom'd ground him for a year.
His attention was pretty much focused on the road in front of him, to make sure there wasn't any traffic coming from the little strip mall across the street, so when Marta gasped in his ear he thought he'd missed a car somehow and jerked the handlebars hard, to pull up onto the curb.
The first thing he saw was Carly standing over her bike in the street in front of Dackey's. She was gripping the handlebars like she was afraid the bike was going to take off without her, staring at the scene on the sidewalk.
"Oooo, monkey boy's mad! Whatcha gonna do, throw banana peels at me, monkey boy?"
Jordan dropped the bike on the grass, and the two of them hid, instinctively, behind the trunk of a nearby tree. He kept Marta behind him, feeling her leaning into him as she peeked around his arm.
Two older boys, maybe ninth graders, and they were standing way too close to Ian. Most people kept their distance, even when they were being nice, like the Change could rub off and go home with them. One of the boys, dark-haired, reached out and shoved Ian on the shoulder, making him stagger a little.
"Leave him alone!" Max was being held by another boy, one arm twisted behind his back at an angle that had to hurt.
"You ought to pick your playmates more carefully, Max," the boy holding him said, and with a rush of anger Jordan recognized him as Beth's big brother Rob. "Maybe this'll teach you."
Carly snarled and, dropping her bike with a clatter, rushed at the boys still yelling at Ian. The one with lighter hair didn't even look, just backhanded her across the face and sent her flying on to the sidewalk on her butt.
Marta whimpered, and Jordan swallowed hard. He wanted to go to Carly's defense, wanted to help Ian -- but what could he do? Where were the adults? Why didn't Mr. Dackey come out and do something?
"Stay here," Marta whispered. "Don't move and maybe they won't see us. Max can take care of them. Maybe they'll go away."
He could hear the fluttering of her wing flaps, the way she always did when she was scared, like she really could fly up and away from everything. She was trembling, even though he knew she couldn't hear what he did.
"Man, Jack, hitting a girl. That's so not cool."
Ian, sounding braver than Jordan could ever be, in a hundred million years.
"That's not a girl, that's a thing. You're all things."
Carly was wiping her face with the back of her hand. Jordan couldn't see if it was blood or tears. "I'm as close to a girl as you're ever going to know, snot-face."
"Rob, stop this." Max's voice was shaking, but Jordan couldn't tell if it was from anger or fear. Probably both. "He's just a kid. What did he ever do to you?"
Rob shook Max's arm, as though to make him pay better attention. "Look at them, Max. Christ, you're as Beth. Look at them. They're not human. They're mutants, mistakes. Not a single one of 'em's the same, isn't that proof enough?
"I know your sister's one of them and I'm sorry, but you've got to think about yourself, first. You're one of us, not them. Your body's already picked your side."
Max spat on the ground, the phlegm hitting just next to the toe of Rob's shoes. "They're my friends. You're a creep and a bigot. I'd rather be with them."
"Freak-lover," Jack said.
Will sighed, and Jordan was reminded of the way Mr. Lipsky used to sign when someone said something really stupid in class. "I'm trying to look out for you, Max. Do you a favor. Don't be a wiseass, or you'll end up with them in more ways than one."
There was a snick of something metallic, like a switchblade opening, and the dark-haired boy lunged for Ian, catching him by the arm and swinging him around so that he fell face-down over the other boy's leg.
"Hold him, Paul. Don't let the little monkey wriggle too bad. We don't want cut the wrong thing off. At least not yet." Then he moved to stand over Ian, blocking Jordan's view of whatever was happening.
"No!" Max screamed, and Carly tried again to attack Jack, but was kicked away. This time, Jordan heard the distinct sound of her arm breaking as she fell, an ugly greenstick crunch between her elbow and wrist that made him wince in sympathy.
"Get the little monkey's jeans off," Jack ordered. "Let's see how much of a freak he really is." His gestured and the sun caught the blade in his hand, making Jordan's eyes close against the sudden glare. It was a hunting knife, the kind you saw on those shopping channel specials. He couldn't see the handle but the blade looked like it could carve up a deer no problem. The tip was hooked, and the edge of the blade was jagged like . . . serrated, that was it. Jordan smelled his own fear like a slap in the face, and fought it down.
"Marta, run. Fly!" His whisper caught them both by surprise. He didn't know what he was going to do, or what was going to happen, but Marta shouldn't see any more of it. "Go, get help! Find someone, anyone!"
He felt her hair brush against his neck as she nodded, and then she was gone. He could hear the sound of her sneakers as they hit the pavement, and the harshness of her breathing, and then all his attention was on the scene in front of him.
Mr. D. wasn't going to come out and help. Nobody was going to come and help. Jordan tasted something sour in his mouth, and grit his teeth against the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm him. Where were the reporters now? Nobody cared enough to stop this. Nobody cared at all.
"Rob, don't let them do this!" Max, his voice high and scared. "You're going to hurt him!"
"Do it," Rob said, and all Jordan could hear was the scream, a wild howl of pain that went into his too-sensitive ears and filled his head until he thought he would never hear anything ever again. And then a sudden 'whooof' of air escaping, and Jordan looked up to see Rob bent over, arms cupping his balls, and Max knocking Jack off his feet, sending the knife skittering across the sidewalk. Its blade didn't reflect the sun any more, covered in something dark and sticky.
The sight of it released Jordan from his frozen stance, and he was moving before he could think of what to do, coming out of the shadow of the signpost to tackle Paul. They both went to the ground in a tangle of limbs, then Paul was scrambling up, backing away. "Jesus, another of the little freaks."
On his knees, Jordan sucked in a deep breath, feeling where his ribs were probably cracked. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ian curled on the ground next to him, jeans down around his knees, his shoulders shaking. Jordan strained his ears, but all he could hear were wet, harsh gasps coming from Ian's mouth, like the trout Sen caught last summer, when he held it up out of the water too long. A shadow fell over both of them and Jordan looked up to see Rob standing there, a look of disgust on his face. "Freaks," he said. "I think we got our point across. Let's go."
And just like that, they were gone. Jordan could hear them walking away. Not running, not even hurrying, but walking like they owned the street.
"Ian?" He was afraid to say anything, more afraid not to know. "Ian, you okay?"
Carly had crawled next to them by then, her broken arm hanging by her side, the other hand on Ian's shoulder, as though willing him to stop shaking. Jordan moved to them, curling up next to Ian as though that would help, as though he could erase it just by bearing near, that their presence could make the world rewind half an hour and make it all go away.
"Oh man, oh man, Ian, damn it, Ian I'm so sorry, so sorry . . . " Max, on his knees, his face covered with tears, his eyes wild-looking, like a dog that's gotten kicked and can't figure out why. Ian reacted to Max's voice, uttering a wail and shrinking back into Jordan's space, Carly's touch.
Max, hurt, sat back on his heels, unsure what to do.
That was wrong, Jordan thought. It wasn't Max. Max hadn't done anything. Jordan tried to get up, to reach out to Max. His hand went down to support himself, and it squelched in something sticky.
He looked down. Raised his hand. Stared at it, as though he couldn't process what he was seeing, even while the blood dripped down his palm and down his wrist. Like paint, he thought. Like ketchup. Like anything but what it was.
"I'm sorry," Max said again, like it was his fault. Jordan wanted to tell him to shut up already, but he couldn't do anything except stare at the blood on his hand. Carly put her head down on Ian's shoulder, and he moaned; the sound half-muffled by her hair.
"Over here!" Jordan heard Marta's voice as though it were coming from very far away, like through the drain tunnel they used to run through, down by the creek. Hollow, and very very far away.
"Mary, mother of God, it's the freaks." A girl, standing over them, like it was the circus come to town.
"Get an ambulance." A man's voice, and Jordan flinched away as hands came down to move him. An adult, now, when it was too late.
"Easy now, son," another man said, an unfamiliar voice, and Jordan opened his eyes again to see a man in a police uniform kneeling over Ian. "Where are you hurt, son? What did they do to you?"
"Don't touch him," Max snarled, but he was ignored. The cop tried to shift Ian, tugging at his jeans to get them back up over his hips, and Ian let out a piercing scream as the stub where his tail had been touched the pavement.
The cop got him back onto his side, careful not to touch where all the blood was coming from. "Damn." Then in a louder, forced-kind-of-cheerful voice, "Come on, boy, we'll get you stitched up and you'll be fine. Nothing to cry over, everything's going to be just fine once we get you to the hospital."
The bell that jangled when you went in or out of Dackey's sounded, and there were more voices, adults muttering. Jordan didn't want to hear, tried to block them out.
"I didn't see anything, I was in the storeroom."
"You left a candy store untended?" Mr. Peterson. He was the custodian at school. He didn't sound like he believed Mr. D at all.
"I had to restock the counter, and my afternoon help didn't show up."
Mr. Peterson didn't say anything.
"You think I would have just let a couple of kids get jumped in front of my store if I'd seen anything?" Mr. D's voice rose, like Max's had. But nothing at all like Max's. Max had been scared for Ian, not himself. Jordan had to remind himself of that -- Max had tried to help. Max had fought, had knocked the knife way . . .
Afterward, a little voice said. He didn't do anything until it was too late.
Neither did I, the first voice countered. I didn't do anything until Max did. Max is a friend. But somehow the thought didn't sound as convincing as it had even five minutes ago.
A siren; the cop must've called for an ambulance. Under the wail Jordan could hear Marta crying, could hear Max talking to Mr. Peterson, and Mr. Dackey trying to get a word in edgewise. Now. When it was all too late.
Jordan looked up, squinting, and saw Carly's face as she stared back at him the cop's shoulder. She was standing now, holding in her good hand what looked like a limp brown sock, if socks were made of pink skin covered with soft, short fur. Her face was pale under the bruises already forming, and her eyes were terrible.
. . . your momma and daddy love you . . .
Daddy left. Mommy says be a good boy.
You can't trust them, he thought to her. You can't ever trust them. Not any of them. Not freaks like us. Not even the ones who say they care.
Her terrible eyes burned a little brighter as she seemed to nod in agreement.
No more good boy. No more good girl.
No more playing by Grounder rules.
- END -