A little bit of toast bounced off my forehead. When that failed to get a reaction, it was followed by an orange wedge.
“You know,” Simon remarked from the other side of the kitchen island where the two of us were eating (supposedly, in my case, as I hadn’t actually touched my food), “if you keep not reacting, I might just transfer my entire breakfast over to your side.” Squinting then, he leaned closer and whispered, “That’s your plan, isn’t it? Just stare mindlessly until I give you all my food.” He straightened, flashing me a knowing (and probably charming, to others) smile. “I see riiight through you, Booster. You might think you’re cunning, but you can’t keep secrets from me.”
I swear, it took every ounce of self-control I could dredge out of the pits of my soul not to look him right in the eyes and say, “Wanna bet?” Although, thinking on it, that kind of would have proved his point to begin with. Huh.
In any case, I kept quiet, staring down at my own plate of food without touching it. Not that I wasn’t hungry. I was. After finally getting home so late that everyone else had already gone to sleep, including Simon, I’d had just enough energy to crawl into my own bed and pass out. Now I was famished. But every time I thought about eating anything on my plate, I just ended up thinking about how it had been paid for. The thought of shoveling blood-money food into my mouth made me want to throw up, regardless of how hungry I may have been. I knew it was stupid. The food was already bought. And what was I going to do, starve myself? That would accomplish nothing. Even so, I just couldn’t make myself get past it that easily.
And yet, I also couldn’t let Simon know anything was wrong. So I took a drink of my juice before mumbling, “I guess you caught me.”
Caught me? Okay, I really needed to think about what I was saying before blurting out things like that. Saying those words made me blink up at him. Luckily, he wasn’t even looking at me. His eyes were on his phone, as he texted something while muttering, “Like I said, can’t get anything past me. At least, not without getting up pretty early in the morning. And from all that yawning, I’m pretty sure getting up earlier isn’t really in the cards for you.”
He looked up then, smirking a little. “What time did you finally get to bed, anyway?”
“Well, what do we have here?” The deep baritone of my father’s voice suddenly and unexpectedly speaking up from the doorway behind me meant I was spared from answering Simon’s question. But it also made my body jerk upright, just before Dad’s hand came down on my shoulder. Then he was there, hand squeezing my shoulder as he kissed the top of my head. “Why, I’m pretty sure it’s my little oompa loompas.”
Trying not to let Simon see the reaction on my face was hard. The only thing I could think of to cover it up was to grab the orange piece he’d thrown at me and stuff it into my mouth. That at least gave my face something to do. And spared me from responding for a second or two.
“She’s sulking for some reason,” Simon informed Dad. “I think it’s about a boy. Or a girl.” He winked at me. “Did we ever decide where you fall on that scale?”
At least they were giving me other reasons to be mortified by them beyond the fact that they were murderous monsters whose money was tainted by the blood of innocent people.
Swallowing the orange in my mouth, I forced out a weak, “I better meet Jefferson before he gets all antsy about being late. You know how he is about his schedule.”
Dad ruffled my hair affectionately, his tone light. “Have fun at school, babygirl. But not too much fun, I’ve got a lot of meetings today. Can’t really be pulled out of them to talk to your principal about whatever stunt you think is funny. Have a non-authority-intervention amount of fun.”
Somehow, I managed to give him a thumbs up while slipping out of my seat. I even hugged him. Yeah, it was a one-armed awkward sort of half-hug, but I was counting it. Then I grabbed my bag and retreated from the room, while Simon called after me, “Does this mean you don’t want your bacon!?”
I went back, grabbed it off my plate, and left again. Yes, my entire family was a bunch of murdering psychopaths, and I still didn’t know what to do about that. But bacon was bacon.
“Alright, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to a new day!” Mr. Dorn, my European history teacher, announced while coming into the room and crossing to his desk. He was a short, squat man who basically looked like a slightly taller body double for Danny DeVito. But he was also incredibly enthusiastic about teaching, and about history. It was pretty infectious, even for those who didn’t care that much.
Yeah, I was in class. Part of me had wanted to skip out again to go practice with my power. But that felt like a bad idea, especially after Jania had already intercepted one call from the school. Missing two in a row might make them actually step in for something more than a phone call. So I was here, trying not to think about what kind of things my family was probably doing in the meantime.
Laying his briefcase on the desk, Mr. Dorn continued, “I see we’re all here except for Tommy B. Let’s hope he feels better soon, or that he enjoys his day off. Either way, he’s going to be sorry that he missed today. Because it’s now March, which means that it’s time for us to start…” As he was talking, the man clicked open his briefcase, reaching inside before pulling out a sheet of paper while triumphantly finishing with, “Term projects!”
A series of groans met his words, and the man repeated the sound right back at us. “Yeah, yeah, it’s horrible, I know. But you just wait, because this project has a twist. Are you ready for it? That’s right, it’s a group project. Each of you will work with two other people to write a six page paper, which you will present to the class in three weeks. You will have fifteen minutes of each class period for those three weeks to work on it in here, but you will also need to work out of class if you expect to get an A.”
One of the other students raised her hand. “A project on what, Mr. Dorn? What’re we supposed to be writing about?”
“Very good question, Amber,” Mr. Dorn replied with a smile. “The answer is… whoever you want. I want each group to pick one person from the entire history of Europe and write about how their existence and actions shaped the world as we know it. I want you to write this in a way that explains how things would have been different without that person. There are people throughout history who have changed the entire direction of this world. I want you to write about them.”
One of the boys raised his hand then. “Like King Arthur?”
Mr. Dorn coughed, shaking his head. “Sorry, Ben. Real people only. Fun as it might be to pretend, King Arthur was never a real person. Let’s stick with historical figures.”
Another boy asked, after being called on, “Can we pick our own groups?”
Again, Mr. Dorn shook his head. “Sorry. For some reason, people tend to turn these things into either popularity contests, or a fight over who gets the genius. You’ve all been randomly assigned two partners. Right here.” He shook the paper he’d taken from his briefcase earlier. “First, we have… Menna Blaese, Cole Whitney, and Evan Guthrie.” He nodded to each student in turn, letting them react to being put together before continuing on to the next trio. There were thirty-three people in the class, which meant eleven groups. One of whom would only have two today, with Tommy B absent.
Eventually, Mr. Dorn came to my name. “And now we have… Cassidy Evans with…” He pointed to the girl who had asked what we were supposed to write about. “Amber O’Connell and Jae Baek.”
Oh, wow. Jae Baek. She was an albino girl. An Asian albino. Which meant she kind of stood out. That was probably bad for her, considering she was also one of the shyest people I’d ever met. I didn’t think I’d heard her exchange more than a handful of words all semester that she didn’t have to say.
Amber, on the other hand, was pretty outgoing. She had black hair that was tied into a loose ponytail, and blue-green eyes that seemed to shift whether they were more blue or more green depending on the lighting. She’d also been a cheerleader for a long time, even back when I’d done it in junior high. We were on the same team for awhile. But she’d stuck with it for longer, only really stopping around winter break a year earlier.
We weren’t close or anything, but I did know that she’d quit the team about a month after her dad had been killed by a hit and run driver. Which was… understandable. She was better now, but for awhile there, even I knew that she’d been pretty messed up. Not coming to class, getting in trouble, lashing out at teachers. She’d nearly gotten herself kicked out entirely. But the school gave her some leeway, let her make up a few classes over the previous summer, and she stayed on track.
I also kind of suspected that these groupings weren’t completely random. Because as far as I knew, Amber was one of the few people that Jae actually seemed to interact much with. As shy and quiet as she was, it wouldn’t have surprised me to find out that Mr. Dorn had at least somewhat helped things along by making sure the two of them were put in a group together.
“Now that you’ve got your groups,” the man announced after listing the last set of names, “go ahead and get together to talk about your plans. I’ll give you all about fifteen minutes to either figure out who to start your project on, or, you know, when to get together and talk about it later. Oh, and don’t forget, first come first serve. Once your group knows who you want to write about, make sure to tell me, because we can’t have any repeats.”
Amber and I pulled chairs over to where Jae was, the former cheerleader waving to me. “Hey, Cass. Long time no work together. But hey, at least we don’t have to do the frog squats or reverse to high knee lunges this time.”
“You know you’re not fooling anybody,” I shot back to her. “You loved those exercises.”
She just grinned. “You’re right, I still do them. But they probably won’t help with this.” Looking to the girl we were sitting by, she asked, “So, Jae, got any thoughts about who we should write about?”
The pale, white-haired girl peeked up from her desk, looking to me briefly before answering. Her voice was quiet. “Maybe not an obvious one.”
“Right,” I agreed. “Mr. Dorn would probably like it better if it’s not someone he’s heard about over and over again every year. Someone a little more obscure, but still really important. Not like Churchill, or Columbus, or Napoleon, or… whoever. Someone important but different.
“Anyone got any ideas?”
We didn’t. Not yet, anyway. We’d made plans to decide later. Each of us was supposed to come up with a few options and compare notes to pick one the next morning. We’d meet at breakfast in the cafeteria, which meant I’d have to ask Jefferson to drive me over half an hour early. He’d probably love that.
Actually, I genuinely didn’t know how he’d feel. It was different from his strict schedule, but it was also early. Hmm. Maybe his annoyance at the first and delight with the second would cancel each other out.
Either way, I’d texted him to let the man know that he didn’t have to pick me up after school ended, because I was getting a ride with friends. In reality, of course, I was busy with something else. A few things, actually. The first of which had involved making a trip to the nearest specialty electronics store to pick up a couple essentials.
With my new toys safely stowed away, it had been time to focus on the things that would take up the rest of the afternoon. Namely, practicing with my power and, with any luck at all, actually deciding on a name that I could use that didn’t sound dumb.
So far, I was having more luck with the former than the latter. I was back in that unfinished skating rink place again, where I’d set up targets along the wall by painting various sized circles in pink, since I still didn’t know what that color did. Using the circles as targets, I was alternately running and skating through the place while shooting different colors of paint, trying to hit the center of the circle as much as I could, with only a small amount of paint.
It was a work in progress, that was for sure. I was missing the center of even the bigger targets most of the time, and missing the smaller targets entirely if I was moving at any kind of speed when I shot my paint at them. Running was easier than skating, but either way it was hard to hit the targets without slowing down. Especially when I used the green speed boost paint on myself. Hitting a target at that point with anything less than a hurled gallon’s worth was basically an exercise in futility unless it came as utter blind luck.
I needed practice. A lot of it. But fine. I was willing to put in the work. One time after another, I raced from one end of the large open room to the other, shooting paint at targets on both sides, as well as some on the floor that I had set up. Shot of paint after shot of paint flew from my hands, while my earbuds blared heavy rock music in my ears. Again and again, I would check my progress, erase all the paint aside from my pink targets, then do it again. I took breaks only to let my paint recharge.
It was during those breaks that I thought about a possible name. That was… well, hard. I’d thought of several possibilities, and even painted some of them across wall just to see what they looked like. Some were… dumber than others.
I’d already crossed out a few of those. Paintjob, Paint, and Brushstroke didn’t sound right. Neither did Easel, so it was crossed out as well.
But the others… I kind of liked both Canvas and Palette, for the same reason. I would be putting paint over myself a lot. Graffiti was good too, for the opposite reason. I’d be painting other things. Technicolor and Chroma or Chromatic sounded cool, but might be too complicated for a name. Artisan sounded pretentious.
In all, I just couldn’t decide. I kept wavering back and forth, and I probably needed to make a decision eventually. It would be pretty bad if I went out in costume again, only to hem and haw the second anyone asked what they were supposed to call me. It didn’t seem like it would be very heroic to be like, ‘here’s a few options, which one do you guys like best?’
Oh well. After two hours of practicing my aim (and getting gradually somewhat vaguely better toward the end), that was probably enough. I needed to get home and at least put in an appearance, since the last thing I wanted was for anyone to get too curious about where I was spending time.
But first, I needed to do something. Reaching into my bag, I took out the ski mask and helmet, pulling both on. Then I pushed the ski mask off my mouth, and shoved the front of the helmet up as well. Taking off my pace-skates next, I found the concealed button on the bottom of both and pressed them in together. Holding the buttons in, I spoke in a clear voice. “Cassidy Evans voice code addition.”
The skates beeped twice, and I quickly pulled the mask and helmet down. With my voice muffled by them, I spoke again. “Cassidy Evans voice code addition. Code to deploy: skate out now. Code to retract: skate in now.”
I tested it afterward. Sure enough, the skates responded, extending or retracting the wheels whenever I said the appropriate code.
That was good, but it was only part of things. I wasn’t going to rely entirely on the muffled effect of the mask and helmet to hide my identity, especially when it came to my family. They’d see through that so quick my head would spin.
I already knew that, though. That was why I’d made that trip to the electronics store. Digging into my bag, I took out what I’d bought: a tiny microphone attached to a piece that hooked over and onto an ear. The earpiece had a very small display on it with just a number and a slider. Moving the slider raised or lowered the number.
Holding up the earpiece, I turned it on and started moving the slider through the numbers that appeared on the tiny screen. Stopping on one, I held the little microphone close to my mouth and spoke clearly into it. “Test, this is a test. This is a big, old, fat test. It’s just a giant stinky test.”
It worked. My voice was shifted by the microphone to sound like an old woman. Flipping to another option on the box, I tried again and sounded like a little kid. Another option made me sound like Elmo from Sesame Street. Then it was an incredibly deep voice that sounded like it should have been coming from a guy with tree trunks for arms.
Then I found one that sounded right. It sounded like a guy who was maybe fourteen. That was it. That was exactly what I wanted. I slipped the earpiece on, then added the mask and helmet once more. The way it was designed, the small microphone part extended down under my ear, which prevented the helmet from digging into it too much.
Clearing my throat then, I switched my phone to record, then started. “Testing. New test. How’s about a test? One, two, three, four, five four three two one.”
Playing it back, I listened carefully. Yeah. Yeah, it worked. I definitely sounded different with that thing. It would work. I could add this voice to my pace-skates too. With that, no one would know I was a girl just by listening to me. And my family wouldn’t recognize my voice.
Which was good, because them not knowing that I knew about their real lives was basically the only advantage I had right now. And I was in no hurry to give that up.